Euro 2012: It's a game of two halves...
So, as Euro 2012 reaches its mid-way point, what do we think of it so far? The tournament has not quite caught fire yet – despite some fans setting off alarmingly dangerous flares during matches – but it is building into an intriguing contest.
It is also providing some release to a continent beset by economic strife. Although, as Europe faces political turbulence and city riots, and finds its common currency in a penalty shoot-out, it’s comforting to see some reliable certainties from its four-yearly football tournament: Spain’s intrinsic grasp of the beautiful game; Italy the perennial slow-starters; the self-imploding, moody Dutch (most four-year-olds would have been proud of winger Arjen Robben's super-strop); England huffing and puffing their way to inevitable disappointment; and, as ever, the Irish and their fans showing everyone how to get along – if not compete in football matches at international level.
Of course, old rivalries – sometimes centuries old – always get a good airing. The Poland vs Russia match was particularly edgy, even occurring on Russia Day just to ramp up the tension, and Germany vs the Netherlands was its customary bitterly-fought affair.
Then there’s the haircuts (Rooney’s Nobby Stiles cast-off, Ronaldo’s half-time follicle makeover), the wild jubilation (Greece celebrated reaching the quarter-finals like, ahem, there’s no tomorrow), and the real competition: Aunty Beeb vs ITV.
Whilst Gary Lineker and co are turning in their usual brand of easy-going, comprehensive coverage, ITV are surely playing the better game. Anchor Adrian Chiles’ blend of professionalism and Black Country matey-ness is scoring well, and pundits Gareth Southgate and Roy Keane are providing some meaty analysis, with a side order of bitchiness from the latter (“Some of those Irish players think they’re world class!”)
As for their BBC counterparts, a sick parrot could muster a less jaded response than Alan ‘seen it all before’ Hansen, and ex-Dutch international Clarence Seedorf seems like a charming fella, but his laid-back punditry is more sleep-inducing than a Roy Hodgson team-talk.
One depressing development in Euro 2012 is the prevalent issue of racism. Previous tournaments have not been immune to this problem, but the contest in Ukraine and Poland has been clouded by the issue right from kick-off – indeed even before, with Panorama’s pre-tournament documentary on the host countries’ bigoted ‘football fans’.
The claims of that broadcast have sadly been backed up by incidents of racist chanting at matches and open training sessions, the waving of far-right nationalist flags, and the throwing of a banana at Italian black player, Mario Balotelli. This state of affairs represents a (cracked) mirror to the dysfunction within Europe, reflecting the continent’s increasingly vocal extremists.
Thankfully, as is the nature of international sporting events, there are always enough sights and sounds of happy cultural commingling to stifle the negativity, and encourage a belief in the goodness of humanity. (For the TV companies, this generally means picking out women in the crowd wearing tight T-shirts bearing their country's colours.)
The picture in Ukraine and Poland is no different, and the abundance of reports regarding the excellent atmosphere and the warm welcome from the hosts is life-affirming stuff.
Perhaps Europe should take note of the positive nature of its football competition. Since Germany are hot favourites to win the tournament, the message is clear: Angela Merkel, it’s time to lace up your boots and get Team Europe back to winning ways.