Tag Archives: Euro 2008

Portugal’s current stars no match for “Golden Generation”

Cristiano Ronaldo contemplates Portugal’s exit from Euro 2008.

LISBON — For any child developing an interest in football over this past year, you could forgive them for believing Cristiano Ronaldo to be the greatest player the game has ever seen. The popularity of the Portuguese winger’s club, Manchester United, combined with the generally over-hyped Premiership coverage on Sky Sports would be enough to fool any impressionable youngster. But the fact that the football media can so strongly influence adult fans is much more surprising. Following Ronaldo’s fine form for United this season — in which he scored 31 goals (a Premiership record for a midfielder) — there was much talk amongst fans and journalists before Euro 2008 that the player might “do a Maradona”, and single-handedly (no pun intended) lead Portugal to European glory.

Of course, this suggestion was both unlikely and pointless, least because Portugal need not rely solely on one player. Deco, the naturalised Brazilian, is a playmaker in the South American mold, combining a compact physique with fine control and vision. But he can drift in and out of big games, often without ever leaving his mark. When I first saw Deco play — for José Mourinho’s FC Porto side which won the UEFA Cup and Champions League in successive seasons — I was impressed. He was skillful and tricky, and the team revolved around him. At star-studded Barcelona he was one of many, sharing top-billing with the more imaginative (and popular) Ronaldinho. A similar fate may await him at Chelsea, for whom he signed following Portugal’s lacklustre quarter-final exit from Euro 2008 at the hands of Germany, and where he will be reacquainted with the now ex-Portugal coach, Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari.

Portugal’s two biggest stars enjoyed their best performance against the Czech Republic at Euro 2008.

At Euro 2008 Portugal perhaps peaked too early, making them instant favourites. Ronaldo and Deco combined well in the 3-1 victory over the Czech Republic, but neither player could galvanize the team enough to overcome the might of a German team in its stride. Though I risk descending into common football cliché by saying so, both Ronaldo and Deco also suffer from attitude problems, particularly when it comes to winning a free-kick, feigning injury, and, at worst, ensuring an opponent is booked. These cynical tactics are obviously common-place in football in all countries, but I find it unfortunate for a country that is renowned for its attractive football, that its two most celebrated players should adhere so closely to this ugly stereotype. Each is no stranger to controversy, on and off the pitch. At the 2006 World Cup Deco received a red card in the match with Holland, and Ronaldo was seen as provoking the dismissal of Wayne Rooney in the quarter-final with England. Meanwhile, both players have been involved in incidents concerning prostitutes and organized sex romps.

At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Deco scored a great goal against Iran, but saw red in the next match with Holland.

None of this does anything for either player’s likability — both Ronaldo and Deco are far too talented to resort to such lowlife behaviour, yet perhaps simply too stupid to recognize how they are tarnishing their image. This, for me, is one of the primary differences between the current Portugal team and the oft-heralded “Golden Generation” which helped win the World Youth Cup in 1991 and afforded the senior team the title of “Brazilians of Europe”, which had to do with much more than historical connections between the two countries.

By the late-1990s this crop of talent had spread itself throughout the best leagues in Europe, ensuring Portugal’s position as serious contenders at major championships. The national team’s two biggest stars in this period were Luis Figo and Manuel Rui Costa, without doubt the two finest players Portugal has produced since Eusebio. Like Ronaldo, Figo began his career at Sporting Lisbon, before making a name for himself at Barcelona and, in a controversial move, Real Madrid. A marauding winger in the old-fashioned sense, his slightly hunched-over forward stance meant he could beat players with just a drop of the shoulder and shove of the ball. He wasn’t as fast as Ronaldo, nor did he share the United star’s heading ability, but he won the Ballon d’Or in 2000, and the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2001.

Figo at Euro 2000; the Portugal captain embraces former Real Madrid teammate Zinedine Zidane after Portugal’s defeat to France in the World Cup semi-final, Munich, 2006.

