Jim White

Phew, what a scorcher

Jim White

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There was much mockery (some of it possibly emanating from this blog) before a ball was kicked in Euro 2008 about the television schedules. Without a home nation in contention, the chortling went, how amusing will it be for executives to have to shift ratings-bankers like soaps and light entertainment in order to accommodate matches no-one will want to watch? The game that was used as a prime example was the Czech Republic against Turkey. Tee hee, we all sniggered, you can imagine the fans of Coronation Street being delighted to see their favourite fix shunted to find room for that. No-one, thought the sarcastic, will watch that.

Which is why we pundits are almost always proven wrong. The Czechs against the Turks turned out to be the most compelling piece of televised football since the 2005 Champions League final. It was a game so arresting, so exciting, so dramatic it made you forget that you had no affiliation with either side and, instead of moaning about how England could have beaten either of these, it insisted you roar yourself hoarse. As for the concluding ten minutes, you would have had to have been in possession of a heart of stone - or to be carrying a litre of two of Greek blood in your veins - not to have leapt from your sofa in joy as the Turks gave their impression of Lazarus and came back from the dead. It was, in short, a cracker.

And the wonderful thing about it was that it was not alone. Virtually every game - except those featuring our Greek friends - has been a pulsating, riveting delight. This is a tournament which has had everything; dramatic reversals, wonderful goals, surprise results, favourites crashing, the unfancied thriving. It has even gifted us the opportunity to throw something at our radios in righteous anger when Steve McClaren, commentating on a game on the radio, expressed his disappointment that England hadn't qualified. "What a shame they're not here," he said, as if he was totally unconnected with their absence. You could almost hear the entire listening audience shouting as one at their radios demanding to know why he thought that was.

What the first phase of Euro 2008 has proved above all is that conventional wisdom on how to approach tournament football has changed. The old way was to make sure you didn't lose early on. Just get through and then attack later was the guiding principle. Italy going on to win the 1982 World Cup after three goalless draws in the preliminary matches was the template. Watching Croatia's Slaven Bilic talking before a ball had been kicked gave a clue to the new thinking. He explained that there was no margin for error at the Euros. Fail in the first game, and you were in trouble. Teams, he added, will need to attack from the start to ensure qualification.

He has been proven right. Those teams that have done just that - Portugal, Spain, his own Croatia, the glorious and life-enhancing Dutch - galloped through at the earliest opportunity, with none of the fret about permutations that comes with embracing caution. Sure, losing or drawing the first match does not necessarily mean you are out. But conversely, only the Czechs have so far countered the theory that all those nations who won their opening game are certain to progress.

This rush to attack has resulted in there being a game every night on the box to make you forget about England, forget about Steve McClaren and his comedy circus of ludicrous wags and overpaid wingers and instead concentrate on the glories of the drama. It has been great.

But of course this would not be a proper blog if it did not sound a momentary note of caution. The real test of a tournament is yet to come. The World Cup in 2006 started at a similar gallop which led to many observers claiming, at the conclusion of the group stages, that it was the finest ever. No wonder; Spain's 4-0 win against Ukraine, Germany's 4-2 triumph over Costa Rica and most of all Argentina's 6-0 defeat of Serbia were encounters to savour. But then it ground to a halt. An inverse logic took hold. The knock-out phase was hamstrung by watchfulness. Only Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and France among 16 teams actually registered more than one goal in knock-out games, while Portugal managed to progress to the semis scoring only once in open play.

After the opening week and a bit we have just enjoyed in Euro 2008, we can but hope there is no repeat of that menu and that the main course lives up to the sumptuous delight of the hors d'oeuvre.

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