What’s the best standard of football you’ve ever seen?
It’s a difficult question and may be immediately tempting to think about the World Cup, or indeed the pinnacle of club football - the (European) Champions League.
But the best football I’ve ever seen has come in two of the last three European Championships – and that’s why Poland and Ukraine will provide a tense, unpredictable, exciting tournament ON the field.
Those who protest that the standard in Europe can’t possibly be better than a world competition are missing the point. They flag up Brazil and Argentina, two of the best three teams in the world. They point to the fact European teams don’t tend to succeed outside of Europe in the World Cup. They are shooting wide of the mark.
There are two related reasons the 16-team Euros is as good as it gets.
Firstly, there is no slack in Europe, no team who are really poor. So it’s about the standard all the way through the groups. Check out this group: Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Portugal. It’s like a joke. Three of these would expect to get to the World Cup quarter-finals and it’s the first round! Consider the Belgium team I saw play England at Wembley. The likes of Hazard and Fellaini, with Kompany to call upon too. They could have had a great tournament. If they had qualified. The standard is that high.
The second reason is that almost claustrophobic feeling that there are very few easy games, perhaps none. Let’s take any team – let’s say the hosts Ukraine. They have a chance of getting to the quarter-finals with home advantage but if they beat Sweden, well then there’s France and England to contend with. The chances of them failing are high.
What about the other hosts Poland? They are celebrating the best possible draw and I feel they have a fighting chance of doing well. But even if they beat 2004 champions Greece, there are no guarantees against the Czech Republic and Russia. Strong teams everywhere.
The best football I’ve seen was in Euro 2000. The winning French team was mesmerising, with the great Zinedine Zidane conducting the orchestra. But they still needed a bit of fortune to go with resilience and get past Spain, Portugal and Italy. This was not an easy tournament to win.
Two years earlier I covered a far more celebrated victory – France winning the World Cup on their own soil. Have a think back – they stumbled from one match to another in underwhelming style but got away with it because of the lower standard. It was only when trailing to Croatia (Euro 2012 finalists) in the semi-final they finally came to life with two unlikely, incredible strikes from full-back Lilian Thuram. And beat an unexpectedly listless Brazil team to lift the trophy.
The Euros in 2004 was a freak tournament. I’ll accept it tries its best to contradict my theory. The football suffered at the hands of glorious unpredictability. A brave but limited Greek team triumphed. A sensational and wonderful outcome that few can have predicted - but they did it by suffocating the opposition.
The norm was restored in Euro 2008 – lit up by the likes of Russia, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands, won by Spain. The best team in the world were even more impressive in winning this than they were winning the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Like many I was lucky enough to see a lot of both tournaments and the World Cup 2010 was lacking something on the pitch. Memorable for its hosts and the colour but NOT the football, and the ugly, forgettable final. The football in Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland was vibrant. Of the highest quality.
So what’s the most important tournament in football?
Michel Platini head of UEFA was emphatic in his verdict when I spoke to him at the Euro 2012 draw in Ukraine last December. Would the head of European football pick his own championship? The Champions league? No, said Platini – it’s the World Cup.
He’s right of course. The World Cup has to remain the ultimate prize. But for quality and difficulty it’s the Euros for me.
And make the most of it while the format’s perfect – because there will be a flabby 24 teams in action in four years time.