It all worked according to plan for Spain in its 1-0 defeat of Germany to claim the title of Euro 2008 champions that is, if you are on a 44-year plan. Europe's oldest bridesmaids finally found true football love in Euro2008. "This is going to be good," said Fernando Torres, whose 33rd minute strike put Spain in the driver's seat and left Germany grasping for the rest of the match. "I hope not just for Spain, but for football, because the team that played the best won. Not always is that so."
Spain is everything you want in a champion. From goalkeeper Iker Casillas to strikers Torres and David Villa, Spain was superb in every area of the pitch, a paragon of possession, of knife-edge passing, and, for once, capable of imposing its style on everyone. The notable exception was the quarterfinal match with Italy, but that, too, marked this Spanish team as special locked into a defensive mud-wrestling match, Spain resisted its historical urge to attack at any cost, even at the risk of committing the cardinal sin for a Spanish footballer: being boring. In its semifinal against Russia, Spain had sat back for the first half, maybe to see if the Russians had anything new to offer since Spain destroyed them 4-1 in a group game earlier in the tournament. Nope. So five minutes after the interval, Xavi Hernadez breached the Russian line for a goal, and soon after everyone in the once-unlucky yellow shirts poured through. Spain waltzed home 3-0, leaving the Russians clueless and out of breath.
That was a message to Germany: Be prepared to play our game. Be prepared to chase the ball all over the pitch while the spectacular Spanish midfield led by Xavi and Andrés Iniesta played one-touch, or took a rest while the fullbacks Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila pressed the attack. The Germans were very well prepared when aren't they? but the men in the white shirts were not up to the task of stopping Torres, who torched Philipp Lahm for the Spanish goal, and had Germany's back four dreading the thought of defending one-on-one against him.
Despite his team's best efforts, German coach Joachim Löw could see that a new standard was being set. "We have to recognize the high quality of the Spanish players," he said. "They played very well during the whole tournament. When it comes to ball possession they are extremely strong.when they do have opportunities they are really dangerous."
Can the Spanish bring the rest of Europe along? Löw seems to think so. "We've been able to show that we, too, are fast and capable of combinations," he noted. And hinted that an uptempo German team will on display in the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup.
Despite being twice-trounced by Spain, Russia had been the tournament's other bright light, and it too played the high-tempo attacking game of the Spanish. A ghost of its CCCP past, this team announced that once again Russia was ready to play on the world soccer stage. Guus Hiddink's men, led by its striking partnership of Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin, had the wannabe oligarchs in attendance contentedly puffing on their Havanas. The only pity was that the Russians had to play Spain twice.
Euro 2008 was made unforgettable, though, by the fun bunch of the tournament Turkey. Not much had been expected from this side, most of whose members play in Turkey's domestic league. But once turned loose on the pitch, the Turks' brand of firehouse football was enthralling. When the alarm bells rang, the Turks answered the way firemen do, with a well-thought plan executed urgently, midfielder Tuncay Sanli leading the charge and Nihat Kahveci providing the rescuing goals. Perhaps too urgent, as the Turks had four players suspended for their semi-final with Germany. But that is a lesson of experience they will learn. Turkey's last-gasp comeback in the cloudburst that was Basel was the game of the tournament until its even more insane win over the Czech Republic, and its you've-got-to-be-kidding-me last-second draw with Croatia. The semis was a just reward for their "why not win?" attitude. Give us more of that, please, although it's possible that Turkish coach Fatih Terim retired because his heart couldn't take any more excitement.
When the new guard arrives, of course, it means that others must step off. Let us bid adieu then, to France and Italy. France without Zinedine Zindane is still like a bottle of champagne without the cork there was no fizz in this lineup, and a damaged Thierry Henry didn't help. And, like France, Italy was far too old in the legs for a month-long tournament, and clearly out of ideas. The defending champion Greece stepped off the podium without a peep; perhaps they thought showing up was good enough.
Holland, in the meantime, bagged the trophy as the most disappointing team in Euro 2008. Holland pulled what might once have been called a Spain: A team that dazzled in the opening three matches forgot its trick bag in the knockout round against an equally fleet-of-foot Russia. It was a terrible thing to do to the Oranje supporters, still Europe's best. But they had a good time anyway, even the thousands who invaded Switzerland without a ticket. Following on the tradition established at the World Cup in Germany, the packed Fan Zones in the host cities Zurich boasted of a million Fan Zone visits showed that the tournament had now outgrown mere stadiums. And although there were some incidents, the massed fans focused on the football, and the absolutely zany weather, such as the freak and violent storm in Vienna that literally scattered supporters to the winds. Expect Emotion, the slogan said, and on that EURO 2008 delivered. There was no mention of hurricanes.