Some international tournaments capture the imagination with their sheer energy and joy, featuring footballing flamboyance or ground-breaking, era-defining tactical revolutions. The triumphs and disasters played out in front of the watching world can resurrect memories of childhood summers past, reaffirming a love for the game that some lesser tournaments may make us question. Some tournaments just have it all, and the European Championship of 2008 was one of those.
This gem of a tournament sizzled with sensational shocks, drama and wonderful football. Several teams hit early heights before faltering and losing their way; save for one that is. One team shone throughout, dazzling their audience with a style and panache that was to leave the opposition struggling for answers with its incisive speed and dominance of the ball.
Playing with a high tempo, energetic style, valuing purposeful possession over furious endeavour, the Spain of 2008 had adopted an approach that would see them dominate and embark on an era of supremacy unprecedented in the modern age. Like Greece in 2004, the collective harmony was evident, but in Spain there were the crucial additions of precise technique, inventive creativity, perpetual movement and devastating attack that made La Roja irresistible in 2008.
Their crowning glory exemplified all that was great about Euro 2008, but Spain were far from the only compelling story of that summer, when the alpine air echoed to the sounds both of repeated thunderstorms and of the omnipresent White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.
In Switzerland’s opening match against the Czech Republic in Basel’s St Jakob Park, the home fans’ exuberant optimism was punctured early on. Swiss hopes quickly faded the moment Alexander Frei, their energetic inspiration, was forced out of both this game and the tournament with a knee ligament injury. Without him, Switzerland lost any initiative, and with it, the match.
Frei’s absence ended Switzerland’s hopes not just on opening night, but effectively ended their hopes of progressing. Against Turkey, their next match was played out in a torrential downpour, illuminated by lightning bolts cutting through the sky overhead. The pitch was bordering on unplayable at times, even if the pools of water assisted Switzerland in their opening goal. Not for the last time in this tournament, though, Turkey came from behind to win in stoppage time – and with that the Swiss were dumped out with a game to spare.
Some consolation would come with a win over Portugal’s reserves in the final group match, but the disappointment of failing in a home tournament was palpable. The loss of Frei impacted too greatly on a side lacking depth. With him, they were up against it; without him, they were cut adrift in the thunderstorm, unable to navigate their way to the promised land of the knockout rounds.
Meanwhile, across in Vienna, the Austrians were backed by a sizzling atmosphere, but their team were even less well equipped than the Swiss to progress. In their opening match against Croatia, it took barely two minutes for the enthusiasm to be dampened and for brutal reality to set in. Having waited for 18 years for a major tournament appearance, it took Rene Aufhauser only until that point to give away a penalty which Luka Modrić duly converted.
From the high of the big kick-off, the crash back down to earth had taken a mere 120 seconds. Austria’s campaign would never fully recover from this setback as much as their industrious endeavour kept them in contact in each game they played, although they did steel a draw at the end of their next match thanks to a stoppage-time penalty against Poland.
Needing to beat Germany to have any chance of progressing, Austrian prospects of success didn’t quite match their optimism. It was a match best remembered for two incidents. Firstly, both managers were sent to the stands simultaneously, walking off with a mutual high-five. But mostly, it would be for the gloriously vicious free-kick from Michael Ballack that won the game, roaring into the top corner at a brutal velocity.
The lacklustre hosts weren’t the only disappointments, with defending champions Greece and the ultra-talented French both falling at the first hurdle. In a festival of invigorating play and fast attack, the teams led by Otto Rehhagel and Raymond Domenech both seemed to be out of tune with the more ambitious teams in the tournament, and flopped as a result.
France looked past their best and uninspired, with the talents of Thierry Henry going to waste in a team shorn of the influence and ability of Zinedine Zidane. Without their talisman, France looked lost and, once eliminated, Domenech compounded matters by choosing the moment of France’s failure to propose to his girlfriend in his post-match interview.
But the more compelling narrative from the tournament was that of successive teams who flattered and inspired, only to fall away and fail. One of the most dramatic tales out of this European Championship was the progress of Turkey, which was astonishing on several levels.