Rui Costa was Portugal’s heart and soul, a serious man who lived and breathed football — the very first word to come out of his infant mouth was “Benfica.” (Cristiano Ronaldo was named after President Reagan — who do you prefer now?) After several fine seasons at the top in Lisbon, Rui Costa joined Fiorentina in 1994, where together with Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta he shared an excellent understanding on the pitch, and idol status off it. Perhaps unlike Figo, Rui Costa was an elegant playmaker in the mold of a classic number ten, and a joy to watch in full flight. The Florence club’s bankruptcy caused Rui Costa to somewhat reluctantly transfer to Milan in 2001 — he famously broke down on a local radio station trying to explain his move to la Viola‘s disappointed fans. He was also hugely popular at San Siro, but after an instrumental Champions League-winning season in 2003, he became marginalized by the arrival of an extraordinarily talented young Brazilian named Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite — otherwise known as Kakà.

Rui Costa’s joy after his spectacular goal against England was forgotten following Portugal’s painful home defeat to Greece in the Euro 2004 final.

Portugal were semi-finalists at Euro 2000 but flopped at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. Deco and Ronaldo overlapped with the older generation at Euro 2004, which was held in Portugal, although the host’s campaign was marred by behind the scenes bickering. Figo allegedly disapproved of Deco’s presence within the squad, stating that he wanted to win with a team that was “100% Portuguese”. Despite the tension within the home side — and coach Scolari’s indecision over whether to field Deco or Rui Costa — this was undoubtedly Portugal’s best ever chance to win a major tournament. They almost did it, reaching the final only to lose 1-0 to surprise package Greece (for the second time in the competition).

Figo left Madrid in 2005 to sign for Inter, where he has won three consecutive Serie A league titles (although Inter’s detractors would recall the effects of calciopoli on these successes). In 2007 he even changed his mind on lucrative transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United States in order to stay with the Milanese giants for another season. Rui Costa left Milan in 2006, taking a significant salary-cut in order to fulfill a boyhood dream and end his career at Benfica. He made a final emotional farewell to football in May of this year at the age of 36, making his last appearance in front of Benfica’s home fans in a 3-0 victory over Vitória de Setubal at Lisbon’s Estadio de Luz.

An emotional Rui Costa salutes the public as he prepares to play his final professional match in the colours of Benfica, Lisbon, May 2008.

Domenech proposes, and keeps his job

Raymond Domenech looks to the heavens — even he didn’t expect to still be France coach following the team’s poor showing at Euro 2008.

PARIS — Raymond Domenech might just be the luckiest man in football. Seventeen days after his France side were dumped out of Euro 2008 following three wretched performances, the Féderation Français de Football (FFF) today announced it would be holding onto the coach’s services for another two years, much to the disbelief of French fans and media. Despite France’s disastrous results in Austria and Switzerland, a meeting with the 56 year-old coach led to 18 of the FFF’s 21-member federal council voting in favour of Domenech’s tenure, with one abstention and two absentees. France’s uninspired displays at Euro 2008 earned them just one point in the game with Romania, which was followed by successive defeats against Holland and Italy. Les Bleus appeared consistently lethargic and uninspired, with many players seemingly lacking motivation, including Thierry Henry, who scored his side’s only goal of the tournament in the loss to Holland.

Not even Thierry Henry could prevent France’s exit — the Barcelona forward appeared tired and out of form at Euro 2008.

Moments after France’s 2-0 defeat to Italy, Domenech appeared on live French soccer show 100% Foot, where he was invited to explain his side’s apathetic exit from the tournament. The unapologetic Domenech avoided the question, instead taking the opportunity to propose to M6 channel hostess, Estelle Denis, who also happens to be his girlfriend and mother of his two children. “The only thing I can think of in this moment is for me to marry Estelle,” he said during the interview en direct. “It is in moments such as this that one needs close relations. And now I need them.” When he did finally address the issue of Euro 2008, he blamed France’s abject failure on bad luck, harsh refereeing and unfavourable weather.

