Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Bearing gifts: A last look at Euro 2004 and a glance to the future

    Pretty amazing wasn't it? 100-1 outsiders at the outset, did anyone outside of the most zealous Greek fan (and surely he would have thought twice) back them to go and win the whole shebang? It will surely go down in the history of international tournament football as one of the greatest upsets of all time. It will never be THE greatest though, that place will forever be reserved for Denmark, who came off the beach at two weeks notice to win Euro 92, beating pre-tournament favourites France, reigning champions Holland (Van Basten et al) and world champions Germany in just over a week. Incredible. Let that not detract from the achievements of Greece though, who in beating the hosts (twice no less), reigning champions and best footballers in the tournament (the Czechs if you're wondering) have earned their own little niche in history. All hail Otto Rehhagel.

    There has been a lot of talk in the media of a seismic shift in the football landscape. Is it over for the traditional powers? Not one of Spain, France, Germany, Italy and even wannabe superpower England made the semi-finals. So what happened to them?

    Italy and Germany are lumbering dinosaurs. The Italians have some incredibly talented players (although the less said about Totti the better) but sadly none of them play in the place that ultimately determines where you win the game, midfield. Not only that, they still have that paralysing fear of leaving spaces and taking a chance that it hinders their every stride forward. All the major nations need an overhaul in their current structure, but Italy actually need one in the whole philosophy of their game. Put simply, they will never again win an international tournament playing the way they have in the last three or four tournaments. There is nothing wrong with playing the counter attacking game, but when you counter attack it must be done at pace and with menace, exactly how Italy won the 1982 World Cup and exactly how Greece triumphed in Portugal. Italy will always have the defenders for the basis of a challenge at tournaments, but the desperately need some innovative attackers. I would hazard a guess that this is the end for Vieri and Del Piero. Italy needs to find a new form of attack before Germany 2006, otherwise they will be going home early again, left with nothing but vague half accusations about dodgy referees/match-fixing/terrible luck (delete as appropriate).

    At least Italy have some world class players to work with. The situation in Germany is so bad that after the departure of Voller (a once great player who I have much sympathy for) you cannot give the job of coaching Germany away. Who the hell will be daft enough to take it? They have one player whom you would loosely describe as world class in Ballack, one very raw but promising youngster in Schweinsteiger and…nothing else. Unless there has been a genius youth coach at work in secret in Bavaria who will spring forth a generation of great young players this season that can be blooded into the national team and seasoned for two years, German participation in their home World Cup will last about as long as a snowball in the proverbial desert. After 40 years of producing some of the greatest players the world has ever seen, the well has run dry on the eve of their showpiece event. Maybe some of you were lulled into believing a renaissance was imminent after they reached the final of the last World Cup (the worst ever), but their pathetic showing against Latvia and then the Czech Republic 'B' team unmasks the true Germany. Even if they take the hosts prerogative and arrange an easy draw for themselves, you cannot see them going far. It's going to sting a nation with such a rich football history, but they may put up the worst effort by a major host nation since Spain in 1982.

    Ah Spain. Which cliché should we use? Always let themselves down? Have the players, not the belief? Will come good at a tournament one day? Approximately one and a half games into the tournament they looked the most slick outfit on display; one and a half games later they were on a one-way to Madrid, after being bullied into a draw by Greece and then disappearing when it mattered most against Portugal. The lack of self-belief is most epitomised by Raul, who had two free headers at goal in either game, putting one pathetically over the bar and missing the other completely. Can you really be considered one of the best players in the world if you can't head a football? In all, the so called galactico's of Real Madrid present at Euro 2004, all of whom captained their teams, took their humiliating end of season form into the championships and it spread through their respective teams like a virus.

    Look at Beckham. There was a time when he used to pick up man of the match awards in England games every time he played yet in this tournament he was absolutely anonymous. The whole point of his captaincy, not being a shouter or a commander, was to lead by example. Many reasons have been touted for his poor performances – lack of conditioning at Madrid, numerous off-field problems, too much focus on celebrity, whatever. When challenged on this, Beckham nearly erupted into tears. If he's willing to take the praise then he can take the criticism when he doesn't perform. The dazzling Rooney apart, England were unbelievably negative at Euro 2004. Even though they top-scored with ten goals, seven were against the very weak Swiss and Croatian teams. The three in the very big games against France and Portugal came from a free-kick, a big hoof from the goalkeeper and a corner. England took the lead in both games and then scrambled around their goal in so disorganised and hysterical a manner it resembled the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. They were terrified of taking both teams on at a game of football. If any Italians think what I wrote about their defensive mentality was harsh, believe me there is not an obscenity invented that I didn't shout at my television as we retreated onto David James' toes against Portugal and France.

