Almanac Soccer: Let’s Look Back at the Euros – Euro 2012 (Ukraine/Poland)

With a historic World Cup being run and won in South Africa by Spain and a very suspect pair of World Cups given to a very suspect pair of bids people took solace in the fact the Euros moved on to 2012. Poland and Ukraine would co-host the event in what was seen as a risky move by UEFA in an area of the world that was increasingly under the shadow of Putin. It would be a marathon for fans, players and the press too covering way more miles than previous tournaments through two massive Eastern European countries. Still, with the World Cup not in Europe in between championships the fans would flock East for the party. Stadiums had been spruced up or completely rebuilt, countries so long either behind the Iron Curtain or part of the USSR for almost 30 years of this competition ready to show the world what they could offer.

QUALIFICATION

There were no real surprises to find which 14 would be joining Poland and Ukraine, the latter making its debut in the tournament. 12 of the 16 qualifiers had been at the event in 2008. Ireland were back in for the first time in 24 years. The Irish were coached by the hardline Italian Giovanni Trapattoni, a man who looked like Leslie Neilsen and had the calmness of chlorine meeting brake fluid. England had gone through another manager and now had Roy Hodgson in control after they had hired foreign mercenaries on and off as time was almost up for the ‘golden generation’. The Danes had also returned to the tournament.

THE GROUP STAGE

The party would kick off in Poland at the national stadium in Warsaw against former champions Greece in the first GROUP A game. The locals were primed to cheer their beloved team on with ‘Sto lat’ emanating from everywhere. Arch rivals Russia now captained by Euro 2004 Andrei Arshavin and the Czechs would also be in the group. After the obligatory rock eisteddfod-like opening ceremony that always lacked the brilliance of Olympic opening ceremonies Poland were ahead early through their German based star striker Robert Lewandowski. This Greek side weren’t going to be as awful as their 2008 side and snatched a 1-1 draw with Salpingidis scoring just after half time. In the other opening game the fancied Russian and their legions of fans who crossed the border in their thousands making it all a little tense. The crowd almost making it like a Russian home game must have helped with Russia belting the Czechs 4-1.

In the second lot of games the Czechs knocked off Greece 2-1 but it was the late game that would have all the interest. Poland were to take on Russia in Warsaw in a game that went beyond being a derby. Some Polish had always said that the Eagle on the Polish Coat of Arms faces West so it gives a chance for Russia to stab them in the back. UEFA also staged the game on the anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union prompting the ugly side of nationalism not seen in the competition for decades. There were clashes between fans before and after the game and the Russians poked the bear unveiling a massive banner saying ‘This is Russia’ further provoking the hosts. On the pitch Russia scored first through Dzagoev before on the hour the Polish captain Blaszczykowski equalised with one of the goals of tournament, on the counter attack was complemented with a lovely first touch and finished off with a powerful strike. Another draw for Poland in the end.

Poland would have to win their final game to advance and were up against the Czechs. The Czechs were missing their star man Rosicky so lacked an edge but as the heavens opened up it seemed it would be a draw putting the hosts out until a goal 16 minutes from time to the Czechs saw them an unlikely qualifier in the next round and sent the disappointing Poles out. In the simultaneous match on in Warsaw a confident Russia needing only a draw took on Greece. Russia soon dominated with Greece being very 2004 and defending deeply. Arshavin carved out a few chances for his teammates but Greece took the lead right on half time when the 35 year old Karagounis playing in a record breaking 120th appearance for Greece scored after he took a long throw in and turned around to see the Russian defence asleep before he dashed in and finished well. In the second half Russia peppered the goal but this was the best the Greeks had played since the Euro 2004 final soaking up pressure then having three opportunities to further their lead but 1-0 did it and they would advance on a head to head record above Russia also on 4 points. For all their arrogance, pre-tournament posturing, bullying and dirty money they were out at the group stage.

GROUP B wouldn’t be any less combative. Germany were again paired with their arch rivals and 2010 World Cup finalist Holland with Denmark and Portugal also in the mix. Most definitely the group of death. Germany had made the semi finals of the 2010 World Cup and ushered through even more stars through their unbelievably prolific youth system led by the awe inspiring Thomas Muller and star keeper Manuel Neuer. The Dutch talked a big game but went down to Denmark in their opener 1-0 thanks to Krohn-Delhi. Germany outlasted Portugal 1-0 with Mario Gomez scoring.