Estelle Denis presents 100% Foot on France’s M6 channel.

A defender with Lyon, Strasbourg, Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux who won eight caps for France, since taking over the national team in 2004 Domenech’s relationship with the French public, and press, has been strained. A keen amateur dramatist and astrologer, his team selection and tactics have often raised eyebrows. He is said to be distrustful of those born under the sign of Scorpio, resulting in his decision to leave Robert Pires out of the World Cup squad in 2006. Ludovic Giuly was also omitted after rumours led Domenech to suspect the Barcelona midfielder of having an affair with Denis. In his autobiography, Giuly claims he and Estelle only ever exchanged one text message, and that “Estelle Denis doesn’t attract me — we never had a relationship, or wanted to have one.” Domenech was somewhat reprieved after France finished runners-up in Germany, but in August 2007, he refused to accept Claude Makalele’s retirement from international football, forcing the Chelsea midfielder to participate in qualifying games for Euro 2008 and the tournament itself. The exclusion without explanation of other talented players — particularly Philippe Mexes and Matthieu Flamini — from this year’s squad left fans frustrated and mystified.

Domenech in the colours of PSG, 1981-82.

Given his troubled history, not to mention France’s shameful recent form, Domenech was expected to be replaced following this latest débacle. Despite obtaining the support of current captain Patrick Viera, several members of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning side — including Bixente Lizarazu, Christophe Dugarry and even Zinedine Zidane — had spoken out against Domenech’s methods, calling for former captain Didier Deschamps to be offered the job. Even FFF president Jean-Pierre Escalettes — one of Domenech’s supporters — had harsh words for his coach. Speaking immediately after the council’s decision, he revealed how Domenech had admitted making “a whole series of mistakes” during his time in charge, citing “public relations that were at times disastrous because they were too personalised” and “excessive aggression and a lack of transparency” as combining to “rub salt in wounds”. A sense of relief grew amongst French journalists as Escalettes seemed to seal Domenech’s fate: “Euro 2008 was a resounding failure, not very glorious from a sporting view point and, perhaps more seriously, in terms of how it tarnished the image of the French national team. The first person responsible is the manager. He isolated himself, and today he explained to us how. The players share responsibility too, as do the president off the FFF and the members of the federal council who didn’t want to detect the failure because of the success of 2006.”

Domenech applauds Zidane after the French captain’s
infamous red card in the 2006 World Cup final.

Then came the unexpected news. “If we were going to look for someone else, there would be a period of uncertainty,” pondered Escalettes, before adding, bizarrely, “The bravest solution is not to go with what the public or the media want.” Escalettes did not remind anyone of the fact that he had also granted Domenech a two-year extension to his contract on the eve of Euro 2008. He did attempt to fan flames by announcing that Domenech’s position will be reassessed after the first three qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup. Escalettes has been henceforth warned to “communicate only about the team, not his own mood and feelings.”

As for Estelle Denis, the 31 year-old has yet to make public her decision regarding a future with Domenech.

Raymond and Estelle at a match at Parc des Princes, Paris, last year.

Royal return for kings of Europe

The Spanish players pose with the Euro 2008 trophy at Madrid’s Barajas Airport.

MADRID — The victorious Spanish national side arrived home from Euro 2008 to a heroes’ welcome last night, as around 100,000 jubilant Spaniards crammed into Madrid’s Plaza de Colon to greet them. The team’s private plane — decorated with the word “Campeones” — left Innsbruck at 5pm local time and landed at Madrid’s Barajas Airport at around 7:40pm. Coach Luis Aragonés and captain Iker Casillas were the first to appear with the Henri Delaunay trophy.

Many fans were at the airport, and thousands more lined the streets, as the team made their way through the capital aboard an open-top bus, the sides of which were emblazoned with a roja shirt and the words ¡España Siempre!” Spain’s players were dressed in their red shirts, with the exception of Sergio Ramos, who chose this moment to remember Antonio Puerta, the young Sevilla defender who collapsed and died during a game last summer. As the bus arrived in Plaza de Colon, squeezing between people deliriously waving Spanish flags, fans began to sing (to the tune of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) “Fer-nan-do Tor-res, la-la-la la-laa-laaa!” On a specially constructed stage, outgoing coach Aragonés took the microphone: “I have the best team in the world!” he declared. Iker Casillas then led the usual rendition of Queen’s “We Are The Champions”.

