Euro 2008 - The Forgotten Great Tournament

Euro 2008 - The Forgotten Great Tournament

Last update: 1 June 2020 Categories: Featured.

Street Fighter, for all its box office success, remains one of the most critically panned films of all time. There were many reasons for this - unfaithfulness to its source material, the predictable, uneven storyline and the over-reliance on camp one-liners. This consensus was best summarised by American film historian Leonard Matlin who declared that ‘even Jean-Claude Van Damme fans couldn't rationalize this bomb’.

However, it remains one of life’s truisms that perceptiveness can be found in the most unexpected places. As Chun-Li recounted the death of his father, Bison uttered the immortal line ‘For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday’. The unspoken sentiment behind this savagery was that, while events live rent-free in the heads of some, they are simply forgotten footnotes for others. Two humans can attach entirely different levels of significance to the same event.

This tendency is multiplied when applied to football. While the 2018 World Cup cannot be fondly remembered in Germany the combination of perfect summer weather, England’s unlikely progress and the lack of responsibility granted by virtue of being a second-year undergraduate means that tournament holds a special place in this author’s affections. By contrast, Euro 2016 was a competition best forgotten unless you were Welsh, Icelandic, Irish or Portuguese.

Some tournaments are harder to pin down. Take Euro 2008. On first glance this was a great competition – full of drama, quality football, surprises, goals and won by an entertaining Spanish team just about to enter an unprecedented era of dominance. On the other hand, the tournament hosted by Austria and Switzerland barely enters the conversation when debates surrounding quality international championships arise.

Perhaps the venue was influential in this. Austria and Switzerland both have a myriad of attractions, but neither could be considered an intense footballing hotbed. The tournament was gracefully free of major instances of hooliganism, but the poor performance of both nations inhibited local enthusiasm.

In a recent article in The Independent, Miguel Delaney noted how the competition failed to stir the emotions. For example, it can be argued that the competition did not have the same impact as Euro ’96 did in England.

England’s absence must also be factored in when considering the tournament’s legacy. There is no doubt that television executives, Alpine bar owners and slapstick comedy addicts were heartbroken by the Golden Generation’s failure in qualification. However, nobody could argue the presence of Steve McClaren’s men would have enhanced the spectacle at Euro 2008, especially as it would have meant missing out on either Croatia or Russia - two of that summer’s star turns. Collective memory of a tournament does rely partly upon your own country’s performance, but the marginalization of Euro 2008 does seem regressively Anglo-centric.

Objectively, this was a tournament that had plenty going for it. The decision to seed both co-hosts alongside holders Greece created a widely unpredictable group stage draw that felt more akin to the FA Cup. Both World Cup finalists, France and Italy, ended up in the Group of Death alongside Holland and a stubborn Romanian team that David Pleat somehow managed to compare to Brazil.

In the event, the Dutch pulverised their opponents. Their exhilarating counter-attacking football, centred around the talents of Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, made them the commentator’s darlings during the early matches. Their depth in attacking talent was such that Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben were largely used as substitutes.

[caption id="attachment_22740" align="alignnone" width="2421"] BERNE, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 13: (L-R) Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Giovanni van Bronckhorst celebrate with team mates after winning the UEFA EURO 2008 Group C match between Netherlands and France at Stade de Suisse Wankdorf on June 13, 2008 in Berne, Switzerland. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Bongarts/Getty Images)[/caption]

Italy were swept aside 3-0. France, a team playing consistently within themselves and committed to providing no shots, entertainment or decent football whatsoever, were thrashed 4-1. The most memorable French contribution to the tournament was the decision of manager Raymond Domenech to propose to his girlfriend on live television immediately following their early exit.

Italy did not fare much better. The world champions were saved from an embarrassing first round departure by a late Gianluigi Buffon penalty save against Romania. When the decision was given, the Italian players wandered round looking humorously incredulous. Instead of the expected heavy gesticulating, When Saturday Comes described how the award was met with ‘wide smiles and head shaking as if the officials were so grotesquely incorrect it was actually funny’. They were also absent from the tournament’s final stages.

Meanwhile, Holland became the bookmakers favourites. Yet this was a tournament with more false leads than an episode of Midsomer Murders. In their quarter-final, Holland were comprehensively outplayed and beaten 3-1 by Guus Hiddink’s Russia. Profligate and beguiling in equal measure, the Russian team managed to illicit something close to a purr from ITV pundit Sam Allardyce.

Their emergence was one of the stories of the tournament. Russian football was on the rise during this period, with both CSKA Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg winning the UEFA Cup. This confidence was transferred into the national team - Greece and Sweden were beaten by football memorably described by The Guardian as ‘more free-flowing than the Ganges during monsoon season’.

While their run ended in the semi-finals, the players became targets for Premier League clubs - Yuri Zhirkov moved to Chelsea, three goal striker Roman Pavlyuchenko signed for Tottenham while winger Diniyar Bilyaletdinov ended up at Everton. While none of these players were qualified successes in England, this should not detract from the impact Russia made at Euro 2008.

Their squad also contained the breakout star of the tournament. Banned for the first two matches after a nonsensical red card in the qualifiers, the performances of Andrey Arshavin thereafter briefly made him a target for Barcelona. The diminutive playmaker ran the show in the decisive group victory over the Swedes and exceeded himself against Holland.