This meant Portugal had to win their next game against Denmark and it was a classic clash. Portugal were up 2-0 through the Latin hulk Pepe and then Postiga before Nicklas Bendtner, so often a laughing stock in football circles, scored a double and had it back to 2-2 with 10 minutes left. With three minutes left a run down the left saw a Portuguese cross to the area that Varela failed to control initially but sluggish defending by the Danes saw him lash the ball in to win it for Portugal. The other game would be another big clash between Germany and the Dutch on a sweltering night in Ukraine. Germany were the better side up 2-0 through a Gomez double after being set up twice by Schweinsteiger. In the second half the Dutch rallied with van Persie turning and shooting brilliantly to score but the Germans had another triumph over their rivals leaving them pretty much eliminated from the competition and Germany looking like one of the favourites.

Holland would need the Germans to do them a favour and win while they had to beat Portugal which of course they didn’t do despite leading early through van der Vaart. Cristiano Ronaldo was at his powerful best for most of the match through scoring a double for a 2-1 win sending Portugal through. Holland would sack their coach two years after he got them to a third World Cup Final. Denmark were brave but ultimately fell to Germany thanks to a late goal to Bendtner in a 2-1 win to confirm the Germans would top the group.

GROUP C was another ‘group of death’ and especially for the Irish and the green army they brought over on a Munich Air Lift amount of Ryan Air flights. World and European Champions Spain would be in the group with Italy, Croatia and Ireland. Spain had gone to South Africa confirming their greatness winning the World Cup for the first time with the core of the team also helping Barcelona to immortality. They hadn’t really lost any players either strengthening around the pitch. Italy were bringing through a new breed of players built around the wonderfully sullen and continental Andrea Pirlo still at the top of his game at 33. They were also coached by Cesare Prandelli seen at the time as the nicest man in Italy before Claudio Ranieri won the league with Leicester.

Italy would take on Spain in the opening game that if it were an album it was low on hits but was a 5-star release for its integrity. Both teams searched each other out, both masters of the craft scoring in the second half to leave it as a 1-1 draw. In the other game the Irish were beaten 3-1 by Croatia with a pivotal goal for the Croatians way offside. It didn’t help that the player offside (Nikica Jelavic) was playing for Rangers at the time with many in Ireland having a political soft spot for Celtic. Italy were up against Croatia in the next set of games in another pulsating clash with Pirlo opening the scoring but Croatia (still coached by Bilic) fought back well to draw the game 1-1. Spain never got out of second gear against Ireland eliminating them thanks to a 4-0 walk in the park with Torres scoring after only four minutes. The gap in class was quite apparent with this Irish lacking the rigid nature of their sides from 1988-1994 and 2002. Still, the Irish fans celebrated being on holiday and emerging slowly from the GFC.

In the final games all Croatia needed to do was hope Ireland could hold Italy and they would be through with Spain. Italy were doing their bit against a hapless Ireland winning 2-0 while at the same time Croatia were still 0-0 with Spain and would be through if it stayed the same. Unfortunately with two minutes left a little chip over the top of the Croatian defence put two Spanish players through on goal beating the offside trap with Jesus Navas tapping in to make it 1-0. Should the flag have gone up? Probably but an impressive Croatia were out way before the sharp end once again. Italy and Spain were through. Bilic resigned, unable to take any more heartbreak like this with Croatia.

England were back and GROUP D wouldn’t be easy up against the hosts Ukraine, France and Sweden. The opening clash was between France and England and while it did have a goal each in a 1-1 draw it was an awful game. Ukraine got off to a fantastic start in their first group game in front of 64,000 in Kiev winning 2-1 thanks to a double from their evergreen legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko.

France would play Ukraine next but the game with a bit of testy antagonising between the players caught on camera in the tunnel before the game. The match was stopped after only five minutes when a massive storm rolled over Donetsk putting players at risk due to lightning but creating an excellent chance for cameramen to take some nature shots. The game began again after an hour delay and France were twice the team they were against England winning 2-0 in a dominant performance. The later game between England and Sweden was worth staying up for after being delayed due to the storms. England went ahead 1-0 thanks to big Andy Carroll and his powerful header before Sweden clawed back in an exciting end to end to game to be leading 2-1 on the hour. It seemed as though England would fall apart from here in true English footballing style but Walcott got it back to 2-2 five minutes later allowing fans to breath again. With 12 minutes left Welbeck put the English ahead with an athletic and generally baffling back heel to make it 3-2 with England hanging on until the end. Tremendous drama and England were back in the tournament.