Fans in Madrid’s Plaza de Colon greet their heroes.

The following day, the more formally attired European Champions enjoyed a reception at the royal Zarzuela gardens. King Juan Carlos saved most praise for outgoing coach Aragonés, apologizing for not having a cape for him to wear. Queen Sofia, Prince Felipe, Princess Letizia and Infanta Elena were also excited to greet Spain’s winning team, as they posed for photos together with the trophy. The players later met with Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Spain coach Luis Aragonés presents the trophy to the royal family.

Since Spain’s European success on Sunday, there has been some talk about this triumph unifying the the country by uniting its various political regions, putting an end to the division which dominates Spanish society and football. I doubt this will happen. My friends in Barcelona — Catalans and Barça fans — were hoping for a German victory on Sunday night. I’m sure they agree that it will take more than a simple football team to make people forget years of cultural oppression, and give up a fight for political and economic independence which has been going on for decades.

An official photograph of the European Champions and the Spanish royal family in the Zarzuela gardens.

John Motson says “Goodnight Vienna”

John Motson at his last live broadcast, the Euro 2008 Final in Vienna.

LONDON — Last night’s Euro 2008 final was the last live broadcast by John Motson, BBC Sport’s most senior commentator and voice of its football coverage for over thirty years. His decision comes after the BBC lost the rights to screen live football as of next season. Motson will continue to commentate on BBC1’s Saturday night Premier League highlights show Match of the Day and BBC Radio 5 Live, but will not be present at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “I’d been thinking about it at the start of the season,” says the 62 year-old, “but now I’ve decided I don’t want to be tearing around South Africa at the age of 65. It’s physically and mentally challenging.”

Motson was hired by the BBC in 1968 as a sports reporter for Radio 2, and replaced Kenneth Wolstenholme on Match of the Day in 1971. The son of a Methodist minister, Motson was born in Lancashire in 1945 but educated in Suffolk, where to his dismay football was not among the sports played. Famed for his sheepskin coat and encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, Motson habitually spends evenings before matches compiling statistics and laminating team-sheets. “People who know me think its an obsession,” he says. This unwavering method of preparation and boundless enthusiasm for facts and trivia have often led to derision amongst critics and armchair fans, though I for one have always admired such old-school professionalism. It’s certainly preferable to the smug, pat-on-the-back, 19th-hole boy’s club banter that passes for BBC football coverage these days.

Motson commentating at a match between Manchester United and Sheffield United in 1971.

Motson’s first appearance on Match of the Day was non-league Hereford United’s shock victory in an FA Cup fourth round replay over Newcastle in 1972. He went on to commentate at 34 FA Cup finals, nine European Championships, nine World Cups and more than 200 England internationals. Motson excelled at major tournaments, where his true appreciation of drama and unparalleled ability to evoke a sense of occasion were most valuable. He picks out Italy’s Paolo Rossi-inspired win over Brazil in the 1982 World Cup and the epic France-Portugal semi-final at Euro 84 as two of his most memorable games.

For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, Motson was replaced for big games — including most famously the 1994 World Cup final — by Barry Davies. Though well-respected in sports broadcasting, Davies’ style often suggested snobbery towards both players and viewers, especially later in his career, and his over-pronunciation of foreign names — plus occasional bias — began to grate. I remember listening to him getting into a live heated debate with John McEnroe while commentating at Wimbledon the day after Italy knocked Holland out of Euro 2000, and in doing so revealed himself to know less about football than a former tennis pro from New York.

