Picking a best team from a tournament is never easy. For Euro 2012, it means whittling down 368 players into an XI that not only hypothetically could function, but also play coherently as a unit. And not just any players, but ones who were stunning from start to finish in Poland and Ukraine, as the following guys proved to be.
Though maybe I should go the UEFA route next time and hastily cough out a 23-man squad largely comprising the four teams that went the furthest: 10 from Spain, four from Italy, four from Germany and three from Portugal. Sprinkle in a couple of household names from Group D in Steven Gerrard and the irascible Zlatan Ibrahimovic and it's off in the limousines and private jets to the next cocktail party and healthy per diem.
In total, this lineup was hard to fault. Plenty of power in attack and surprising grit in the back, it's surely a matter of time before some idling oligarch assembles this lot at a Champions League-bound franchise near you.
Keeper: Iker Casillas, Spain
All throughout Euro 2012, I favored the smoldering veteran zen of Italy's Gianluigi Buffon over "San Iker," Spain's playful shotstopper and the backbone of a formidable side. Everything from his closed-eyes national anthem renditions to his stone-faced expressions was admirable; then La Roja dumped four on the Azzurri and rendered Buffon an afterthought. Italy had plenty of chances to get on the board, but was rebuffed every time by Casillas with aplomb. With one goal conceded in the entire tournament, Casillas made this choice straightforward.
Right back: Theodor Gebre Selassie, Czech Republic
It was a down year for right backs. England's Glen Johnson was potent in attack yet at fault for plenty of defensive lapses. The French tandem of Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Reveillere were adequate and robust, yet cruelly exposed by Spain. Germany's Philipp Lahm, a natural right-sided player, shifted to left back, leaving Jerome Boateng to struggle against the likes of mighty Greece in the quarterfinal. Italy didn't really use a right back; the attack-minded Christian Maggio was overtaken by natural lefty Federico Balzaretti as the Azzurri found its sea legs in the knockout stages.
Yet the unheralded and intelligent Gebre Selassie was as composed and consistent as any, just edging Alvaro Arbeloa in terms of execution. No flair, per se, but plenty of pace up and down the right, artfully assisting on the Czechs' second goal versus Greece and defending manfully in all three group games. That he was victimized somewhat by Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarterfinal, unable to shadow the Portugal star's movement, shouldn't overshadow his quality.
Center back: Sergio Ramos, Spain / Mats Hummels, Germany
It would be easy to pick Gerard Pique for his tidy and assertive tournament -- four fouls conceded in 570 minutes at Euro 2012 -- but the work of right back Ramos to shift infield (as he has done at times for Real Madrid) and lock down La Roja's defense was wonderful to watch. He held his ground consistently and even dominated Mario Balotelli in the final, but was an agile and aggressive performer throughout, also curbing the petulance that many criticize in his game. Spain's defense never looked so formidable despite the absence of Carles Puyol.
Alongside him, I'd pick the tenacious Borussia Dortmund defender Hummels despite Die Mannschaft's stunning demise in the semifinal. Hummels has had a superb year in the Bundesliga -- the club's first league/cup double in history -- and continued it at the Euros in the Group of Death, dominating in the air and covering for teammate Holger Badstuber's occasional lapses. And he'll keep getting better; the image of him being so easily passed by Antonio Cassano for Italy's first goal in the semis will serve as supreme motivation.
Left back - Jordi Alba, Spain
Forget Alan Dzagoev or Mario Mandzukic; this summer's breakout star wasn't a midfield maestro or another striker but rather a speedy left back with great instincts and even greater natural ability. The 5-foot-5 defender was tenacious, fearless and indefatigable on the left side of Spain's fluid 4-3-3, consistently giving La Roja an extra dimension on the ball, whether cueing attacks down the wing or giving his midfielders another outlet pass option when trying to throttle possession.
Alba's goal in the final was a tantalizing (or demoralizing) hint at what the 23-year-old will bring to Barcelona next season, having already sealed his switch from Valencia this summer.
Central midfield - Andrea Pirlo, Italy / Sami Khedira, Germany
A duo of holding midfielders that controlled games for their teams, albeit in very different ways.
Much has been written already of Pirlo's Euro renaissance -- though anyone who had the good fortune to watch Juventus last season knew that it was simply par for the course -- but it was a treat to watch the ageless maestro conduct one final international symphony.
Shielded by three midfielders who gave him the room to think and operate, Pirlo effortlessly quarterbacked Italy through the tournament. His performance against Germany was a lesson to young midfielders in how to use the ball: let it do the work. Set it free. Whether keeping the Azzurri on top territorially via the short pass or asking questions of defenses with his perfect angled service to his front five, Pirlo was serene and inspiring.
Khedira was also superb in that deep-lying role, though more commonly tasked with disrupting opponents in the tackle than through his creativity. Yet the German did both ably, frequently outshining the more-coveted Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield. His deflected cross set up Mario Gomez' game-winning goal in the Group B opener versus Portugal while his mid-range volley inspired his sluggish side to overcome Greece in the quarterfinal. And not flagged for a single foul, to boot. Easily Germany's best player at the Euros.
Advanced midfield - Andres Iniesta, Spain / Cesc Fabregas, Spain / Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Iniesta was the player of the tournament, a unanimous pick by pundits and UEFA alike, such was the dynamism of his play and ability to give La Roja an added gear when it was needed most. The gentle drone of Spain's tiki-taka style is regal enough on its own, but Iniesta's direct running and incisive passing were the sting in the scorpion's tail. Xavi fluttered at times but his Barca teammate was irrepressible.
So, too, was the ex-Arsenal captain Fabregas. Though used sparingly as the "false nine" in Vicente Del Bosque's front-man rotation, Fabregas was lucid and lethal around the box. Two goals and an assist (for David Silva's lovely header in the final) were the least of it.
Finally, praise is long overdue for Cristiano Ronaldo. His club exploits are beyond reproach, but what he did in propelling A Seleccao to their third semifinal in its past five trips to the Euros was, for him, unprecedented.
Yes, he started slowly against Germany, but things quickly snapped into gear: 10 shots and two goals in a virtuosic effort against the Dutch, the game-winner against a stubborn Czech side in the quarterfinal and several gilt-edged chances to bury Spain in the semis. That he didn't tuck his shots away (of his 35 at Euro 2012, only 15 were on target) will stand out yet, considering his struggles for the national team in the past, it was great to see him stand out for once.
Foward - Mario Balotelli, Italy
Three goals, utter dominance against Germany and a perennial menace up front for manager Cesare Prandelli's side. Purposeful both on the ball and off, kept his cool and showed just why he is worth any perceived off-field trouble.
GK - Gianluigi Buffon (ITA), Rui Patricio (POR), Stipe Pletikosa (CRO)
DF - Daniel Agger (DEN), John Terry (ENG), Pepe (POR), Ivan Strinic (CRO)
MF - Xabi Alonso (SPA), Joao Moutinho (POR), Alan Dzagoev (RUS), David Silva (SPA), Petr Jiracek (CZE)
FW - Dimitris Salpingidis (GRE), Mario Mandzukic (CRO), Mario Gomez (GER)