Coach Fatih Terim proved an inspirational leader, but despite his domestic successes with Galatasaray, he was a controversial figure. He had been in charge during Turkey’s disastrous Euro 96 campaign, and more recently was frequently criticised for his squad selection, accused of picking permissive players rather than some more talented options. Hakan Şükür, the hero of the 2002 World Cup squad, was excluded for instance, and a wildly inconsistent qualifying campaign merely exacerbated the complaints.
After a poor start in defeat to Portugal, Turkey found their groove in beating Switzerland in a manner that signalled the first instance of a recurring theme for Terim’s side: dramatic fightbacks and late goalscoring drama. Arda Turan’s stoppage-time winner made him the hero against Switzerland, but such late drama was small fry compared to what happened in the final, decisive group match with the Czech Republic.
This all-or-nothing clash in Geneva was the most dramatic match of the group stages, with qualification for the knockout rounds at stake. With both teams having identical records in every measure, and with Portugal already having sealed top spot in the group, it was a case of winner-take-all, with even the prospect of a penalty shootout should the game end in a draw.
Just after the hour, it had all been going against Turkey. Jaroslav Plašil had just scored the Czech’s second, and with a quarter of an hour to go, they still led 2-0. That was when the Turkish fightback began, Turan scoring his second of the tournament to reduce the arrears.
But the real drama was still to come in the final few minutes when, with the Czechs still holding on to a place in the next round, Petr Čech let it slip through his fingers. Fumbling a relatively innocuous cross, he gifted the ball on a silver platter for Nihat Kahveci to bundle in a simple goal. At 2-2, the match was remarkably heading for the unprecedented drama of a group stage penalty shootout, but Nihat was not finished yet.
Amid a raucous atmosphere, with thousands of vociferous Turkish fans dominating the stands, a second goal from Nihat saw Turkey grab victory from the jaws of defeat, firing in spectacularly off the crossbar barely 90 seconds after his equaliser.
There was still time for a late Czech chance and a needless red card for Turkey goalkeeper Volkan Demirel, but it was to be a night of Turkish delight. It was the first time they had beaten the Czechs in 50 years, but more than that it was one of the most remarkable matches in European Championship history: a brilliantly chaotic, crazy night. It took Turkey into a quarter-final against another team to impress in the group phase: Croatia.
Having beaten Austria, it was in their second group match with Germany that Croatia really rose to attention. With Slaven Bilić a bundle of energy on the sidelines, Croatia were a step ahead of Germany throughout, winning more comfortably than the 2-1 score suggests.
Croatia maintained a 100 percent record in beating Poland, but come the quarter-final, Turkey’s spirit and sheer unpredictability meant they could never be discounted. For Turkey, this match saw the return of the veteran goalkeeping hero Rüştü Reçber for the suspended Volkan, while they also had to cope with several players out injured.
It was a tight, closely fought match with Croatia perhaps having the best chances. While Turkey gave as good as they got, neither side could make the breakthrough as the match headed into extra-time. It was a nail-biting, nervy period that would take Turkey’s previous late drama to new extremes.
When Croatia took the lead in the 119th minute – Rüştü wandering too far from his goal, allowing Modrić to cross for Ivan Klasnić to tap in – they celebrated with understandable gusto, the whole Croatian squad, manager Bilić included, piling on together to celebrate on the pitch.
The comeback kings were not done, however. Terim, encouraging his crestfallen players from the sidelines, later remarked that he was adamant that his team would never give up even at this late stage. When Croatia could have just kept the ball and seen out the remaining moments, they instead gave away a needless free-kick for offside.
Rüştü thumped the ball forward where it found Semih Şentürk who struck a brilliantly blistering shot into the top corner. With time already beyond the 120-minute mark, this was leaving things later than ever. Croatia, distracted and devastated, focused their attention more on complaints than on preparation for the impending shootout. That they lost, convincingly so, when the penalties were taken was little surprise. Once again, Turkey had shown they could never be discounted.
In the semi-finals, they would face a Germany side who had overcome their Croatian-inflicted trauma of the group stage. Die Mannschaft had also beaten another of the best-performing sides from the opening week of the tournament, 2004 runners-up, Portugal.
Having guaranteed top spot in their group early and comfortably, Portugal’s campaign derailed amidst the twin distractions of their Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s appointment as Chelsea boss, and the constant overtures from Real Madrid towards Cristiano Ronaldo. They also lost crucial momentum in resting many players in their final group match with Switzerland, and against Germany struggled to rekindle the form they had shown in the opening week.