Motson however made good use of his co-commentators. For many years his partner for big matches was the calm and intelligent former England and West Ham player Trevor Brooking. Sometimes, when handing over to Brooking, Motson would literally shout his name in full at the end of a particularly excited sentence: “And with that goal Gary Lineker has yet again saved England in this World Cup Trevor Brooking!” Less memorable have been his more recent collaborations with the charmless and patronising Mark Lawrenson.

Motson attends the 2008 PFA Player of the Year Awards at London’s Grosvenor Hotel.

Like all live commentators, Motson was prone to the occasional on-air gaffe or ridiculous outburst. Here are some of my favourites:

“It’s a football stadium in the truest sense of the word.”

“For those of you watching in black and white, Spurs are playing in the yellow strip.”

“So Arsenal 0, Everton 1, and the longer it stays like this the more you’ve got to fancy Everton.”

“On a scale of one to ten that was one hell of a strike.”

“And Seaman, just like a falling oak, manages to change direction.”

“That’s an old Ipswich move — O’Callaghan crossing for Mariner to drive over the bar.”

“I think this could be our best victory over Germany since the war.”
— On England’s 5-1 defeat of Germany in Munich, September 2001.

“Northern Ireland were in white, which was quite appropriate because three inches of snow had to be cleared from the pitch before kick off.”

“The referee is wearing the same yellow-coloured top as the Slovakian goalkeeper. I’d have thought the UEFA official would have spotted that — but perhaps he’s been deafened by the noise of this crowd.”

“It must be like being stuck in the middle of a giant Outspan.” — Motson tries to imagine life as a Holland fan.

“You couldn’t count the number of moves Alan Ball made… I counted four, and possibly five.”

“I’ve just heard that in the other match Real Madrid have just scored. That makes the score, if my calculations are correct, 4-3! But I’m only guessing!”

“I’ve lost count of how many chances Helsingborg have had. It’s at least five.”

Chelsea haven’t got any out and out strikers on the bench unless you count Zenden who’s more of a winger.

“In a sense it’s a one-man show… except that there are two men involved, Hartson and Berkovic, and a third man, the goalkeeper.”

“And what a time to score! Twenty-two minutes gone!”

“The World Cup is a truly international event.”

“Middlesbrough are withdrawing Maccarone the Italian, Nemeth the Slovakian and Stockdale the right back.”

“Trevor Brooking’s notes are getting wet with the rain. I must lend him some of the perspex I always bring to cover mine.”

“It’s so exciting we’re talking at the same time for the first time ever!”

“I was about to say before something far more interesting interrupted…”

“Actually, none of the players are wearing earrings. Kjeldberg, with his contact lenses is the closest we can get.”

“It’s so different from the scenes in 1872, at the Cup Final none of us can remember.”

“That shot might not have been as good as it might have been.”

“Not the first half you might have expected, even though the score might suggest that it was.”

“He’s not quite at 110 per cent fitness.”

“There is still nothing on the proverbial scoreboard.”

“Whether that was a penalty or not, the referee thought otherwise.”

“Bruce has got the taste of Wembley in his nostrils.”

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in Athens since Homer put down his pen.”reacting to Greece’s surprise triumph at Euro 2004.

“Koller shares a hairstyle with Jaap Stam. Of course, they have no hair.”

“Say something, Mark, say something!”For once at a loss for words, a shell-shocked Motson implores his co-commentator Mark Lawrenson to make sense of England’s disastrous defeat to Croatia in the Euro 2008 qualifier.

Most famously, during the 2002 World Cup Motson developed something of a fixation with the fact that games being played in the evening in Japan and Korea were broadcast live in the early morning in the UK, and attempted to insert references to cooked English breakfasts into his live commentary at every opportunity:

“Just one minute of overtime, so you can put the eggs on now if you like.”

“You can have your breakfast with Batistuta and your cornflakes with Crespo.”

“I can confirm that Trevor Brooking did have his own eggs and bacon before setting off this morning.”

“England will be having Sweden for breakfast.”

“Hold on to your cups and glasses… You can smash them now! David Beckham has scored!”

¡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.

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.