    And speaking of France, did that squad actually know they were playing in the European Championships, or did they think it was the Confederations Cup again? Zinedine Zidane did briefly lift himself out of the mundane with two slices of dead ball genius against England. Like they say, form is temporary but class is permanent, even when you're dispatching your dinner on the pitch. Despite this, the great Zizou looked uninspired thereafter, no matter how much he tried to lift himself. The famed Arsenal trio of Viera, Henry and Pires contributed little or nothing at all, which amazed many after the season Henry in particular has had, but even Arsenal fans concede that he ghosts out of the very biggest games. It looked like a tournament too far some of the French first team, but with the likes of Saha, Rothen, Giuly, Mexes, Cisse, Landreau and a host of others waiting in the wings, whoever takes over the mantle from Santini has the materials available to mount a strong challenge over the borders in Germany 2006.

    No player however exemplifies the modern footballer more than Figo, who in my view scuppered the whole Portuguese effort. For the first four games he was ineffectual and sluggish and was quite rightly substituted against England. His response was to walk off the pitch and he didn't even watch the penalty shoot-out – and this is the CAPTAIN! By the way – anyone believe the 'he was praying in the dressing room' routine? Thought not.

    Scolari then put Figo back in the team, whereupon he turned it on against Holland and looked briefly like the bewitching player he was at Barca. If anyone thinks this makes Scolari a tactical genius by giving his most famous player a kick in the rear, think again. Scolari cowered to the whims of the original galactico, had any other national captain behaved in that manner he would at the very least have been dropped or stripped of the armband, at the very extreme kicked out of the squad and sent home(Portugal were home, but you get the point). What we saw was an example of player power – modern football. Only in these times could a player – captain no less – put his own self-importance above that of his team at such a moment and get away with it. Anyway I shouldn't kick Figo when he's down – the fan that ran on the pitch in the final and threw the Barcelona flag at him minutes before the final whistle has already done that.

    Portugal will now probably have to compete without its fabled Golden Generation. Lest we forget, this generation has won nothing outside of youth football, but Portuguese fans have reason for great optimism at the following generation from FC Porto. The addition of Deco and Carvalho for Rui Costa and Fernando Couto revitalised the Portuguese campaign. Had Scolari dropped Figo as well it would have freed up Deco to run proceedings like he has done all season in the Champions League, and I'm sure Portugal would now be in the full throes of hysteria. Reducing Deco to the role of supporting actor to accommodate the box office star Figo cost them the championship – it was a tough call, but Scolari blew it. With or without Scolari, and wherever the Porto players go in Europe, Portugal has the base to be dangerous contenders in future tournaments, but a 24 carat chance to land a trophy has slipped through their fingers.

    There does seem to be a certain ambivalence by the modern top level European footballer to the European Championships and World Cup, as if they are merely end of season side-shows, a breather before the Champions League begins again. Of all the European superstars at the G14/Champions League clubs, only Pavel Nedved and Ruud Van Nistelrooy justified their status in that elite this summer. Roughly the same collection of stars that disappeared en masse at the last World Cup sunk without trace in Portugal. They played their best football on location with Coke and Nike, and that says it all. Rooney was such a breath of fresh air because he is young and still has it all to prove. God forbid his desire should ever mirror that of his captain.!

    It would be churlish though to end this overview without looking in wonder at Greece. Where the major teams had deficiencies, there lay the Greek strengths. Yes they were defensive, but unlike Italy and England when they counter-attacked they meant it, every break was directed at the opposition goal. They defended as a unit and attacked as a unit. Simple but effective, and beautifully executed.

    Most of the credit must of course go to Rehhagel, a veritable worker of miracles in the Bundesliga, he has transferred his unique man management to the international stage with Greece. Unlike Dick Advocaat he got the best out of his players, and instilled a belief in them and their tactics that was visibly coursing through their veins, the very antithesis of the Dutch and even the Spanish.

    I certainly doubt if the coach would have stood for any of the Figo nonsense, but in a Greek squad without one universally recognised world-class player, such narcissism was always unlikely. I can't ever remember seeing a more selfless set of players in an international tournament. With a squad made up of domestic heavyweights AEK Athens, Olympiakos and Panathanaikos, plus a smattering of players from distinctly average clubs in overseas leagues, they should have been no match for France in the quarter-final. Never has the adage 'success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration' been more apt. If the French players had applied themselves in the manner of the Greeks, they would have won the tournament at a canter.

    Yet they didn't – and so the glory goes to the classy Dellas, the leather-lunged Seitaridis, the tigerish Basinas and Zagorakis, the outstanding Charisteas et al. And amidst all the amazement lest we forget they won it without their best player available for the final – Giorgios Karagounis of Inter Milan. Some very harsh things have been written about the Greek victory being against the ethos of the beautiful game, but this is chin music from football's superpower nations. They played to their strengths, were brilliantly coached and organised, and, more than anything else, they wanted to win. And I mean really WANTED it. That above all else transmitted itself in everything they did, and exposed a lot of Europe's leading players in the process. Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Holland and my dear old England will just have to eat it raw – Greece are European champions, and they deserve it.

    Apart from the fantastic fairytale they have given us that will be talked about probably as long as the game is played, the Greeks have definitely given us one gift, which I hope will be remembered. They have shown us how players should play in international tournaments – with all their hearts. If that is to be their ultimate legacy, the World Cup might yet be saved.



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