There's something familiar, maybe even predictable, about using football as an explanatory device for modern Europe. But what the hell, it works. Euro 2008, the tournament in Switzerland and Austria that finished with Spain deservedly hoisting the trophy, shed all sorts of lights on the state of the old world, most of them pleasant.
There was, first, the evident good humor of the crowds. (Like the World Cup of 1994, Euro 2008 benefited from the absence of England and its noxious fans.) There was the glimmer of new Europe taking its place in the sun: Croatia thrashing Germany; a stadium full of orange-clad, Wilhelmus-singing Dutch watching their team taken apart by a brilliant Russian side, its stars cosseted by petroroubles. And while Europe's politicians may dither about whether to welcome Turkey to their club, the Continent's football supporters have no such qualms. Turkey's never-say-die attitude won fans from Limerick to Lodz.
None of this is entirely surprising. Football has become the epitome of Europe's social integration and the erosion of national boundaries. Turkey's star Hatim Altintop was cheered both by his countrymen and by those Germans who watch him play for Bayern Munich every week. Fernando Torres, whose marvelous goal won the final for Spain, may be a Madrileño by birth, but Liverpool which is where he earns his pay claims him as one of its own.
The harmony of the three weeks holds a larger lesson. Europeans may dimly sense that their livelihood is threatened by the rise of Asia's economic giants, and more immediately by the soaring cost of oil and food. But Europe is the most populous space of peace and shared prosperity in the world. Not since the last quarter of the 19th century, before the thunderclouds gathered, have Europeans had more reason to be content. No wonder they cheer.
Still, the nagging questions remain: What does Europe intend to do with its good fortune? What role does it plan to play in the world? What lessons does it have for others, and how does it intend to teach them? Euro 2008 was wonderful. But it will take more than football to define a sense of purpose for modern Europe's lucky people.