¡Campeones de Europa!

Spain captain Iker Casillas raises aloft the Henri Delaunay trophy (top) before his team-mates join in the fun under a shower of ticker-tape (above).

VIENNA — A goal by Fernando Torres ensured Spain became European Champions for the second time in their history tonight, defeating Germany 1-0 in the final of Euro 2008 at Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium. It’s Spain’s first title since they won the European Championship back in 1964 in Madrid; as goalkeeper captain Iker Casillas raised aloft the Henri Delaunay trophy into the Austrian evening, he must have hoped this victory will perhaps lay to rest Spain’s unwanted tag of perennial underachievers which has plagued its national side ever since. It is certainly a greater achievement than Greece’s entirely unexpected win four years ago, in that the pressure on the Spaniards to go far in becomes is greater with each passing tournament. The title of Spain’s official Euro 2008 song roughly translates as, “Let’s Get Beyond The Quarter-Finals”, revealing an element of self-deprecating humour not always evident in much of Spain’s sporting media.

A nervous royal couple King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia (suitably dressed in all-red) stand for the national anthem.

History was definitely against Spain before the match, as they faced Germany, a nation which knows better than any other what it takes to get to a tournament final and win it. Germany’s captain, Michael Ballack, instrumental in his side’s run to the final, had partly recovered from a calf strain and was passed fit to at least start the match. Spain were without their top scorer, David Villa, who had been injured in the semi-final. Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas — who as a substitute had transformed the game with Russia — came in to the side. Although they would inevitably miss Villa’s trickery, I sensed his misfortune might prove a blessing in disguise. Fabregas’ inclusion meant Spain would play with a lone striker — the powerful Fernando Torres — with Fabregas sitting behind in a playmaking role. I felt this move could work to their advantage in a tight final against the robust Germans.

Spain’s starting eleven (without David Villa) line-up before the final.

Spain appeared nervous in the opening moments, and Sergio Ramos was nearly punished after gifting possession to Miroslav Klose in his own half. But once the game settled Spain began to assert themselves. Lehmann pulled off a fine one-handed save from his own defender, as Xavi Hernandez’ cross pinged off Christoph Metzelder. The German goalkeeper was nowhere to be seen minutes later as Torres climbed high to reach Fabregas’ cross and direct his header onto the foot of the post. Germany’s defence was struggling to cope with Torres, whose strength and pace led to the opening goal. The Liverpool striker latched onto a through-ball from Xavi, and somehow muscled his way around Philip Lahm to lift the ball over the onrushing Lehmann and into the net.

Fernando Torres puts Spain in front

Fernando Torres leaps over Lehmann as the ball sails into the German net for the opening goal.

A Spanish lead would inevitably make the Germans come out and play, and my feeling was almost that the goal had arrived too early for Spain, allowing Germany a whole hour to get back into the match. It was imperative for Spain to arrive at half-time ahead: an equalizing goal before the break would have shattered Spanish exuberance and restored Germany’s infinite self-belief. But barring a Ballack volley which Sergio Ramos skillfully blocked, Germany had offered little threat as the sides walked back to the dressing rooms. On the basis of enterprise and chances, Spain were deservedly in front, although Germany felt unfortunate when Roberto Rosetti failed to award them a penalty after Marchena had controlled the ball with his hand in the area. The Italian referee instead showed a yellow card to an agitated Ballack, who at one point had to leave the field to receive stitches for a cut above the eye.

Germany captain Michael Ballack approaches a linesman to protest a decision.

The second half began as expected. Spain relented allowing Germany to apply increasing pressure to their defence, and though Ballack miscued a shot into the side netting, it seemed a German goal was not far in coming. The longer the game remained at 1-0, the more likely I imagined the Germans to claw their way back, as they have in so many matches of this kind. Between 1966 and 1996 the German national team reached ten international finals, winning half of them. Only in the last ten years has its machine-like dominance of international competition grinded to a halt, and even in that period they reached another World Cup Final. But somehow Spain were determined to defy history and stereotype, and came closer themselves to adding a second goal. An unmarked Sergio Ramos saw his diving header saved by Lehmann, and then the industrious Brazilian-born Marcos Senna — one of the tournament’s revelations in Spain’s midfield — started a move which very nearly ended in his own personal triumph.

Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas punches clear from a rare German attack.

In the remaining minutes, Spain’s aging coach Luis Aragonés removed Fabregas and the plucky David Silva, plugging the midfield with the more workman-like styles of Güiza and Xabi Alonso. Germany’s Joachim Löw threw on his reserve forwards, the ineffective Mario Gomez and another nationalized Brazilian, Kevin Kuranyi, in an attempt to cause Spain problems at the back. But together they combined nothing, and Casillas was left with little to do for much of the second half. Oddly, the final five minutes were Spain’s most comfortable of the match, and Los Rojos seemed the more likely to score in the dying stages.

A dejected Bastian Schweinsteiger lies exhausted after the final whistle.

After so many years of never quite living up to expectations, I think few people would begrudge Spain their moment of glory. They have proved to be the most consistent side at Euro 2008, winning all six matches and outlasting early favourites Holland and Portugal. Much like Italy’s World Cup victory in Germany two years ago, Spain’s success is certainly a triumph of collective team spirit and tactical maturity. And like Marcello Lippi’s Italy in 2006, Aragonés’ Spain did not have the luxury of a Maradona or even a Zidane in their squad, that one player they look to to pull the side through the tournament. Even UEFA president Michel Platini — the last player whose class and goals dominated a European Championship in 1984 — must have recognized that these days no tournament can be won single-handedly. But to win a final it sometimes only takes one individual to produce a very special moment: tonight it belonged to El Niño.

Fernando Torres celebrates Spain’s remarkable triumph: the 24 year-old saved his only goal of the tournament for the final.

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Thuram remains philosophical despite heart shock

Thuram’s move to PSG has been suspended after medical tests revealed an enlarged heart.

PARIS — Lilian Thuram’s proposed transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain was halted this week, after routine medical tests revealed that the veteran French defender has an enlarged heart. Thuram’s brother died from a cardiac condition on the basketball court, and his mother has also suffered from heart problems. The former Parma and Juventus player was warned as a youngster at Monaco about the risk of potential heart trouble later in his career, but the news was still unexpected. “I thought it was a joke,” he said at a PSG press conference at Parc des Princes. “I took the tests and I was OK. It’s a complete surprise to me. One which I didn’t see coming.” Following the announcement, PSG claim they still plan to sign the 36 year-old, who should learn in the next month whether it will be safe to resume his playing career. The Guadeloupe-born defender is remaining cautious yet philosophical. “If I do have to quit football,” he said, “I’d have to say I’ve been lucky that we’ve discovered this problem now.”

The Guadeloupe-born defender made a record 142 appearances for France.

A rare intellectual in football, Thuram is also well-known for his political views. In November 2005, Thuram sided with French rioters and opposed the then-Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of the term “scum” against young people, saying that, “Sarkozy has never lived in a Parisian suburban estate.” Thuram made headlines again in September 2006, after he invited eighty homeless people to France’s home World Cup qualifying match with Italy. The illegal immigrants had been ejected from a Paris apartment by Sarkozy. Since at Barcelona, he has also engaged in campaigns to promote Catalan traditions and language, and supporting the independence of Roussillon (Catalonia Nord) from France.

Thuram is admired for his political and social awareness off the pitch.

Thuram called time on his international career after Euro 2008, after making a record 142 appearances for his country, during which time he scored just two goals. Remarkably, both came in France’s tense 1998 World Cup semi-final victory over Croatia at the Stade de France. By extraordinary coincidence, in 1984 (the only other time France has won a major tournament at home), defender Jean-François Domergue scored his only two international goals in France’s epic semi-final against Portugal — and on his 27th birthday no less. Brought into the side only after Manuel Amoros was sent off in the opening match against Denmark, Euro 84 proved something of a flash-in-the-pan for Domergue, who played only three more times for France, eventually collecting a total of just nine caps for his country.

