A memorable tournament that is likely to end on a high tomorrow

2012-06-30 00:00

POLAND and the Ukraine will probably have to wait another century before they are given another major sporting event, but thanks to events on the pitch, Euro 2012 has been fantastic. It has given starved football fans just enough to get through the winter, and provided its fair share of memorable moments along the way.

“Spainelona” have been at it again, starving opponents of the ball and grinding out results while having the best defence in the tournament so far. It was astounding to hear the neutral fans at the quarter- and semi-finals giving the Spaniards gears — the constant whistling of those in the terraces criticising the slow tempo at which Sergio Busquetes and Co. chose to dictate play. Football cannot always be played at a frantic pace. In any match a team in control will look to slow things down and keep the ball while their opponents are made to run around the pitch like headless chickens. It tires down the opponent and, more importantly, brings the likes of Ronaldo to the verge of tears, because you simply can’t do anything without the ball.

While Spain’s semi-final win over Portugal was not exactly one of dominance, it was deserved. In sticking with the formula that has brought them their supremacy in world football, the Spaniards kept their heads throughout the 120 minutes of open play and probably edged the Portuguese as the better side on the day. At no stage was there ever any panic — they knew that if they stayed true to their brand of football a goal would come. As it turns out, a goal didn’t come. But because of their discipline on and off the ball, Spain never once lost their shape. Whether attacking or defending, the Spanish machine was as amalgamated as ever. They are an extremely difficult side to break down and it would take a brave man to bet on them conceding tomorrow when things matter most.

But if anybody can score against the Spaniards, it surely is Mario Balotelli. He singlehandedly put the favoured Germans out of the tournament on Thursday and is in the form of his life — and doesn’t he just know it? His goals in the semi-final oozed class and his topless celebration had jaws around the world dropping. He makes Shane Warne look like a choirboy, but don’t we just love to hate him? As good as Balotelli’s goals were, he was allowed time and space by some less-than-average German defending that he will likely not be afforded tomorrow.

And if things aren’t going Mario’s way, then he turns from being one of the best to one of the worst in the world. You can almost pre-empt the sulking, moaning and studded tackles that will be a part of Balotelli’s performance tomorrow night when he realises that he is not going to have it easy against Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos. Fortunately for him, Italy boast their own amount of class elsewhere on the pitch. Andrea Pirlo has been a walking coaching manual throughout the tournament, and Gigi Buffon had a blinder in the win over the Germans and, at 34, looks like he could still be around for a while.

And that’s been the most attractive thing about Euro 2012 — the quality of football. From the Bendtners to the Ronaldos, most of the sides have played their part in making this a tournament of the highest and most competitive level. As good as it has been to watch, it serves as a devastating reminder of just how far Bafana Bafana have fallen behind.

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