UEFA EURO 2008 was, even by the harshest and most demanding of standards, a huge success. During the course of a tournament that saw a welcome return to open, attacking football as Spain ended a 44-year wait for silverware, a total of 77 goals were scored in 31 matches, an average of around 2.50 goals per game.
Those statistics are enough to bring a smile to the face of football fans, among them UEFA President Michel Platini. "What has been so good about this tournament," said the former France legend, "is that teams who play attacking football can win. This is something coaches can start taking on board."
Spain's success underlined the quality of the work carried out at the country's training academies. Essentially made up of young players, the team has grown up together and now laid down a marker for the next FIFA World Cup™ finals. Marcos Senna, Xavi and their midfield cohorts form a technically gifted unit that produces simple, one-touch football based on inspiration rather than perspiration, a formula that allowed the Spanish to go unbeaten throughout the tournament. In doing so La Furia Roja extended their unbeaten run to 22 matches and booked a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009.
Helping the Spanish light up the continent during an entertaining three weeks were losing semi-finalists Russia and Turkey, not to mention Croatia and the Netherlands, both knocked out in the quarter-finals. And another interesting aspect of the competition was the fact that the four teams who reached the semis all featured a high proportion of home-based players. While France's 23-man squad contained just 10 players from Ligue 1, Russia's featured only one man who plays his club football outside the country, with Germany, Spain and Turkey boasting 19, 18 and 17 domestic performers in their ranks respectively.
The Russians, who went from strength to strength once Andrei Arshavin returned from suspension in their final group game, produced arguably the performance of the tournament in dispatching the Dutch at the quarter-final stage. Just weeks after Zenit St Petersburg claimed the UEFA Cup, the compelling displays that Guus Hiddink coaxed from his side confirmed the emergence of a golden Russian generation.
With the passionate Fatih Terim working his magic from the sidelines, Turkey revealed an amazing will to win, making light of their considerable injury and suspension problems to conjure up a string of stunning comebacks. That committment came at a price, however, as the Turks received more cards than any other team - 16 yellows and one red - during the course of their five-game rollercoaster ride through Austria and Switzerland.
As for the classy Croatians, they were in flawless form in the group phase, winning all three of their matches and disposing of Germany with ease to prove that their qualification at the expense of England was no fluke. And losing finalists Germany were the only semi-finalists from the last FIFA World Cup finals to reach last four this time, an achievement that has bolstered their status as one of the giants of European and world football.
There were plenty of surprise exits as some high-profile teams paid for their reluctance to go on the attack. Defending champions Greece limped out of the tournament with three defeats and only one goal to their name, while Germany 2006 runners-up France failed to deploy their attacking artillery effectively and registered a single point in their group matches, scoring just one goal and conceding six. Evidently the successors to Zinedine Zidane have yet to emerge from his shadow.
Another side to come up short were Italy, who fell victim to the penalty-shootout lottery. Shorn of stalwarts Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta, the Italians must now wait for a new breed of talented defenders to develop.
Czech Republic are facing a transitional phase of their own after bowing out in the group phase, and Romania could have negotiated their way out of a testing group had they shown a little more audacity.
Finally, co-hosts Austria and Switzerland failed to make the most of home advantage, both departing before the knockout rounds.
Top five goals
FIFA.com has picked out its best five strikes based on the quality of each goal and their importance in the context of each game.
1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Greece-Sweden, 10 June,
67 mins: After playing a one-two with Henrik Larsson, Ibrahimovic put his side ahead with a fizzing strike that flew into the corner of Antonis Nikopolidis's goal. The Greeks never recovered.
2. Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands-Italy, 9 June,
32 mins: After winning the ball in his own half, Rafael van der Vaart set team-mate Giovanni van Bronckhorst galloping away down the left. The former Barcelona man launched a long cross ball to Dirk Kuyt at the far post, whose headed knock-back was rifled into the back of the net by Sneijder. Gianluigi Buffon was helpless and so were the reigning world champions.
3. Daniel Guiza, Spain-Russia, 26 June, Vienna
73 mins: Cesc Fabregas picked out Guiza with a delightful chipped pass over the top of the Russian defence, allowing the top marksman in La Liga last season to double his side's lead by guiding the ball past Igor Akinfeev with the outside of his right foot.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal-Czech Republic, 11 June,
63 mins: A superb team move involving Joao Moutinho and Deco ended when Ronaldo, billed beforehand as the star of EURO 2008, restored Portugal's lead with a firm drive from the edge of the area, leaving Petr Cech powerless.
5. Semih Senturk, Turkey-Croatia, 20 June, Vienna
120 mins: With time practically up and his side almost out of the tournament, Senturk latched onto a long ball from goalkeeper Rustu and thrashed a left-footed volley past Stipe Pletikosa and into the roof of the net.
The impish Arshavin bewitched everyone with his classy skills against Sweden and the Netherlands before fading away against Spain. Turkish strikers Senturk and Nihat Kahveci, the Dutch duo of Sneijder and Robin van Persie and Croatia's Luka Modric also shone throughout their teams ups and downs.
Predictably, Spain provided a large percentage of the star performers, with the free-scoring David Villa impressing up front, Marcos Senna expertly anchoring the midfield, Sergio Ramos excelling on the right and Iker Casillas producing some exceptional saves. Given the Spanish team's superb use of possession, however, it was fitting that Xavi, their magnificent midfield playmaker, should claim UEFA's Player of the Tournament award.
"We chose him because we think he epitomises the Spanish style of play," said UEFA's Technical Director Andy Roxburgh. "He was extremely influential in the whole possession, passing, penetrating kind of game that Spain played."
1. David Villa (SPA) 4 goals
2. Lukas Podolski (GER), Roman Pavlyuchenko (RUS), Semih Senturk (TUR), Hakan Yakin (SWI), 3 goals
A fond farewell
The tournament saw a clutch of seasoned campaigners announce their retirements from international football, among them Antonis Nikopolidis and Paraskevas Antzas (Greece), Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele (France), Fredrik Ljungberg (Sweden), Rustu Recber (Turkey), Jan Koller and Tomas Galasek (Czech Republic), Pascal Zuberbuhler (Switzerland) and Edwin van der Sar (Netherlands).
Quote of the tournament
"I took over a national side and I left a team."
Spain coach Luis Aragones
Have your say
Can Spain, having ended their 44-year trophy drought, now go on to claim the biggest prize of all by winning the FIFA World Cup™ in two years' time?