Making Andre Ooijer look like Andre Ooijer, Arshavin was instrumental in the Russian success, assisting one goal and scoring another in extra-time. His finish, through the legs of the great Edwin van der Sar, prompted many to declare Arshavin capable of dragging Russia to the trophy.

Tellingly there were words of caution even during this peak. Russian journalist Anton Lisin questioned whether ‘when the clock strikes midnight, he will stay a princess or turn back into a pumpkin’. Ultimately, Arshavin was a player who had the ability, but not the consistency to be world-class. Fittingly, he ended up at Arsenal.

Every tournament needs diversity and Euro 2008 was lucky enough to be graced by a strong showing from Eastern Europe. Croatia, managed by the irrepressible Slaven Bilic, romped through the group stages with a 100% record, including a win over Germany. Based upon the tentative emergence of Luka Modric, the Croats seemed well placed for a tilt at the European title. Their progress was only curtailed by an even more extraordinary team from the more unfashionable part of the continent.

Turkey had come into the competition with their prospects rated by most pundits as slim to none. An opening game defeat to Portugal promised little but their tournament exploded into life against co-hosts Switzerland. In a match played in conditions so torrential that even ducks would find them inclement, Turkey came from behind to eliminate their opponents with a late Arda Turan winner. This proved a mere appetiser for what was to come.

In their crucial group decider against the Czech Republic, Turkey found themselves two goals down with time running out. Aided by Nihat Kahveci discovering the form that fleetingly made Real Sociedad title contenders in Spain and a goalkeeping clanger from Petr Cech, Turkey transformed the deficit into a miraculous 3-2 lead.

The drama only intensified when Turkish goalkeeper Volkan Demirel was dismissed in injury time – the identical record of the two teams meaning that any Czech equaliser would mean an unprecedented penalty shooutout. Pleasingly, the madcap Turks had used all their substitutes meaning forward Tuncay had to pull on the goalkeeping jersey. Despite the Middlesbrough player visibly quivering with fear, Turkey managed to hold on to complete a sensational victory.

Their quarter-final with Croatia in Vienna would prove even more dramatic. As extra-time trickled away, a dour stalemate seemed destined for penalties. In the 119th minute, Turkey’s veteran replacement goalkeeper Rüştü came haring out of his area in the manner of a person chasing a departing bus, allowing the ball to be hooked over his head and slotted into the net by Ivan Klasnić. Croatian celebrations, led by the exuberant Bilic, would soon appear extremely premature.

Seconds before the game’s conclusion, a long goal kick by Rüştü fell on the edge of the Croatian box to substitute Semih Şentürk who lashed the ball into the top corner. An ordinary game had produced the most extraordinary finish to any major tournament match. Croatia failed to recover from this gut-punch and Turkey won the penalty shootout.

Ironically, Turkey were eventually eliminated after producing their best performance. In the semi-final with Germany, a rollercoaster match was settled by an injury-time winner from Phillip Lahm. However, the exploits of the Turks had provided the unpredictability that any major competition needs to keep things interesting. Eastern Europe would have to wait until 2018 to make similar waves on the international scene.

Germany themselves produced some slick football. Having scrambled out of their group, their counter-attacking prowess was too much for fancied Portugal in the quarter-final. The Portuguese campaign that had started so promisingly was torpedoed by intense speculation surrounding the future of Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo and the decision of Chelsea to announce the appointment of Seleção manager Luiz Felipe Scolari mid-tournament. This was during the phase where Roman Abramovich amazed in his consistency not to give one solitary eff.

German manager Joachim Löw was in the midst of building the team that would win Brazil 2014, but their line-up in 2008 was more prosaic. An ageing Jens Lehmann was in goal, centre backs Per Mertesacker and Christoph Metzelder were suspect, while the midfield included Simon Rolfes and Thomas Hitzlsperger. Still, Michael Ballack rose to the occasion and the goals of Miroslav Klose and Lukas Poldolski helped Germany into another major final.

Their conquerors in the showpiece final helped the overall legacy of the tournament. Spain entered Euro 2008 with a talented team that had familiar question marks of their ability to perform under pressure surrounding them. Centred around an impeccable spine of Iker Casillas, Carlos Puyol, Xavi and David Villa, Spain eased through the group stages and defeated old foes Italy in a quarter-final shootout. Feeling as if the psychological weight of past failures had been lifted, La Roja dismantled the much-vaunted Russians 3-0 in the semi-final.

In Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium Spain dictated the tempo of the final. Probing the German defence with enterprising passes throughout, a first-half goal by Fernando Torres was enough to clinch the European Championship title. Having proven this was a hugely different Spanish team to previous eras, the team went on to win the 2010 World Cup and retain their European crown in 2012.

Their style of play throughout the tournament meant most observers ranked Spain as fitting winners of an open competition. 2008 was before many teams set about trying to stifle the Spanish team rather than attempt to match their ability to dictate the course of the game. On the other hand, it can be argued that Spain’s tactics in their following tournament successes were more sterile than their performances in Austria and Switzerland.

While the legacy of Euro 2008 has suffered domestically due to England’s absence, this was a tournament that was exciting and dramatic in equal measure and deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest in modern history.