It wouldn’t get easier for the English in their final group game taking on Ukraine in Donetsk. With Shevchenko battling injury on the bench England were well organised and definitely a Hodgson team limiting the hosts and making it 0-0 at half time. An early goal to Wayne Rooney in the second half had England on their way with Hart denying Ukraine twice with no chance falling down to ‘Sheva’ when he came on to try and inspire his side in the final 20 minutes. England were through with France who despite losing to Sweden would go through in second. Both hosts were out of the tournament.

THE QUARTER FINALS

In the first quarter final in the competition would be between the Czech Republic and Portugal. The Czechs punched above their weight too against a robust Portugal but their captain and star man Ronaldo headed home in the second half to send Portugal through. Ronaldo was now in the #7 shirt like other Portuguese legends Luis Figo and Eusebio. The second quarter final of the day saw Germany outlast Greece 4-2. It seemed like a close game but Germany were largely in control in the second half when the game was there to be won and were looking more and more like the challengers to the Spanish crown.

Spain v France was set to be intriguing but was again largely one dimensional with an early goal from Spain’s defensive midfield master Xabi Alonso meaning France would have to chase the game which was well beyond them. A late penalty to Alonso (in his 100th game for Spain) finished it 2-0. France were better than previous tournaments but still largely making up the numbers and were kind of like the new old version of Spain. Italy would play England in the last quarter final in Kiev. The 120 minutes of open play between the sides was pretty much forgettable with Italy happy to play keepy off and Pirlo again running the show with timeless form. They couldn’t find a winner though and it would go to penalties. This being England only one team would win this shootout so of course Young and Cole had their shots saved while Italy were true for all but one of their penalties sending England home with a virtual coin toss once again.

THE SEMI FINALS

Spain would clash with their neighbours and Hermanos pequeños Portugal in Donetsk. The champions and masters of their craft against a one player team prone to being defensive bores and self destruction. Portugal were fantastic in their organisation though frustrating and shutting down Spain which made the game tense and fascinating. The ‘passing carousel’ was off-key during the game with a more pacier usual line up now featuring some bigger bodies to battle the defensive thugs from Portugal. Ronaldo went close, as did Xavi but there would be another penalty shoot out. This was something Spain didn’t want to be forced to do.

Spain would go first and it was the trustworthy Xavi Alonso with his reassuring ginger facial hair that would be up. His penalty was saved. Moutinho was next for Portugal and his shot was wonderfully powerful but the keeper and Spanish captain Iker Casillas was equally as good saving the shot. Both teams converted their next two penalties getting things back to normal on a balmy night in Poland and eyes around the world watching. Ramos converted for Spain before the rather ‘bullish’ central defender Alves was next. He wasn’t sure if he was to go next so didn’t show great confidence walking up to the spot. Alves went for power over placement and as Casillas guessed the wrong the way shot rocketed in to the crossbar and out. Cesc Fabregas, again, would score again to send Spain through with his penalty just sneaking under the keeper. Only Italy or Germany could stop Spain from making history now.

Germany were heavy favourites for the other semi final against Italy who were respected but not seen as a great team. Warsaw was abuzz for the match expecting Germany to go through and give us the final expected all along. Buffon made an uncharacteristic mistake early on to almost give Germany an own goal. On 20 minutes though Chiellini made a rare run up the field and in a neat little bit of skill gave the ball to surprise pick Cassano who sent in a lovely cross to Man City headcase Mario Balotelli to head in and Italy were shock 1-0 leaders. Germany searched for the equaliser with their top class midfield of Ozil-Schweinsteiger-Khedira gelling. Khedira had a shot beaten away as Italy struggled to hold on until half time. They would take a deal with the devil himself to take a 1-0 lead in to the sheds at half time.

With nine minutes before half time and under sustained pressure Italy broke out and a hopeful long ball caught out the captain Philipp Lahm much like the 2008 final. Balotelli controlled the long ball and steamed in to the penalty area before shooting a shot that could only be described as a ‘thunder bastard’ past a helpless keeper and almost ripping the net off the goal frame. 2-0! Balotelli didn’t run to a camera, didn’t do a little dance, didn’t look for kudos from the crowd. He simply ripped his shirt off and stood bare chested with his face emotionless; a goal and ‘celebration’ for the ages with so many photoshops and internet memes created for it they almost destroyed society as we know it. 2-0 at half time and Germany were in big trouble.