Momentum is a fickle mistress: had the two sides played each other a week earlier it would likely have been Portugal who were the more convincing given their scintillating early form. As it was, Germany were, for the most part, the only team that looked likely to win through on the day to face the resilient Turks in the semi-final.
On semi-final night, Turkey, unusually for this tournament, took the lead before finding themselves in more familiar territory trailing late-on once again. It will be no surprise to learn that they duly fought back to equalise with only four minutes remaining through Semih Şentürk. But here is where their luck eventually ran out.
With extra-time imminent, a fine last-minute run from Philipp Lahm culminated with him lifting the winner over Rüştü; the greatest exponents of the last gasp goal finally suffering the same fate they had inflicted on so many others throughout this tournament. Turkey had led for a grand total of six minutes at Euro 2008, but they were all crucial minutes, and the entertainment they had provided their legion of noisy fans would linger long in the memory.
While Turkish progress was down to spirit, belief and a sheer refusal to be beaten, it was the flamboyant Dutch, perhaps even more so initially than the all-conquering Spanish, who played with splendour and ruthlessness that made the opening week of the tournament come alive. As ever they were followed in great numbers, as the Dutch fans painted much of Switzerland orange.
The star-studded Oranje line-up began the group of death very much to the point against Italy, with Ruud van Nistelrooy scoring from a seemingly offside position but played onside by an Italian defender lying prostrate behind the goal line. The Dutch dominated the lacklustre Italians to run out impressive 3-0 winners, marking themselves out as one of the early tournament favourites.
Things got even better against France, as they again showed they were the team to beat so far. With the Netherlands in scintillating form, producing some electrifying football, they conjured one of the goals of the tournament. Some nimble footwork from Van Nistelrooy on the halfway line sent Arjen Robben clear, who surged forward before crossing for Robin van Persie to score.
They ultimately beat the French 4-1 in a memorable and exhilarating game, in what was perhaps the most outstanding single performance of the entire tournament. The Dutch were simply on another level that day, and duly won their final group match against Romania in spite of resting much of their first-choice line-up.
Having stormed into the quarter-finals, they would face a resurgent Russia, benefitting from the belated arrival of one of the stars of the tournament, Andrei Arshavin. Arshavin had been foolishly sent off in Russia’s final qualifier, a 1-0 win in Andorra on the same night that England’s hopes had washed away in the Wembley rain against Croatia. This left him banned from the first two games, although for a time it had seemed possible he would have to miss the tournament altogether.
Without him, Russia were taken apart by Spain in their opening match, before edging past Greece to set up a final day group showdown with Sweden. With Arshavin now back in the side, having been chomping at the bit from the sidelines in the preceding games, Russia took control of the game and their destiny. Having pulled the strings throughout, Arshavin scored the goal his display warranted in the second half to seal a 2-0 victory and with it a date with the Netherlands in the quarter-finals.
It was a clash of two exciting teams, but given the way the Dutch had demolished all before them so far they remained the favourites to beat the Russians, who were led by Guus Hiddink. What followed was 120 thrilling minutes of football, as both sides attacked with intensity and no little skill as the shots reigned in and the pace barely slackened. Arshavin’s spark and guile kept Russia on the front foot, and it was with the run of play when Roman Pavlyuchenko continued his fine scoring form to give Russia the lead.
It was a lead they had looked like holding, only for Van Nistelrooy to head in an equaliser from Wesley Sneijder’s free-kick with just four minutes left on the clock. In extra-time, the Russian threat that had always been there now took control, leaving the Dutch floundering, as Arshavin moved up through the gears and seized the match.
From a tricky run down the left, he crossed for Dmitri Torbinsky to bundle Russia into the lead again, before his quick thinking from a throw-in saw him round off the victory with a third. It had been a truly exceptional individual display, but it was to be his and Russia’s peak, however. Waiting for them in the semi-finals were Spain.
For all the delights of those who had tried but failed, it was Spain who provided the most magnificent memories from the summer of 2008. It was a story of a nation belatedly claiming its position amongst the greats of the game. It may not have been their first European title, but that it came following decades of flattering to deceive made it all the more significant. Years of obsessing over key individuals at the expense of the collective had left Spain unfulfilled and unable to ascend to the lofty heights of tournament glory, or to even come close. A change of approach was needed.