Thuram celebrates after his two goals ensured France’s passage to the World Cup final at the expense of Croatia, Paris, 1998.

Donadoni exits and Lippi returns, as Italy look back to the future

A fan at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport attempts to lift Roberto Donadoni’s spirits, as Italy return defeated from Euro 2008.

ROME — Four days after Italy’s exit from Euro 2008, the country’s football federation, the FIGC, yesterday announced the termination of Roberto Donadoni’s contract as the national team’s head coach. He will be replaced by Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to World Cup victory in Germany in 2006. Donadoni’s contract contained a clause stating it would only be renewed should Italy reach the Euro 2008 semi-finals — the Azzurri fell at the quarter-final stage, losing on penalties to Spain, leaving federation president Giancarlo Abete with no alternative. “I’m sorry this situation should be determined by a penalty,” said Donadoni as he left the FIGC headquarters in Rome. “But one match can’t erase the positive progress my Italy has made in these two years.” Abete had even approached Donadoni on the eve of the tournament to offer a healthy compensation package should Italy fail, which the former Livorno and Genoa coach refused to accept: “It’s not a question of money,” he said.

Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas made saves from Daniele De Rossi (top) and Antonio Di Natale (above), as Italy crashed out of the Euro 2008 quarter-final after a penalty shoot-out.

I’ve always felt a tad sorry for Donadoni — after all, this is the man who missed a penalty in the semi-final shoot-out against Argentina at Italia ’90. Years later, after appearing in the World Cup final at USA ’94, and following the conclusion of an illustrious playing career with Milan (with a brief parenthesis at New York Metrostars), he took lowly Livorno to the upper echelons of Serie A, only to be fired by the team’s petulant president, Aldo Spinelli, for “lack of coaching experience.” Donadoni certainly did lack big club experience when he took over the national side in August 2006. With the euphoria surrounding Italy’s World Cup win still in the air, it was always going to be a challenge for Donadoni to assert his own identity on the newly-crowned world champions, and he suffered criticism throughout his reign as coach for sticking by too many of Italy’s aging World Cup winners. Lippi’s shadow loomed over Donadoni, right until the end.

The decision to recall Lippi is certainly a strange one, though perhaps typically conservative of the FIGC, as Italy looks to the past in the search for future glory. The term “minestra riscaldata” or “warmed-up soup” is used in Italian football to unfavourably describe the choice to bring back a former coach or player. It was first coined in the mid-1990s, when both Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello each suffered sorry second spells as coaches at Milan. Now fans and journalists alike must be fearing the same fate for Lippi. His decision to return to a team which he left in the most triumphant manner possible baffles me. The chances of Italy winning the next World Cup in South Africa are naturally slim, and failure to repeat the success of 2006 will, inevitably, forever tarnish Lippi’s carefully cultivated image as cigar-chomping world champion. But the 60 year-old claims he has turned down multiple offers from top clubs and national sides in the last two years, and is movitated by his so-called “debt to the federation” (a possible allusion to the effects of calciopoli on his original decision to quit).

Marcello Lippi puffs contently after leading Italy to World Cup glory in Berlin, 2006.

Lippi arrived at his first press conference as coach, fresh from the beach of his hometown of Viareggio, looking tanned and ready to “pick up where he left off.” He immediately played down talks of him trying to convince Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta out of international retirement (“We have to respect people’s decisions”) but said he would consider “all Italian players from 18 to 40. Even Cassano.”

One player who will not be thrilled to learn of Lippi’s return is Roma defender Christian Panucci. The pair feuded together at Inter in 1999, and Panucci was deliberately left out of all Lippi’s subsequent Italy squads. Panucci returned to the international fold under Donadoni, and at 35, became the second oldest goalscorer* in a European Championship, tapping in the equalizer (below) in Italy’s 1-1 draw with Romania at Euro 2008.

*Panucci would have been the oldest, had Austria’s Ivica Vastic, 38, not scored against Poland the previous day!

For Italy defender Christian Panucci, Azzurri joy was short-lived.

