There are lots of ways to win a football match, and the first round of Euro2008 offered the full menu. Portugal won through individual brilliance. Germany orchestrated a symphony of precision passing. Sweden displayed absolute determination against a Greece team equally determined to not let them play. Croatia exhibited the black art of protecting an early lead to its exhausting end while the Czech Republic gave testimony to that sporting proverb that sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Spain's finishing was nothing less than exquisite, raising expectations yet again that this will be their year. And Holland, stamping itself as the hottest team of the tournament, showed a little bit of everything in a 3-0 dismantling of Italy that had controversy, luck, skill, star performances and a total team effort.
Sure, it's just the first round, but in this kind of tournament the first game sets the table. Which means, alas, that Austria and Switzerland, the co-hosts, are likely to go hungry. "That was a really hard loss," a Swiss friend e-mailed after his "Nati" went down, gamely, 1-0, to a competent if unimpressive Czech side to open the tourney. Too bad. Basel was ready to party. Yes, it was.
With such gallant countries as co-hosts, it would be nice if more folks got an invitation. Although ticket demand is at an all-time high, according to UEFA, the nature of the venues guaranteed a scaled-down Euro2008. With just over a million tickets available for all 31 matches (a third of them for the general public), there clearly weren't enough to go around, although it does seem like there are a million Dutch fans in Berne. There are some benefits to smaller tournament. It's certainly tidier. The opening ceremony in Basel's St. Jakob-Park was a blessedly short 13 minutes some alp horns, a little yodeling, some fun with geography and see you later.
Geneva, the venue for Saturday's match between Turkey and Portugal, made a first-rate effort to let its hair down, but the city's stadium, home to second-division Servette, doesn't hold even 30,000 spectators. There was the usual big-screen Fan Zone set up in the Plain Palais that drew throngs of Geneva's Portuguese and Turkish populations to watch the Switzerland-Czech Republic game followed by Portugal-Turkey. But Geneva is a serious city filled with diplomats, private bankers and watchmakers. Geneva on a Sunday is still deader than road kill.
Still, Portugal's 2-0 dismantling of Turkey was an early warning the Portuguese are all about avenging their crushing upset to Greece in the 2004 final. Its defense, led by Real Madrid's Pepe, prefers to pass the ball out of its own box rather than boom long clears. In the middle of the park the petulant Deco kept demanding balls that by rights belonged to Christiano Ronaldo, who drew Turkish defenders like the moon does the sea. Here's a guy, who, with three opponents on him, doesn't even think about reversing the ball but instead decides how he's going to beat three guys with one move. That's the Portuguese mentality. Portugal is a team that wants to play effortless football and at times they do they put out no effort, trying to get by on their great individual style. But it was center back Pepe who found a way through the Turkish defense, taking a Ronaldo pass and playing a one-two with Nuno Gomes. In injury time, Ronaldo and João Moutinho created a tap-in for Raul Meireles, who had come on a minute earlier. They are Grade A in Group A.
In Zurich, Switzerland's business center, the media guide brags that the city built the Letzigrund Stadion just in time. That hurried effort produced a single-level doughnut of a stadium stuffed with 30,000 supporters for France's matchup with Romania. Neither the French fans not their team seemed all that impressed, and the latter played that way. France was pathetic in the 0-0 stalemate. If this game were a cuisine, it would be English, and no one would eat it. Sure, it's difficult to play against the Romanians. The men in gold stacked 9 or 10 players behind the ball at times and dared the French to break them down. "It was difficult," admitted Claude Makelele, "there was no room to play." Instead, the French sent pass after pass toward the inert Nicolas Anelka (Thierry Henry was unavailable) without much hope of making a connection. But they would not be the only fancied team to struggle.
Over in Austria, there was a bit of excitement when Polish and German fans exchanged the usual pregame punches, but this is no England-Germany, and once the proceedings started in the Worthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt, the Germans got down to business. And they were all business. Poland had a chance to score 36 seconds into the match when German keeper Jens Lehman bundled into his own defender as he pushed out a cross that rolled invitingly in the box. But Jacek Krzynówek launched one over the bar. From then on, the Poles were weaker than the U.S. dollar. The Germans pounded them, linking pass after pass after pass in a beautiful display of ball control. It was almost over in four minutes, when Miraslav Klose and Mario Gomez broke unmolested toward the Polish goal only for Gomez to fluff Klose's slightly overhit pass. Lucas Poldolski didn't miss his tap-in after Gomez and Klose sprung the Polish trap again in the 20th minute. Another German buildup in the 72nd minute led to another chance for Poldo, and he buried Poland with a volley. The German machine is rolling, and it was impressive to see.
But Germany was soon to be forgotten after Spain and Holland set the tournament alight. Perhaps it wasn't surprising that Spain would get off to a good start. Finishing tournaments has been the Spanish weakness. It may still be. Against a supposedly rising Russia the Spanish frontrunners David Villa and Fernando Torres ran rampant in a 4-1 win. Torres set up the first goal by undressing Russian centerback Denis Kolodin and serving Villa with a gilt-edged pass to make it 1-0 at 20 minutes. It would be the beginning of a long night for the Russian back four as Spain's midfield had a truckload of keys to unlock their defensive scheme. In the 44th minute Iniesta skipped through three Russians and let go a perfectly timed pass that Villa pushed through goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev's legs. Villa did it all himself for the third, and Cesc Fàbregas got the fourth as Spain, like the rain in Innsbruck, poured down on the Russians.
Even if Italy should somehow advance to the knockout phase not inconceivable given France's form its calamitous performance against a raging Dutch team will ever be engraved in the minds of the Azzuri's supporters. Certainly, Holland's first score, a poacher's goal by an apparently offside Ruud van Nistelrooy, was no thing of beauty. With Italy defender Christian Panucci sprawled off the field, van Nistelrooy was deemed to be legal when he redirected Wesley Sneijder's shot, although the interpretation left only the Dutch happy. But that in no way reduced the comprehensive nature of Holland's victory. Holland's 4-2-3-1 formation is built for maximum attacking speed. And Italy's defense, without its captain Fabio Cannavaro, couldn't handle the pressure, especially with its own three-man midfield. There was no controversy on the second goal, just awe, as Dirk Kuyt, filling in for the injured Arjen Robben, collected a long pass on the right after a breakout and found Sneijder racing to the near post. Sneijder's volley left Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon at sea, and the rest of Italy's defense without a life vest. Giovanni van Bronckhorst completed the rout in the 79th minute.
Oddly, the dominating performances by Portugal, Holland, Spain and Germany mean there are plenty of scraps left over for the runner-up spots and a place in the knockout round. And likely, a chance to be knocked out. Italy must find a way past Romania certainly possible and then play an out-of-form France for the second spot in Group C. Switzerland needs to beat Turkey to stay alive in Group A and possibly overtake the Czechs, who face Portugal. The Russians, who threatened the Spanish on a number of occasions, face a stubborn Greece and a rejuvenated Sweden in Group D. Austria? You've been a wonderful host so far. Keep up the good work.
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