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The less beautiful game

sports Updated: Jun 04, 2008 02:28 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times
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As is the case in smoking areas, the comment sparked a debate. Having huffed and puffed to a 2-1 victory over Ivory Coast, Holland were dismissed as ‘awful’ by the stern-looking German woman. Contesting the claim, a burly Dutch said that terrible football is quite all right so long as you win.

As the cross-border discussion on the merits and demerits of the beautiful game ebbed and flowed, a man in a blue vest joined the duo. “Are you from Germany?” the Dutch asked. “Greece”, came the reply. “There, they play the worst football in the competition and are European champions. Bad football wins,” the Dutch harrumphed. Argument over.

With the European championship round the corner, this debate at the Stuttgart Central Station hours after a group game in the World Cup finals could be replayed in cafes and bars — and railway stations — of football’s A1 continent. And beyond. All 1.05 million tickets for the 31 games have been sold out but as Europe showcases football in Austria and Switzerland, home to the UEFA and FIFA, to a projected global audience of 8 billion, it is a reality marketing pundits must learn to live with however cringing the possibility of dour, low-scoring matches may be.

That happens partly because as the stakes have steeped over time (champions with an all-win record can pocket 23 million euros of prize money from this year’s competition) the game’s become more defensive. But mostly because there is little to choose from the 16 in the fray. That and the reality of joint-bids make these championships different from what is known as the general assembly of mankind —- the World Cup. Why else do you think that 48 years after it happened, Yugoslavia beating France 5-4 in the 1960 semi-final still stands as the highest score in a match?

In the G-7 countries that have won all 18 World Cups, there hasn’t been a new winner since 1998, 32 years after the tournament had its only other one-time champion. It’s pretty much the same in the Copa America, the African Nations Cup and the Asian Championships, exactly why Iraq’s victory was such a big deal. It isn’t quite like that with the Henri Delaunay Trophy though which the USSR, Greece, Denmark (who didn’t even qualify), Czechoslovakia, Holland, Italy and Spain have each won once.

The championships as we know it is only 12 years old. Till 1980, when seven quarter-finalists became eligible to join hosts Italy in the main round, teams played home and away before assembling in one country for the semi-finals and beyond. The number of countries doubled to 16 in 1996 when England hosted the championships. Introduced in 1968 with 32 teams in eight groups, the qualifiers now stretch to over a year (the process of identifying the 16 began in September 2006 and ended last November). Qualification ensures 7.5m euros.

In 1976, tossing the coin to decide winners were abandoned for tie-breakers and Czechoslovakia’s Antonin Panenka’s successful conversion won the hosts their only major football silverware. Twenty years later, Olivier Bierhoff made the Czechs pay with the now-abolished golden goal. History would repeat itself four years later through David Trezeguet making France join Germany as the only teams who were world and European champions at the same time. In 2004, Greece advanced to the final beating the Czech Republic through a Traianos Dellas’s silver goal, the last time it was used.

Crunched into three weeks now, the competition which began 33 years after Delaunay and Austria’s Hugo Meisl proposed a European championship — the delay attributed to bloated administrative egos, English superiority complex and the fear that it would undermine the World Cup — lasted 22 months but had only 17 teams. Delaunay never lived to see it. His dream though has never been more alive and vibrant.