The opening game of Euro 2012 started brightly, ended limply, and gave a convincing argument that the forefathers of soccer intended it to be an outdoor game, in the cool of winter.
The first thing to do is congratulate the Greeks. In coming from a goal down to tie their game against Poland, 1-1, they showed more than just the courage to fight in Poland’s fiercely partisan new national stadium. Greece also withstood all the fair elements of sport, and some decidedly unfair ones.
Under a closed PVC roof over this otherwise fine arena, both teams were left gasping for air in a temperature that was about 70 degrees outside at kickoff, and considerably more humid inside once the hot breath of 56,070 baying Poles, and a few hundred Greeks, had shouted themselves hoarse.
Why close the roof, other than because it is there?
Why did Poland wilt first, especially since they had a man advantage for the crucial third of the game? Maybe emotional energy has something to do with it, or maybe because the Poles were taller and heavier to a man, and the Greeks relied more on technical ability and tactical surprise.
But we knew after 17 minutes that this is no longer a Greece built on “Otto’s Wall”: the ultra defensive resistance coached into it by the German Otto Rehhagel before it won the European title in Portugal in 2004. Now, Greece is less secure at the back, and more committed going forward.
The insecurity hit them first when Poland’s captain, Jakub Blaszczykowski, powered his way out of the defense into attack on the right flank. His cross invited Robert Lewandowski, the home team’s new scoring threat, to do what he has been doing all season long for his German club, Borussia Dortmund.
He found space, although Greece was generous with it, and headed the ball firmly past the stranded, hesitant goalkeeper. One-nothing to the host nation, and surely now self confidence would fill the players?
Rather, the opposite. Greece was hit by a double whammy before halftime when the Spanish referee, Carlos Velasco Carballo, overzealously booked defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos not once, but twice for fouls. Not once, but twice the referee’s judgment was harsh.
An early bath for Papastathopoulos, an unfortunate handicap for his countrymen, was turned to courageous advantage when Greece’s Portuguese coach, Fernando Santos, sent on a forward at halftime. The new attacker, Dimitris Salpingidis, scored a poacher’s goal within five minutes of his entrance, and, led by the veteran Giorgos Karagounis, Greece then dared to create the superior opportunities.
Alas, poor Karagounis. Having been granted a penalty, this time a correct decision after Poland’s goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, tripped Fanis Gekas, Karagounis kicked it so tamely that the substitute goalie Przemyslaw Tyton dived to his left and pushed aside the low shot.
It was Tyton’s first touch of the ball, and eased the blushes of the red-carded Szczesny. Thereafter, either team could have won, but neither had the energy.
The early vivaciousness descended. The clammy heat won.
RUSSIA ROLLS IN OPENER At Wroclaw, Poland, Alan Dzagoev scored a goal in each half and Russia put on a masterly display of attacking soccer to beat the Czech Republic, 4-1. Dzagoev and Roman Shirokov gave Russia a 2-0 halftime lead before Vaclav Pilar’s goal in the 52nd minute gave the Czechs brief hopes of a comeback. Dzagoev replied with his second goal in the 80th minute, and the substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko added a fourth in the 82nd. “If you score four goals against the Czech Republic in an international, you have played a good game,” said Russia’s coach, Dick Advocaat. “We should have scored more.”
By Rob Hughes, New York Times, June 8, 2012