Making the grade
To make sense of Euro 2004, here's a quick report card and a look ahead
Saturday, 03 July 2004
An 18-year-old who leads Euro 2004 in scoring (Wayne Rooney). An unfancied - and relatively obscure
- midfielder who drags his team to three out of three wins (Marek Heinz).
Two dramatic late equalizers helping a surprise package into the quarterfinals. (Sweden). A side of supposed no-hopers beating the hosts and advancing to the next round (Greece).
And, of course, teams representing three of the top four leagues in the world being eliminated in the first round (take a bow, Spain, Italy and Germany).
To make sense of it, here's a quick report card (based not on the teams' strength but on their performances relative to their abilities)... and a look at what might happen next.
Having overcome the shock of the opening-day defeat, Portugal boss Luiz Felipe Scolari had the courage to make the changes needed (Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente and Miguel in; Manuel Rui Costa, Simao, Fernando Couto, Rui Jorge and Paulo Ferreira out). What's more, those left out accepted the move for the good of the side. That's a sign of good coaching.
PROVISIONAL GRADE: B
Portugal is getting stronger and there's a sense that the best is yet to come.
Forget the loss on the final day. Greece showed what a spirited, well-organized corps of players can do. Greece's success is all the more remarkable given the number of guys who saw little playing time this season or had been written off by their clubs. Greece may not always be pretty, but tactically it's as good as they come.
PROVISIONAL GRADE: A-
The tournament's overachievers. Model students of professor Otto Rehhagel.
Plenty of talent, but no cutting edge. Spain was let down in the final third of the pitch and in its inability to hang on to a lead. Raul once again failed to live up to his reputation, but if the likes of Vicente and Fernando Torres continue to progress, Spain will be contenders for some time to come.
FINAL GRADE: D
One good game (though with a single goal) isn't enough given the talent.
In many ways, Russia was doomed from the start, given its injuries. Things went from bad to worse after veteran Alexander Mostovoi was sent home (way to be a leader). It was always going to be difficult, but Russia only performed once the pressure was off, on the final day against Greece.
FINAL GRADE: C-
Final win lifts Russia from a D, but an overall lackluster display.
The performance against Greece was appalling, given the talent in blue shirts. Jacques Santini's insistence on a 4-4-2 system saw Zinedine Zidane relegated out wide. That's fine when he plays for Real Madrid, a team that has a variety of creative forces, but less so with France.
France's inability to get anything out of the formidable strike force of David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry was surprising, as was the shakiness of an experienced back four. It may not be the end of an era just yet, but there is a major salvage job to be done.
FINAL GRADE: C
Much of the English media whined and complained incessantly about Sol Campbell's disallowed goal. Referees do make mistakes and, yes, host nations do often (subconsciously) get favored, but in this case Urs Meier's decision to disallow the goal looked rather understandble. In the six-yard box, referees will often whistle at any contact with the goalkeeper and, while Campbell committed no offense, John Terry's arm did collide with Ricardo's body.
The incident shouldn't overshadow the fact that England executed Sven-Goran Eriksson's game plan very well. The Swede asked them to defend deep and hit on the counterattack, packing the midfield with men who like to get forward when they win possession. It worked, though it was often a more cautious England team than we have seen in the past.
FINAL GRADE: B+
Croatia was another team few believed in ahead of this tournament. But for some terrible finishing against Switzerland, it could have given England and France a run for their money. This is a team still finding itself, one which struggles to live up to the glorious legacy of the previous generation.
FINAL GRADE: C
Still stuck in mediocrity, despite the good draw against France.
Switzerland's game plan was to beat Croatia, snatch a draw against England and hope for the God of Goal-Difference. It was always going to be a long shot, and once the Swiss drew the opening game, it was all uphill. Too many times, Switzerland was simply overmatched.
FINAL GRADE: F
Showed very little; injuries and suspension don't help.
The Swedes did everything right against Holland and, with a little more luck, could have broken through against their more gifted opponents. This is a team that actually seemed to get stronger as the tournament wore on.
It's a fitting farewell for Henrik Larsson and it's fair to say that, without him, Sweden would not have done this well. Cohesion and awareness were once again the keys for a side that counterattacked as well as any other in the tournament thanks to the trio of Larsson, Ibrahimovic and Freddy
FINAL GRADE: A-
Morten Olsen seemed to rip up the game plan against the Czechs and, after a scoreless first half, paid the price. Without the injured Ebbe Sand, he bolstered the midfield and Denmark lost some of the pacy attacking prowess that had made it look so good in the first round.
Still, losing to the Czechs is no great shame. And Denmark leaves us with some interesting tactical innovations (a 4-2-3-1 system that is quite different from Spain's or Portugal's) and the memory of Jon Dahl Tomasson's stunning opening goal against Sweden.
FINAL GRADE: B+
Italy paid the price for playing poorly against Denmark and letting the lead slip against Sweden. The Azzurri leave the tournament undefeated and level on points with Denmark and Sweden, but it's scant consolation. The one positive they can take home is that, after years of catenaccio, they showed they can play effective attacking soccer. Now if only Alex Del Piero and Christian Vieri could finish...
FINAL GRADE: C+
No excuse for not qualifying (though five points are ordinarily enough), should have done better.
Bulgaria was shell-shocked after the 5-0 loss to Sweden and never really recovered, though it showed guts both against Italy and, at times, against Sweden. Injuries and suspensions didn't help either, but this group looked overmatched from the start.
FINAL GRADE: D-
Never really gave anyone a run for the money, until it was too late.
Of the two semifinal losers, the heartbreak story is without question the Czech
Republic. This was perhaps the most talented Czech team since 1976 -- even more
gifted than the Euro 96 finalists. Karel Bruckner's men combined directness with
creativity and skill, overwhelming opponents in every phase of play. It looked
like they could go on forever ... until they crashed into the Greek machine.
Still, the Czechs go home with their heads held high, knowing they played what
was probably the best football in the tournament.
FINAL GRADE: A
Holland was gracious in defeat. "They were just better," Patrick
Kluivert told me after the game. It was going to take something special to beat
the host nation and there was little special about this Dutch team. It fell
under the weight of its own expectations -- the belief that Holland will be
great because it is Holland and these are the heirs of Johan Cruyff and Marco
Van Basten -- when, in fact, this team won just one game out of five in the 90
minutes (against Latvia). The future belongs to the young guns -- Johnny
Heitinga, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Rafael Van der Vaart -- but will they
manage to live up to the hype?
FINAL GRADE: B-
Not much was expected of Germany going into this tournament, and while Rudi Voeller's men battled Holland to a stalemate in the first game, things fell apart from there. This could be the worst German generation since before the war. Still, few would have expected such disarray.
FINAL GRADE: D
For all the lack of talent, this is still the current runner-up world champion.
Having already confounded the pundits by qualifying for the tournament, Latvia battled on, taking the lead against the Czechs and coming from behind to snatch a draw against Germany. A tremendous achievement for this tiny nation.
FINAL GRADE: B+
These men have already achieved legendary status.
- Gabriele Marcotti