Luis Aragonés was an unlikely revolutionary, and yet he was the man who changed the fortunes of the national team. It was under his watchful eye that Spain adopted a version of the possession-based, highly technical, quick-passing style being developed by Barcelona. It was an approach that was unfamiliar to him and his footballing values, but he was visionary enough to see that there was a new path for Spain, his conversion enabling the golden Spanish era which followed.
Spain’s style through the years had always had a level of technical excellence, but it had generally stuck rigidly to what was viewed as the fundamental Spanish attitude, as represented by the team’s nickname, La Furia Roja – The Red Fury. For Aragonés in particular, this intensity, passion and ferocity was a central tenet in the way he played, and in the style he espoused as a coach. It was also, he felt, the only way in which Spain could hope to achieve international success.
“The best thing we can do is respect our own idiosyncrasies,” he had said in 1998, just six years before becoming coach of the national side. “Every country has its own way of living football and that is the way to act. La Furia was not just a nickname … it was a philosophy which the national team needs to recuperate.”
Having led the national team through another failed foray at the 2006 World Cup, Aragonés’ side then suffered a stuttering start to the Euro 2008 qualifiers. The lightbulb moment came in defeat at Windsor Park to Northern Ireland in October 2006, with subsequent defeats to Sweden and Romania compounding matters. For all the talent available to him, it was just not working. The time for more radical change was at hand.
As Aragonés saw it, this change wasn’t only to be in style but also in personnel and, through that, in squad harmony. Controversially, the most high-profile victim was the darling of the nation, the Real Madrid striker Raúl. Amid a national outcry, he was omitted from the squad for a decisive qualifier with Denmark in 2007. As Graham Hunter noted in Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble, Aragonés’ decision to leave out Raúl was “the moment the atom was split, and the power of this Spain team realised.”
It was a decision made far easier thanks to the wealth of emerging talent coming through, which lent itself to a quicker, more possession-based approach. Rather than an ideal he had been striving for, it was the talent at his disposal that drove Aragonés’ conversion, but once he had chosen this path, he committed to it fully. Raúl wasn’t the only victim – the likes of Joaquin, Salgado and Cañizares were also cut adrift – but this new style demanded a tempo and quick circulation of the ball which the new generation was ideal to provide.
Spain’s fortunes duly rose, and they came into Euro 2008 on a 16-game unbeaten run – although that statistic hides the fact that they had struggled in their final warm-up match, being booed from the field after a narrow win over the United States. They were a team of talents, but the burden of past failures weighed heavy.
Spain’s opening group match with Russia saw many of these fears dispelled in a dazzling display, however. They set up in a fluid 4-4-2, that became almost a 4-2-4 when attacking, with the lethal strike partnership of Fernando Torres, fresh from his astonishing first season with Liverpool, and David Villa.
Villa would go on to become the tournament’s top scorer, despite not featuring in the final due to injury, and it was this opening game that went a long way to earning him that title. He scored three of the four goals that Spain plundered, but it was far from an individual achievement.
The combination with Torres, as well as their friendship off the field, exemplified all that was positive about this team as Spain fired the first warning shot of what was to come: the electrifying pace, the quick, classy passing, the cool, clinical finishing. This was dynamic, controlled possession football, played with an attacking purpose, wreaking havoc on a quality opponent.
While Torres was disappointed in his opening performance, he too would get on the scoresheet in the next match with Sweden, where, despite a delightful equaliser from Zlatan Ibrahimović, Spain would win again, this time with an exquisitely finished last-gasp Villa goal.
It may have been less dynamic than the Russia display, but both matches so far had shown another recurring feature of Aragonés’ Spain: late goals in either half as the opposition, worn down with chasing the Spanish possession, could chase no more and yielded goals.
A similar thing happened in beating Greece in the final group match. Opponents hadn’t yet learned not to chase, to sit back and soak it up, meaning that Spain frequently finished each half with more energy than their opponents, ready to exploit any dips in concentration.
Then came the quarter-final with their old nemesis, Italy. If there was a weight of historic tournament disappointment on them, then that is as nothing compared to the demons that lurked from past encounters with the Italians. For nigh on nine decades, when it mattered most and the Italians stood in their way, the blue was victorious over the red.