Italy went back to what they knew best in the second half, defending deeply. Germany were trying to tikki-takka their way back in to the game outpacing slower bodies and bringing on strikers Klose and Rues at half time but their impact was minimal. Muller was eventually brought on but it seemed too late. That most fashionable of coaches Joachim Low was watching his team put in the most unfashionable of performances right when it mattered most just like the 2010 at the World Cup in the Euro 2008 Final. There was slight anxiety for Italy right at the end when a penalty was given for a dubious handball to Germany, Ozil converted. A 2-1 win for Italy in a major upset. Those 1,000,000 or so watching in the Tiergarten in Berlin would be heartbroken again. The difference in the game were two massive goals from Balotelli found his adoptive parents in the the crowd following the game in a personal moment beamed around the world on live television; all three were in tears in a touching moment. Balotelli was a character to say the least with a constant struggle between his obvious talent and ability to constantly give two fingers to authority. Perhaps it was his tough upbringing being black and Italian or it was something else but this was his moment.

THE FINAL

It wouldn’t get any easier for Italy in the final where they would play their group opponents Spain. Much of the press was on Italy and their coach who had lost his wife to cancer some five years previous. Then there was Pirlo and their likeable side against the champs looking to make history. Would it be like the first game and on a knife edge or could Italy catch Spain on a bad day like they did with the fancied Germans? The tall poppy syndrome was in full effect in the lead up also with Spain seen as ‘boring’ not playing a striker and going through the motions despite their game of beautiful passing and skill being like a work of art at times. Did anyone else watch Italy and the way they played over the years? Spain were also still mourning Daniel Jarque, a defender from Espanyol and close friend to many players in the squad who had died on the pitch doing what he loved from a heart attack.

Spain seemed stung by the criticism and took out their frustrations on Italy who seemingly left it all on the pitch in the semi final in Warsaw rather than bring it to Kiev. After early dominance the usual suspects Xavi and Iniesta set up their Barca teammate Fabregas who squared it for pint sized David Silva who headed in from close range to have Spain up 1-0 after only 13 minutes. Pirlo whipped in two corners but he could not have influence on a game that Spain were dominating physically as well as psychologically with Pique going in hard on Cassano and getting a booking. Balotelli had a token ineffectual shot before Spain had their deserved second goal just before half time when Xavi’s pass was exemplary to the left back Jordi Alba a long way from home who slotted past Buffon. Italy in all sorts of trouble at half time.

Cassano was completely bereft of confidence and subbed for Di Natale as Italy tried to do something, anything. Italy have speculative shots that are saved by Casillas who doesn’t have to exert himself that much. Italy strove to find the spirit of the semi but Spain are too smart, too organised and take turns giving Pirlo little kicks, teamwork there even when thuggish against the other side’s star. Torres, the hero of Euro 2008 was but a shadow of his former self but was subbed on as Spain looked to go for the final kill and did. With six minutes left a pass put Torres through and like his big moment four years ago at this stage he finished beautifully to complement his efforts at club level in Europe the previous season. The rout was completed with two minutes left when his Chelsea teammate Juan Mata scored after being set up by Torres who had beaten the offside trap. A tired Italy just couldn’t keep up with this historic brilliant and blowing donuts.

4-0 in the end and Spain had made history being the first country to go back to back in the Euros and also win three major titles in a row proving that they were perhaps the greatest international side ever. That debate will echo through the ages in pubs, cafes and most places around the world. This also put them with Germany on three wins. Balotelli cried again but this time it was not for joy, Pirlo was also inconsolable finally showing some emotion after looking like a footballing Mt Rushmore whenever conjuring his magic for the Azzurri. Casillas lifted the trophy again as someone again sneezed into an ash tray and bits of glitter and smoke went everywhere. The greatest. Players also wore shirts remembering their lost friend.

Another tournament that celebrated a wonderful competition that may lose some of its entertainment going from 16 teams to 24 for the 2016 edition in France. Is it greed or have other countries caught now making it an even bigger tournament to celebrate and enjoy. We’ll find out. Bring on the sleep deprivation, the ceremonial filling in of the wallchart and whatever random moments may happen.

CHAMPIONS – Spain (3rd title)

RUNNER UP – Italy

GOLDEN BOOT – Mario Mandzukic & Mario Gotze – 3 goals. Unfortunately the goals didn’t flow for any individuals this time around but both Mandzukic and Gotze were impressive early enough but couldn’t do it when it mattered. 

SACRED COW – Andrea Pirlo. A master midfielder who was probably the best player at the 2006 World Cup and a winner of many titles with AC Milan and Juve. He was also just so…cosmopolitan devoid of emotion, carefully manicured and a master of his art.

DUNCE HATS – Russia came to Poland and Ukraine wanting to bring old problems and remind all of the past. With the World Cup cup in their country in 2018 they also wanted to win this in a time where they believed they could have anything. Unfortunately a lowly Greece had other ideas and eliminated the side at the group stage.

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About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

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