KIEV, Ukraine -- Euro 2012 was as glorious a tournament on the field as it was surreal off it. We navigated huge distances between host cities on rickety aircraft and were driven by cabbies more adept at price-gouging than handling the wheel. Yet it was all worth it. Few tournaments have provided football storylines that were as joyous and complex.
Shorn of the negativity and cynical tactics that have scarred past tournaments (see Netherlands, World Cup 2010), the football was largely positive and ambitious, as the European pack attempted to chase the superlative standards set by Spain. This was a tournament showcasing an opening round in which every match mattered and an elimination stage with a twist in the tale as the heavily favored Germans, filled with doubt in the face of the Italian challenge, twisted themselves into a tactical knot. The culmination was the final, played by two teams whose presence no one could begrudge, one of which made history.
Here is a starting XI of moments I will bring back with me from Ukraine, along with a pair of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev jerseys:
1. Shevchenko’s golden goals
In a tournament blighted by the occasional inability to fill stadia, the noise that greeted the brace of goals headed home in the opening group game by veteran Ukrainian icon Andriy Shevchenko still resounds. The 35-year-old striker’s body may be creaking, but muscle memory kicked in to provide his team with a fleeting moment of glory against Sweden. This was Kiev’s version of a Hollywood ending.
2. Danny Welbeck’s flick against Sweden
Had this late game-winning goal – an improvisational 360-degree flick between his own legs – been scored by a player wearing a Brazilian jersey, it would have instantly been hailed as a masterpiece. Because Welbeck was wearing an England shirt, the world media’s first instinct was to wonder whether he had really intended it. England would soon flounder. But the goal’s lasting significance may lie in the glimmer of false hope it offers long-suffering England fans that a youth revolution is poised to transform their team before the 2014 World Cup.
3. “This is Russia”
After rioting in the streets of Warsaw saw 184 people arrested and at least 24 injured, Russian fans completed their celebration of Russia Day by unfurling a colossal banner taunting their Polish opponents by proclaiming “This is Russia.” This show of power outstripped that of their team, which wilted oddly in the group stage. But the violent scenes do not augur well for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
4. Irish fans serenade their lackluster team with “Fields of Athenry”
Their team proved to be the runt of the tournament’s litter, but its fans' support in the face of defeat restored a modicum of pride to a nation.
5. Iker Casillas’ point-blank save against Croatia
Casillas' leaping save from Ivan Rakitic's header was so good, the Croatian admitted later it would cause him "several sleepless nights." Had the ball gone in, the defending champion might have been eliminated from the tournament in the group stage. Instead, La Roja progressed. On such slim margins are titles won and lost, and history written.
6. The flood
Donbass Arena in Donetsk, Ukraine, is a spectacular football stadium, but five minutes into Ukraine’s opening-round game with France, its man-made splendor was trumped by the force of nature. A downpour of biblical proportions forced the referee to suspend the action as players and match officials scurried to the locker room to seek refuge from the lightning storm. Unyielding Ukrainian coach Oleg Blokhin stood in the tunnel, monitoring matters with a towel wrapped around his shoulders.
7. Pirlo’s Panenka
With his throwback layered haircut granting his deft performances a timeless quality, the creativity of Andrea Pirlo’s play did not just lift Italy, it elevated the entire tournament. Pirlo’s confidence and experience were best captured by the “Panenka” kick he unveiled to embarrass England’s Joe Hart in the quarterfinal shootout. "I don't practice it, it just comes to you in the moment," Pirlo would later say about his poetic kick. "I saw that Hart was very sure of himself; I thought that he had to come down off his high horse.”
8. Ronaldo’s night to remember
In the quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, Cristiano Ronaldo's performance was a virtuoso display of skill, desire and aggression. Running at the desperate Czechs all night long, he conjured 33 touches in the attacking third, dispatching eight shots on goal and hitting the post twice before propelling a technically delightful downward header home from the far post. Portugal was eliminated on penalties during a semifinal shootout in which Ronaldo oddly never made it to the spot, as if the Portuguese captain wanted to shuck the newfound respect the world had discovered for him, preferring to remain an acquired taste.
9. Mario Balotelli reveals his true self
His second thunderous semifinal strike that threatened to decapitate German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was astonishing, as was his shirtless, stone-faced celebration that followed it. But the controversial Italian striker’s desire to run to the terraces and hug his tearful mother, Silvia, in the stands after Italy beat Germany showed a side of him we rarely get to see. Beneath the swirling tournament storylines of racism and Italian multiculturalism, Super Mario proved that at heart, he is just a mother’s boy.
10. Jordi Alba's goal
Spain's tactical flexibility and footballing intelligence allowed it to write history, triggering instant debate as to whether it is the greatest team of all time. La Roja played without a recognized striker, but who needs one when you have a left back who can run at the speed of light to latch onto Xavi's clairvoyant pass?
11. Gigi Buffon’s singing of the national anthem
Few sights at Euro 2012 were more memorable than the Italian captain Buffon bellowing the national anthem before matches with eyes closed, chest puffed out, enunciating every syllable with pride. The goalkeeper revealed that the two grandparents he lost in World War II fill his mind before the game, but his musical rendition served as a reminder of what the tournament is all about beneath the hype – 23 men proud to represent the best of their nation.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.