Spain would rather have been facing anyone else rather than the Azzurri in the quarter-final and talk of omens and curses dominated the media. Even the players were susceptible to this, recalling past horrors suffered at this stage of a tournament.
But this Italy had barely scraped through their group. Indeed, they had stared elimination in the face when Gianluigi Buffon saved an Adrian Mutu penalty to save a point against Romania. Spain, in contrast, could take great heart from the fact that they had qualified in style.
In a clash of two goalkeeping captains, Iker Casillas would ascend to the ranks of San Iker in this match. While Spain dominated possession, Italy were always there, waiting to pounce, belligerently refusing to be pushed aside, Casillas making a terrific save with his foot when the prospect of defeat loomed.
Following a tense goalless draw, the penalty technique that Casillas had honed in daily competitions in training with the other squad goalies served him well, saving fabulously from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale. When Cesc Fàbregas then converted the winning kick, and with it reversed years of trauma inflicted by both Italy and the quarter-final brick wall, it was to Casillas that the majority of the team ran to celebrate.
The semi-final with Russia was a hotly anticipated and eye-catching game, played out in the teaming rain in Vienna, lightning flashes illuminating the sky overhead. While Arshavin had dominated Spain’s thoughts pre-match, in the end his performance was well below the one he’d turned in against the Dutch. A lot of that, though, is down to the way Spain dominated proceedings.
Once they had made the initial breakthrough early in the second half, the control exerted on the match suffocated the Russians. The principal character, central to all the action, was the key to much of what had happened since Aragonés altered the Spanish approach. Xavi was the fulcrum through which everything flowed. He hadn’t enjoyed the best of starts to Aragonés’ reign, not being selected initially. But once they began to develop an understanding, the union became absolute.
When the time came for the change in style, Xavi became the focal point of Spain’s play, dictating the tempo and the rhythm. He was ably assisted in midfield in this tournament by the consistent discipline of the imperious Brazil-born Marcos Senna – the base from which the forward-thinking intent of others could build.
Xavi opened the scoring against Russia before dominating possession and helping his side tear into Russia, overwhelming their opponents in a breath-taking display. The 3-0 scoreline could have been more in reality, but it meant that in two games against Russia in the tournament Spain had thumped them 7-1. The only sour note was thigh injury to Villa, which saw him leave the field in the first half and would rule him out of the final.
With Villa missing, it was Torres’ moment to take centre stage. It would be Germany who settled better initially, though, but from around the 15-minute mark Spain took over and didn’t look back. When the moment came, it was sublime.
Senna was left unmarked and received the ball in midfield before moving it on to a similarly unmarked Xavi. The flow was quick and decisive, as Xavi turned and released a beautiful pass between Lahm and Per Mertesacker. Torres got there, nudging the ball past Lahm before racing round the unusually sluggish defender to reach the ball before the onrushing Jens Lehmann. He delicately dinked it over him, sending it spinning into the net.
It was a goal that encapsulated everything that was great about this Spain side. It may have been the only goal of the game but, save for a late flourish, Spain kept the ball away from Germany, luxuriating in complete control. It was destined to be a day glittered in red, as Spain took the trophy their football, their style and their sheer devastating exuberance deserved.
They had shown that high-tempo, possession-based passing was a powerful force when topped off with a cutting edge and incisive attacking. It was a victory for the collective power of energetic precision, with Spain’s speed and movement making them devastating to those tasked with stopping them. Added to this was a defensive discipline that the other great attacking sides of this tournament – Netherlands, Turkey, Russia – simply couldn’t match. Spain exemplified all that made this tournament great, and as such were the worthiest of winners.
It was achieved in large part thanks to the change of approach and outlook. Where before there had been an adherence to the old ways and a dominance of egos, now everything was new. The spirit in the squad was very much all for one, and one for all. “When I arrived, I had a squad,” Aragonés said. “But when I left, we had a team.”
It was, of course, the start of an age of Spanish dominance, but neither the 2010 World Cup nor the subsequent Euro 2012 triumph were achieved with the ground-breaking swagger of this 2008 victory. “There came a stage when the German team couldn’t get a touch,” recalled Torres looking back on the final triumph. “They looked at each other as if to say, ‘what the hell is this?’ Even in that moment I was thinking: ‘This isn’t going to end here. This is just the beginning.’”
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams