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."