Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Spain may never pass this way again
Here ends European soccer's summer festival. And what a time it was. Bookended between Robert Lewandowski's 17th-minute header against Greece and Juan Mata's goal against Italy that rubbed salt into the sort of wound only defeat in a major final can cause was some of the best soccer you're likely to see.
And see it we did. Record numbers of Canadians tuned in to the mid-day Euro 2012 broadcasts, many of whom were either skipping work or watching at their desks. Countless more plugged their ears so as not to hear the scores until the matches replayed in prime time.
We watched because what we saw was fascinating. Over three weeks 16 teams contested 31 matches -- all of them competitive, all of them meaningful. The group stage came down to the last day; until the final there wasn't a trace of a blowout.
Not that 4-0 did justice to Sunday's match between Spain and Italy. The Italians -- one of the tournament's pleasant stories and supplier of numerous, positive talking points -- actually acquitted themselves well in the first half despite a 2-0 deficit. In the end it was a pair of injuries that forced unwanted substitutions and eventually left the Azzurri a man down that turned the tide in Spain's favour.
A decidedly red tide. Ahead by a pair of goals when Thiago Motta had to come off with a thigh injury just prior to the hour-mark, the reigning world and European champions turned the screw with two more goals before the final whistle. The 10 Italians on the field were well and truly knackered by then. Bonucci and Balzaretti were visibly cramping up.
Bad luck was something Italy was never going to be able to afford in this final, not with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta dominating the midfield as they so often have as a tandem, both for Spain and club side Barcelona.
Neither player needs more than a second on the ball before spotting the other, or a teammate. Spain's ticki-tacka style, both loved for its effectiveness and despised for being so dispassionate, would be impossible without the two, and with Xavi at 32-years of age it's unlikely Spain will ever play quite the same brand of soccer at a major tournament.
The tournament, too, is headed for a change. The 2012 instalment was the last European Championship to be limited to 16 teams. It will grow by eight ahead of Euro 2016 in France, including nearly half the UEFA membership. The quality of play, so high the past three weeks, will no doubt be diluted, and by 2020 the idea of "host nations" may be scrapped entirely.
Hopefully you enjoyed Euro 2012, and if you did, savour it. If you enjoyed watching Spain, savour that, too. Neither are likely to ever be the same.
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Free Press team of the tournament
Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas, Spain
Right-back: Mathieu Debuchy, France
Centre-back: Leonardo Bonucci, Italy
Centre-back: Sergio Ramos, Spain
Left-back: Jordi Alba, Spain
Central midfielder: Xavi, Spain
Central midfielder: Andrea Pirlo, Italy
Right attacker: Petr Jiracek, Czech Republic
Central attacker: Andres Iniesta, Spain
Left attacker: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Centre-forward: Mario Balotelli, Italy
Subs: Mesut Ozil (Germany), Xabi Alonso (Spain), Joao Moutinho (Spain)
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2012 C4
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