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The beautiful game

Against the background of economic and political uncertainty across Europe, the final match of Euro 2012 underlined that football is indeed the “beautiful game”.

As Spain and Italy provided a fitting conclusion to the tournament, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine, football vividly demonstrated sport’s capacity to transcend cultural divisions and unite people in a common cause.

Who could fail to be moved by radiant fans from across the continent fleetingly identifying themselves on the ‘Big Screens’ of various stadia? Momentarily, they basked in the knowledge – albeit for an instant – that they were the focus of attention for a worldwide audience. The waves, smiles and the infectious joy emanating from so many smiling eyes immediately conveyed a sense of why football is rightly heralded as the beautiful game.

From Lisbon to London, from Moscow to Madrid, across the continent and beyond, varying degrees of enthusiasm and expectation characterised the build up to establishing which country would be crowned king of European football. Current Euro Champions and World Cup holders, Spain, were striving to become the first nation to successfully defend the crown as well as achieving the unique distinction of winning three successive trophies.

Perennial tournament specialists, Germany, held similarly high expectations and, as always, travelled confident of success only to succumb to a revitalised Italy. Not all competitors, though, held the same degree of optimism.

Ireland had done extremely well to qualify and join the party. Fans travelled more in hope than realistic expectation. Despite the best efforts of an Irish team in the midst of transition, the objective of surviving the ‘group’ stage proved ultimately in the face of very strong opponents to be insurmountable. Nevertheless, the songs and frolics of the Irish followers confirmed their status as the most endearing of supporters who, were there a competition to find the world’s best fans, would surely monopolise the race for honours. What then of the English and the Portuguese? In some ways, the attitudes of these nations to Euro 2012 bore remarkable similarities.

Uncharacteristically, the English media had maintained a low-key, maybe even slightly subdued, approach to the tournament. Indeed, the lack of hysteria – in contrast to the preliminaries of so many previous tournaments – may well have worked to England’s advantage. A relatively low level of expectation seemed to unburden the new manager, Roy Hodgson, and his players from the unrealistic demands of the nation.

In the past, England’s fans had been encouraged to engage in a frenzy of flag flying fanaticism. However, the current regime seemed to be led by a manager directing not only players but also fans into a new age of maturity. The hallmark of such guidance was a refreshing sense of measured optimism. Despite defeat to Italy on penalty kicks, England may now be better prepared for the World Cup qualifying campaign. Similarly, in terms of build up to Euro 2012, Portugal also had a low key approach.

Indifferent performances in friendly matches and a lack of ‘sparkle’ in the qualifying campaign seemed to have left the Portuguese media decidedly underwhelmed by Portugal’s Euro prospects. Paulo Bento, the Portuguese manager, did not encourage the nation to adopt unbridled enthusiasm for success in Poland and Ukraine.

However, as the Portuguese players gradually displayed a real sense of purpose – and no little skill – in the competition proper, the country seemed only too delighted to sit up, take notice and, at last, support their team.

Proudly billowing flags, accompanied by the incessant blaring of car horns, joyfully announced that Portugal had arrived at Euro 2012 – and that they were to be taken seriously. Initial trepidation gave way to a dignified pride and support for those players bestowed with the honour of wearing the white, green and red of Portugal. Defeat to Spain was tempered by the legacy of a justifiable pride in the team, especially considering that relatively little had been expected of them at the outset of the competition.

Naturally, the severe reality of global economic and social concerns cannot – and should not – be eliminated from individual or collective consciousness. However, for a time at least, it is surely legitimate to find respite and hope in the reality of a phenomenon that not only unites but simultaneously engenders a common joy with a shared pride in the great game of football.  

Of course, only one team could win and, on this occasion, it was the truly magnificent Spain. However, the range of teams from across Europe who contested Euro 2012 contributed in their various – and refreshingly unique – ways to the kaleidoscopic pictures of beaming European citizens united by a love of sport and a pride in their country’s representatives.

Such images will remain as an enduring testament as to why football is indeed the beautiful game.

Tom Callan is a retired deputy head teacher and freelance writer whose interests include Portuguese language and history, golf and football. Tom and his wife now spend time between their homes in Portugal and Scotland.