If the 14th European Football Championship has taught us one thing, it’s that football truly is the world’s game. That, and a timely reminder, especially in the final, of the greatness of the Spanish team under Vicente del Bosque.
For a major football event, the host countries (Poland-Ukraine) were not the established powers of the game. Similar to the run-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there was a barrage of cynicism as to whether they would be able to successfully stage the event.
In South Africa the big fear was crime, with several English publications painting a grim picture of muggings and gang murders. After Andres Iniesta’s 116th minute winner in the 2010 final, statistics revealed a 70% decrease in crime in the Johannesburg area during the time the World Cup was being played. Only 100 people were found guilty of offences related to the tournament.
Leading up to the 2012 championship, BBC Panorama aired a documentary, Stadiums of Hate, which depicted Polish and Ukrainian fans raising their hands in Nazi salutes, taunting black players with monkey chants and assaulting Indian students. After seeing the footage, former England defender Sol Campbell warned fans not to go to the tournament “or risk coming back in a coffin.”
All these fears, again, proved unfounded, with most of the trouble coming from visiting fans. The Russian and Croatian fans were the chief troublemakers. The host countries, on the other hand, were on their best behaviour. Fans came in record numbers: 1.4 million caught the action live from the venues, eclipsing the previous record of 1.27 million in England during Euro 1996.
The eight official Fan Zones — four each in Ukraine and Poland — have also been huge hits with 5.5 million people visiting them up to the quarterfinals, bettering the previous mark of 4.2 million in Austria and Switzerland last time. Fan Zones are enclosures, mostly in the central park of the host city, with giant screens where thousands of fans watch the action, get food and drinks, buy merchandise, watch concerts and revel in the party atmosphere. An estimated 200,000 where present in the 51,000-square metre Kiev Fan Zone during the final.
The tournament began with the cloud of the eurozone economic crisis cloud hovering over it. Some felt the action on the pitch would mirror that on the economic front. German hegemony in the eurozone translated onto the football field when Germany thumped Greece 4-1 in the quarterfinals, with Chancellor Angela Merkel cheering from the stands.
In Greece, Germany tackled only one of the so-called PIGS — those economies within the eurozone considered most likely to fail. But, the other three, Portugal, Spain and Italy, stood between them and the title. Two moments of genius by Mario Balotelli, and it became obvious that sports and economics aren’t always analogous.
As Spain’s Iker Casillas lifted the Henri Delaunay Trophy, he knew what it meant for the people of a country that had just received a ¤100 billion bailout. Before the final, he had compared the national team’s success, after five decades of underachieving, to an oasis for the people back home reeling under the financial crisis. This was definitely no mirage.
What sets the Euro apart from the bloated 32-team FIFA World Cup is its compact format. Here, every game played a role in the final outcome. All this could change with the next edition. Uefa have increased the total number of teams to 24, tinkering with a tested format in order to maximise revenues by increasing the matches. Defending the change, Uefa director Martin Kallen said, “At the moment we have the best teams here, but there are great teams who are not, such as Switzerland, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovenia and Norway. The Scots are also not here.” Great teams indeed.