Jul 2, 2012, 8:25 AM EDT
Yes, there were a few brush marks of ugly racism, but not nearly enough to truly stain a lovely European Championship tournament that just came and went.
The ProSoccerTalk staff quickly reflects on what they will best or most fondly remember when they think back on Euro 2012 from Poland and Ukraine:
Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine swan song will always stick out. Though he went on to play two more times for his country, Shevchenko’s last hurrah will always be remembered as his second half double against Sweden – two goals that earned Ukraine their only victory at the championship they co-hosted.
The outburst came after a half where Shevchenko had looked his age, with commentators questioning whether the 35-year-old’s start was more ceremonial than deserved. Then, after Sweden had gone up one, Shevchenko summoned all the vigor of his Milan glory, heading home the twice to push Ukraine to the top of their group.
It was part of a stand-out tournament for some of Europe’s elder statesmen. Andrea Pirlo (33) was the tournament’s best player. Giorgos Karagounis (35) reminded us of 2004. Steve Gerrard (32) helped return hope to England. Xavi Hernández (32) hit top gear in the final.
None of those stories were the fairy tale. Shevchenko’s was. One week later, he announced his retirement from international soccer, his double against Sweden his final tallies for the national team. They were a part of a night few great players get to experience: Starring in a major tournament in front of your home nation.
It didn’t end well for Italy, but to even make the final was an impressive feat. For me, the moment of the tournament came against Germany. Mario Balotelli beat the offsides, waited for the pass, took a touch, reached the 18-yard box, and ripped a shot. (The pace!) Manuel Neuer would have had a better chance stopping it if he was watching on television. Off went Balotelli’s shirt, down went my lower jaw. It was everything the young Italian represents: audacity, obnoxiousness, brilliance, and so much more. I’ll remember the Spanish domination in the final, but my favorite single image has to be shirtless Ballotelli flexing. It’s fine to let your actions scream “look at me” when you’ve just done something no one else can do.
It may not have impacted the course of the tournament, or heck, even determined who survived the group stage, but for the measure of unadulterated joy it elicited, I’m going with Jakob Błaszczykowski’s equalizer against Russia. The match was tinged with political tension that only upped the intensity.
Fate would ultimately see it differently, but at the time Russia and Poland were tipped as favorites to advance from Group A. Russia had arguably played the most convincing soccer of the tournament at that point while hosts Poland were eager to bring pride to its compatriots.
Facing a one-goal deficit and imminent elimination, Polish captain Jakob ‘Kuba’ Błaszczykowski came through with the most glorious of equalizers. The long-range screamer would end up being the final goal of Poland’s Euro 2012 campaign, and what an effort it was.
I guess I’m a sucker for true fan passion, and probably for a lost cause, too. But when I think back on this tournament, about regal Spain and a more pleasing tactical way for Italy, about a German side that looked so capable before it fell to pieces in one stinker, about Shevchenko’s heart and Balotelli’s emotional eruption, about Zlatan Ibrahimović’s athletic feat of wonder … while I’m thinking about it all, I’ll be hearing the Irish fans reminding everyone what being a true fan is all about. I absolutely adored the 10 minutes the proud fans of the Republic of Ireland belted out “The Fields of Athenry” (an Irish folk ballad about stoicism in the face of suffering) as their team tumbled from the tournament in a loss to Spain.
That moment reminded us that supporters may suffer, but their love for their land and their team prevails.
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