Euro 2008 has come, mesmerized and gone but it has left in its wake a few soccer lessons we would do well to rote memorize.
Turkey proved you should never leave before the end. Spain was the best team in the tournament but Turkey the most exciting because of her heroics in the last minute and final seconds. The obvious highlights were beating Switzerland with a 90th minute winner, their 3-2 win against Czech Republic, after being 2-0 down with 15 minutes to go, and the quarter-final victory over Croatia, when their late, late extra-time equalizer turned up later than an Egyptian government employee.
In the semi-finals they went through their familiar routine, Semih Senturk slotting against Germany in an 86th minute equalizer, before Philipp Lahm ironically did a Turkey himself by conjuring up the winner in minute 90. Until then, every time the fat lady got up to sing, the Turks pushed her back into her seat.
Just when you thought they were all out of miracles, the Turks made comebacks match after match, reminding us that the game is 90 minutes and all 5,400 seconds should be made optimum use of.
The Turks never say die. We, on the other hand, say “uncle way too soon. They never give up; we wave the white flag at the slightest hint of looming difficulty. The determination to win is in their every cell, not in our corpuscles.
The Turks seemed to need the other side to score first before turning impending defeat into triumph. We, though, almost always need to score first to feel safe and secure, and when the tables are turned and we find ourselves on the short end of a score, we panic, then succumb to what we firmly believe will be an inevitable loss.
We wish to have the indomitable spirit of the Turks, who in their five matches led for all of 14 minutes out of 508. The fairy-tale was sadly halted before its completion but it was a story we will never forget.
We should also learn that size does not count. Spain are the champions of Europe and they are neither tall nor heavily built. Indeed, the midfield, now described as the world’s undeniable best, would have been better marshaled by a ballerina than Luis Aragonés.
Three of them, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Xavi Hernández, the player of the tournament, are 170cm, while even the big guy, Marcos Senna, is only 177cm. By any reading of the modern game, they should have been out-muscled long before the final and, using the assessment of many experts, should have had no chance against Germany. But out of the Spanish victory, we will have to square football’s beliefs in physique and athleticism with the best team in Europe having been powered by a midfield that should have been knocked to the ground as might a flyweight against the former sinews of Mike Tyson.
Active growth hormones have made players bigger in the last decades, and our coaches and others across the world seem pleased by the development, especially in the match-ups where Goliaths conquer Davids. But size in soccer can only take you so far. Spain, and some of the best Egyptians of the past decade show how much further small dimensions can go. Mohamed Barakat (64kg, 173cm) Tarek El-Sayed (61, 172) Hazem Emam (68, 173) and captain Ahmed Hassan (68, 175) prove bigger is not better.
Unlike American football and basketball, soccer is not a sport that depends on size. An average frame will do; supreme fitness, sense and skills will do wonders.
Finally, while our players pant and puff, and gasp and rasp their way through a tournament or a league schedule, it turns out that too much rest might not be too good.
Prior to the third group stage games in Euro 2008, Portugal, Croatia and Holland could afford the luxury of fielding their second-string squads because they had won the first two group matches, thus assuring themselves of qualification to the quarter-finals. That was supposed to be a distinct advantage over opponents who did not start the campaign as successfully and who had no other option but to field their tired and weary if they wanted to remain in contention.
In a grueling three-week campaign, the opportunity to rest body and mind more than your enemy is not to be taken lightly.
So what happened? The well-rested were beaten by the already tested Germany, Turkey and Russia.
The moral is that once you start rolling, it might be better to keep on going. A stop in the middle loses concentration, upsets rhythm and disrupts routine. So much for siestas.