By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — With Germans wowing like Brazilians, the attack-minded Italians shedding their defensive skins and the Spanish hogging the ball to suffocate opponents rather than dazzling with "Ole!" artistry, the European Championship has delivered a festival of enthralling and cerebral soccer that has challenged national stereotypes.
But, strangely, it feels a bit funereal, too.
In years ahead, when the matches on offer aren't, say, the Netherlands vs. Germany or Italy vs. Spain but maybe Wales vs. Estonia, will we mourn Euro 2012 as the last great international soccer tournament, truly memorable for unrelenting high-quality play from first day to last?
As UEFA President Michel Platini convincingly argues, opening the Euros to more teams — 24 beginning in 2016 instead of the current elite of 16 — will be more democratic and more inclusive for European soccer's lesser nations, the likes of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Estonia or Norway that narrowly missed out this time.
Better value for money, too. More teams will mean more matches, which in turn should mean greater use of stadiums, airports and other expensive public works built for a sporting extravaganza that lasts just weeks. Landing at the new airport in Euro 2012 host city Donetsk — the terminal shiny and imposing although there are very few planes on the tarmac — one cannot help but wonder whether the money couldn't have been better spent.
So the head says "yes" to Platini's plan. But the heart says "no" after 28 games at Euro 2012 that, with a few exceptions, were hugely engrossing, with quality matchups and play. The fear is that by watering down such fine wine to make it stretch further, Platini may also rob the Euros of some flavor.
Another feature of Euro 2012 has been that soccer, the beautiful game, has outshone the mindless hooligans and ugliness associated with it. Fighting between Polish and Russian fans, against the police and with each other when their teams played out a 1-1 draw on June 12 in Warsaw was the exception not the rule.
By levying fines totaling €325,000 ($400,000) against Russia, Croatia, Germany, England and Poland, UEFA demonstrated commendable intolerance for rowdy behavior and fans who racially abused Italy forward Mario Balotelli, who is black.
But UEFA muddied the message by imposing a one-match ban and a €100,000 ($125,000) fine on Nicklas Bendtner after the Denmark forward celebrated a goal by lowering his shorts to reveal the name of a betting firm on his underwear. The severity of the punishment gave the impression UEFA is more concerned about tackling guerrilla marketing and preserving exclusivity for its sponsors than weightier issues like fan racism and violence.
Unlike this season's Champions League, UEFA's top club competition won by Chelsea with defensive and reactive tactics, Euro 2012 has rewarded bold and dynamic attack-minded soccer.
The four semifinalists — Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain — took games to their opponents, instead of merely sitting back, soaking up attacks and waiting for opportunities to quickly counter, as Chelsea did against Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
In the Champions League final, Bayern had 35 attempts on goal, Chelsea just nine. But Bayern still lost, so soccer and fortune did not favor the most enterprising team.
But the reverse was true in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals. The losers — France, the Czech Republic, Greece and England — together made just 24 attempts on goal. That was as many as Germany, alone, in its 4-2 win over Greece and a stunning 11 fewer than Italy, which from Daniele De Rossi's shot against the post in the third minute peppered England's goal but somehow didn't score in 120 minutes.
Still, Italy's subsequent 4-2 penalty shootout victory justly rewarded a team and its coach, Cesare Prandelli, whose flowing forward attacks are dismantling the stereotype of defense-heavy Italian soccer grinding out ugly wins.
For Prandelli and Germany coach Joachim Loew, the aesthetics of victory are important, too. Prandelli hopes the richer new palate of hues in the Azzurri's style of play will rub off on Serie A clubs, too.
"Coaches need to start playing football more, and not just look for results," Prandelli said. "There are two years of work behind this and I think this is the future of football. In terms of quality, we're not lacking anything to anyone."
No huge new star emerged at Euro 2012, with the exception, perhaps, of 21-year-old Alan Dzagoyev. But his three goals for Russia were dulled by his team's collective failure to reach the quarterfinals.
Instead, this has been a tournament where established names — notably Cristiano Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta and Andrea Pirlo — again demonstrated with awesome play why they are stars.
Other established names — the entire Netherlands squad, England's Wayne Rooney and France's uncouth and uncool Samir Nasri — left us doubting whether they are quite the stars they take themselves to be.
If there is a Euro 2012 bone to pick, it is that too few fans from western Europe were able to venture this far east, seemingly because of cost, the daunting logistics of travel to and between co-hosts Poland and Ukraine and, possibly, because of pre-tournament concerns of racism and hooliganism that, it turned out, were hugely overblown.
Stadiums filled with fans from Poland, Ukraine, Russia and former Soviet republics who relished the chance to partake in a tournament that previously had been no farther east than Germany and the former Yugoslavia. And, naturally, once their own nations went out in the group stage, local crowds didn't root for remaining teams with the same fervor that Spanish or Italian fans would have had they been here in greater numbers.
They still paint their faces and make plenty of noise. But their cries of "Ukraine! Ukraine!" during, for example, England vs. Italy and France vs. Spain, were divorced from the on-field action and therefore disconcerting.
But that is perhaps a snobby western opinion that ignores the fact that since taxpayers from Poland and Ukraine are footing the bill, they can damn well enjoy this party in whatever manner they like. The same could be said of South Africans who insisted on blowing their earsplitting vuvuzela plastic trumpets at their World Cup in 2010.
If that is our only complaint, these have been very successful Euros, indeed. A true celebration of soccer but, sadly, perhaps the last of its kind.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester