1. A TOURNAMENT OF CONTRAST
The dire storylines emanating from Poland and Ukraine before the opening game were the darkest to dog a tournament since the 1978 World Cup was propped up by a struggling Argentine military junta. Amid swirling threats of racism and violence, UEFA was forced to issue a ruling that players leaving the field after being racially abused would be punished with a yellow card.
This event has witnessed plenty to make viewers squirm: monkey chants directed toward black players; Polish police announcing plans to use “dogs trained to bite directly into hooligans’ testicles”; and the deputy mayor of Gdansk thanking fans who visited his city for behaving like "civilized white people." Despite the background tumult, on the field this tournament has produced some of the finest action since 2000.
Euro 2012 has been a showcase for bold, unpredictable soccer, dominated by unexpected stars, with a biblical deluge thrown in to boot. Enjoy it while you can. UEFA, the tournament’s administrator, already is planning to kill the quality that makes the tournament so competitive. Euro 2016 will have a field of 24 teams, up from 16, in which the quality inevitably will be diluted.
2. USING THEIR HEADS
Out of nowhere, left-foot goals seem so 2010. Of the 60 goals netted so far, 33 (55 percent) have been struck by the right foot, just 10 (17 percent) have come from the left, and a remarkable 17 (28 percent) have flown in off scorers’ heads. By way of comparison, a mere 18 percent of goals at World Cup 2010 were headed (26 of 145.)
It is unclear what factors underpin the uptick. The ball itself may be a consideration. Euro 2012’s Tango 12 flies truer than the physics-defying Jabulani that maimed the quality of play at the 2010 World Cup.
But the other critical difference-maker may be the existence of the fifth officials, the mute referees stationed behind each goal. Although their role is only advisory, their presence appears to have inhibited defenders, dissuading them from employing their full arsenal of dark tricks -- the shirt-pulling, arm-wrestling and hand-checks that typically slow down airborne strikers. Unfettered, Andy Carroll and Co. look like world beaters.
3. OUR EURO CUP RUNNETH OVER
One of the joys of the opening round has been the near absence of cynical soccer in which the results justify the means. Feigned injuries, diving and dissent have been virtually no-shows. This has been a tournament in which ambition, counter-attacking and tactical entrepreneurialism have been universal hallmarks.
Defending champion Spain has attempted alchemy by conjuring goals from a line of diminutive midfielders in a striker-less formation. Italy countered this strategy by dusting off a 3-5-2 formation that many believed had been consigned to history’s tactical scrapheap.
The tournament also has coughed up a string of unlikely heroes, many of whom leaped off the substitutes' bench: joyous Greek striker Dimitris Salpigidis; Polish penalty-stopper Przemyslaw Tyton; Italy's fleet-footed threat Antonio di Natale; Portugal’s master of the “whiff-n-score,” Silvestre Varela, and England’s dashing game-changer Theo Walcott.
Perhaps the most indelible images of the opening round have been provided by the number of maligned strikers able to drink once more from the fountain of glory: erratic Ireland-slayer Fernando Torres; Georgios Samaras, the Greek once nicknamed “Tragedy;” the airborne menace of a flying Carroll, and 35-year-old Andriy Shevchenko, whose opening game brace reinforced his standing as the world’s most famous Ukrainian.
4. UEFA GET ITS KNICKERS IN A TWIST
In its wisdom, UEFA saw fit to fine the Croatians $100,000 for setting off fireworks, displaying racist banners, and racially abusing Italy's Mario Balotelli. It then judged a goal celebration by Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner, in which he exposed the elastic of his “lucky” underpants to reveal the brand name of a popular bookmaker to be more egregious. Bendtner was fined $126,000 and handed a one-game ban for trying to promote one of his sponsors.
UEFA’s misplaced priorities exposed it to a media storm of negative publicity, which only reinforced the upside for Paddy Power, the instigating bookmakers in question. It happily picked up Bendtner’s fine after basking in prolonged global exposure for a fraction of the $3.5 million it costs to advertise for 30 seconds during the Super Bowl.
5. IS SPAIN MORTAL?
Spain topped its group for the fourth consecutive tournament, a remarkable achievement. But after three games, in which it has veered between a strikerless formation and one with Torres -- which, after a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Croatia, appeared to be just as strikerless -- La Roja seem distinctly mortal. For all of their possession and kaleidoscopic passing, they appear to lack a cutting edge. The elimination rounds will prove whether even a mediocre Spain, off its game, is still too good for its European rivals.
6. LIONEL MESSI: EVEN WHEN ABSENT, HE’S STILL AN IMPACT PLAYER
Spanish club teams may not have been able to stop Cristiano Ronaldo as the Real Madrid phenomenon blasted 46 La Liga goals, but savvy Danish supporters knew exactly how to shut him down. The ebullient “Roligans” chanted Lionel Messi’s name every time Ronaldo touched the ball. The Portuguese captain proceeded to fluff two gilt-edged chances. Ronaldo stormed back in the final group game against the Netherlands, defying his critics with a two-goal performance --a hint that he and his team may peak at just the right time.
7. THE ANTHEMS: SAY IT LOUD, SAY IT PROUD …
One of the secret pleasures of World Cup 2010 was “Kimigayo,” the Japanese national anthem. A sweet melody so short, my Men In Blazers partner Michael Davies was convinced it ended mid-verse. This being a European tournament, Japan is sadly absent, yet the ritual anthem singing has presented its own peculiar delights. By now, every soccer fan will have selected a favorite, from the bombast of “Ukraine's glory has not yet perished” (best line: “We'll not spare our souls or bodies to get freedom, and we'll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!”) to the more melodious Danish anthem, “There is a Lovely Country” (sample verse: “And noble women, beautiful maidens, and men and brisk swains, inhabit the Danes’ islands.”)
The anthem-singing has not been without controversy, as countries attempted to measure the direction of their national identity by the number of players who know the words. The Russian team was lambasted by apoplectic politicians disgusted that so few players sang along with their national hymn. The Wall Street Journal calculated that a mere 63.6 percent of their starters mouthed the words to the functionally titled “National Anthem of the Russian Federation.”
Blogger Chris Toy suggested a creative solution to future national dilemmas, tweeting: “The teams should be forced to sing anthems a capella with microphones.” This grand idea ultimately may prove to be a fairer way to end deadlocked games than the dreaded penalty shootout.
8. GERMANY LOOKS THE GROUP OF DEATH IN THE FACE AND SAYS, “WHATEVER, MAN”
Joachim Loew’s efficient team cantered through the much-hyped Group of Death. In an apparent tribute to their coach’s relaxed attitude to sex, alcohol and cigarettes, his tactically proficient players rarely had to move out of third gear while becoming the first German squad to win all of their games at a Euro group stage.
Mario Gomez had his first breakout international tournament, ignoring criticism from ex-international Mehmet Scholl, who suggested the hulking striker risked “bed sores” from spending so much time on the floor. Midfield dynamo Bastian Schweinsteiger has imposed his will on every game thus far.
The Germans are overwhelming favorites in Friday’s quarterfinal against Greece, a game rife with global economic undertones. “Bring us Merkel!” proclaimed Greek soccer journal, Goal News, “You will never get Greece out of the Euro!” The Germans hope the Greeks are wrong on both counts and are eager to prove their team’s apparent ascent can eclipse the Spanish decline.
9. THE NETHERLANDS: WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
While you don’t have to look outside of the Dutch national team’s recent work to find precedents for a talent-soaked squad that has imploded so dramatically, see the Netherlands at the 1990 World Cup or the Netherlands during 2002 World Cup qualifying. But for a team overloaded with the offensive gifts of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to only manufacture two goals in three games is an indication of self-harming at a spectacular level. The full behind-the-scenes story of feuding, jealousy and even a mole is yet to be told, but expect it to resemble Mean Girls with van Persie in the Lindsay Lohan/Cady Heron role and Sneijder as the cliquey leader of The Plastics.
10. ENGLAND: ROY HODGSON’S BARMY ARMY!
Injuries, a new captain, and a stodgy new coach meant the English limped into Krakow with unusually low expectations. But after keeping the French at arm’s length with an uber-cautious display, releasing the hounds against the Swedish, England then welcomed a rested Wayne Rooney back from suspension against Ukraine. The English talisman responded by heading the ball in from all of seven centimeters to lead the Three Lions to a group-topping victory. Only the Italians separate them from their semifinal destiny. And while Mario Balotelli no doubt has his iron in hand to create an appropriately inappropriate goal-celebration T-shirt, England coach Hodgson will go to bed dreaming of these three words, “Arise, Sir Roy ...”
11. “LOW LIE THE FIELDS OF ATHENRY, WHERE ONCE WE WATCHED THE SMALL FREE BIRDS FLY”
The enormous distance between host cities and fear of a litany of threats, from hotel price gouging to tick-born encephalitis, has prevented this tournament from experiencing the fan-friendly frenzy of Euros past. The one team that attracted traveling support en masse was Russia, and the images of its fans’ fists and flag before the clash with Poland, scheduled somewhat recklessly on Russia Day, were perhaps the nadir of the tournament. They should give FIFA pause for thought ahead of the 2018 World Cup, which Russia will host.
However, it was impossible to witness the closing moments of Spain’s demolition of Ireland without being moved by the poetic choreography of soccer fandom. Although their outmatched team was 4-0 down, the Irish fans stood proud and bellowed “The Fields of Athenry,” from their seats, a moment so exquisite German broadcasters decided to stop commentating and let the singing ring out. A tribute to everything that is good about football.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.