Maldini hits 40

MILAN — After breaking records for international caps and Serie A appearances, Paolo Maldini, Milan captain and living legend, today reaches another milestone: the big 4-0. Maldini is unique in modern world football, and not simply because of his longevity. Since making his Serie A debut as a 16 year-old at Udinese in January 1985, the Milan defender has remained a one-club man, refusing to leave his beloved rossoneri — a rarity in the modern age. Of course, red-and-black runs through the Maldini family: Paolo’s father, Cesare (pictured below with a young Paolo), captained Milan to their first European Cup victory against Benfica at Wembley in 1963, and later coached Paolo with both Milan and Italy.

Like father, like son: Cesare Maldini with a young Paolo
(already in a Milan jersey), circa late-1970s.

An elegant and pacy young left-back, and when Milan began the 1987-88 season Maldini was a firm fixture in their line-up, and his winning performances earned him a place in the Italy side which reached the semi-finals at the following summer’s European Championships in Germany. In the years which followed Maldini became worldly recognized as one of the greatest defenders to ever play the game, and in the late 1990s took over the Franco Baresi’s captaincy and authoritative central defensive role for both Milan and Italy. In a career spanning 23 years, Maldini has won everything at Milan, including seven scudetti and five European Cups/Champions League titles (losing three other finals). He has also played in four World Cups and three European Championships, finishing third in Italia ’90 and runner-up twice at USA ’94 and again at Euro 2000. He retired from the international football after the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea.

Maldini married Adriana Fossa, a former model from Venezuela, in 1994 following a long engagement. They have two children, Christian and Daniele. Young Christian is already mimicking his dad’s trademark sliding tackle as he makes his way through Milan’s youth ranks. Even at this early stage, Italian bookmakers are taking bets on not if, but when the 12 year-old will make his Milan debut, an achievement which would certainly secure the Maldini family’s position as Italy’s greatest footballing dynasty. Although Milan plan to retire Maldini’s number 3 shirt when Paolo quits, it will be bequeathed to his sons if they make the first team.

Maldini indulges his passion for music and sun on Miami’s South Beach.

Maldini celebrated his 40th with his family in Miami, where he has a house and hopes to spend more time following the end of his playing career. In recent years Maldini has begun cultivating his interests outside of football, especially in music and fashion. He regularly performs DJ duties at private parties and for radio, co-founded the popular Italian clothing brand Sweet Years with Christian Vieri, and has even found time to model for Swedish high street giant H&M. In 2005 he was the subject of an ambitious two-hour documentary film directed by Paolo Ameli called, appropriately, Paolo Maldini: Il Film.

Maldini lends his milanese looks to the latest European fashions.

But it seems Maldini has no intention of trading in the rossonero jersey just yet: in the last couple of years Milan’s bandiera (club symbol, or literally “flag”) has defied both critics and aging knees by repeatedly backing out of pending retirement, and last month signed a one-year extension to his Milan contract. Despite injury and repeated success, Maldini’s motivation remains stronger than ever, and he is said to already be looking forward to the challenge of another season at the top.

Auguri capitano!

Libero

Welcome to Libero, an evocative and personal journey through football history, and a celebration of our modern game. Football is unique in that it transcends the boundaries of sport, and can be appreciated and discussed on a vast number of levels, be they cultural, social, political, or even sartorial. One can talk and write about football without even ever mentioning any particular game. It is this aspect of the sport which has always fascinated me. This blog will often touch upon some of those ideas, but will also be a simple and affectionate tribute to the game I love, my magnificent obsession.

Why Libero? I lived in Italy for many years, where “Libero” means “free”. “Libero” is also a footballing term coined by Italian sports journalist Gianni Brera to describe the defender who is “free”, in that he does not have a particular striker to mark and can bring the ball forward to start attacks. This term has been adopted in the English language, although in Britain they also say “sweeper”. “Libero” also refers to being free, having free time to stimulate interests and enjoy pastimes. Lastly, and most obviously, “Libero” means being free of mind and free to express yourself — both on and off the pitch.