The Essential Backdrop
Euro 2012 raised major questions about the nature of fandom and what comprises a tournament
Go on any football message-board, look at the comments under any football article, engage for long enough about football on Twitter and somebody will assert that "there's nobody more important than the fans". It's one of those truths held to be self-evident, but it isn't true, not really, neither in theory nor in practice.
Anybody who slogged around Poland and Ukraine, who paid a fortune for inadequate accommodation, who struggled with multiple flights or desperately slow and overcrowded trains will know that fans come pretty low on the list of priorities for Uefa. The corporate totalitarianism — only pay with the right credit card, only drink the right branded water, only wear underpants branded with the right betting company — makes clear that fans now are seen as little more than a herd to be milked for as much cash as they'll yield. Major tournaments these days are designed largely for corporate yield. Fans are there to provide a backdrop and little more; they are essentially extras expected to contribute to the cost of the major production.
Perhaps it's as a defence against that marginalisation that so many subscribe to the idea that the fans are what football is all about even as they are systematically exploited by football's authorities and their sponsors. It's the belief in that supposed fact that gives so many fans a sense of entitlement, the belief that they are there to be entertained. But actually, the most important thing about football is the game itself. Then come the players, coaches and referees. Then, some way behind, fans, journalists and club administrators. And some way behind them the agents and businessmen, the sponsors and marketing wonks who seek to turn football into a great reserve of cash.
The idea that "there'd be no game without the fans" is commonplace. There would; it's just it would be small-scale, played out on parks with nobody on the touchlines but the subs and a couple of bored players' girlfriends like most Sunday football. Sport doesn't need crowds to thrive; the likes of hockey, angling and rock-climbing get by perfectly well without thousands of people roaring encouragement or abuse at the participants. Football wasn't set up to attract crowds — unlike, say, WWE or cinema; it was organised and structured because people enjoyed playing it and wanted a standardised set of rules and regular opponents. People then came along to watch because they found the sporting struggle fascinating. The entertainment came from finding out who won.
It's important always to remember that crowds are secondary. The game itself must come first. During the 2010 World Cup John Barnes, working as a pundit for South African television, complained about the number of red cards being shown, using the familiar line that "fans have paid to see 11 against 11" and arguing that an early sending off could ruin a match. Yes it can, but the wider point is that if you don't punish lunging challenges in the opening minutes of matches, players get injured, which is far worse for the game as a whole than if even 100,000 fans end up watching a mismatch.
This is true of all sport, not just football. When Pakistan refused to return to the pitch after tea at the Oval Test in 2006, angered by the umpire Darryl Hair's decision to award five penalty runs against them for ball-tampering, they were deemed to have forfeited the match, leaving thousands of fans with nothing to watch. Perhaps Hair was a stubborn, publicity-loving stickler who could have handled the situation better but by protesting in such a way Pakistan had gone against a fundamental of any sport; the law and its application must be left in the hands of the officials or anarchy ensues. The former England bowler Angus Fraser suggested a compromise should have been found so there was cricket for paying fans to watch — even though that would, effectively, have legitimised the practice of teams stopping play to protest about umpiring. Of course there was a need to compensate those who had bought tickets but, as Richard Williams wrote of that incident in the Guardian, "sport is about the contest between its participants, and no decision affecting that contest should be taken with the motive of pleasing, placating or otherwise satisfying the people who have bought tickets to watch. Entertainment is a by-product of the contest, and not an end in itself, no matter how greatly the box-office income contributes to the wealth of the game and its players and officials."
The game itself is key and that means the contest. And the contest means two teams both doing their utmost to get the most they can out of a game. Defensive football can be good football. You might not like the way Chelsea played against Barcelona or Bayern Munich, and football would be a much poorer game if every side played like that, or even if Chelsea played like that all the time, but it's hard to deny that they produced thrilling, memorable matches. This is one of the beauties of football; teams can beat sides that are ostensibly better than them by dint of organisation, resolve and good fortune. "Football," as the former England manager Walter Winterbottom said in 1950, "is a game where superiority in match play can't always be indicated in goals, because of the difficulty of scoring."
In basketball, say, or rugby, the better team almost always wins. Giant-killings are all but unheard of. It's just not possible for teams to defend for the whole game and nick a try or a basket on the break. But that fascination can lead to an odd dynamic: for a stronger team, when it takes the lead, and is faced with a massed defence, it may not make sense to keep attacking. It may make more sense to sit back and simply hold the ball. At the Euros, particularly in the knock-out stage, Spain's aim was not to go out and blast as many goals past their opponents as possible; it was to control the game. Vicente del Bosque said that again and again.
Perhaps the defeat to Switzerland in the group stage of the last World Cup stung them. Perhaps it is simply that success itself leads a side to adopt an increasingly cautious mindset: battling to win a trophy is exciting, an aspiration; battling to cling to status is about holding off loss, about postponing the moment of decline for as long as possible. Whatever the reason, Spain have changed over the past four years from a side that sought to create 25 chances a game even if it meant allowing the opponents five, to one that preferred to have five chances and give the opponent none. The former will bring a lot of 3-0s and 4-1s and the occasional 0-1; the latter a lot of 1-0s and the occasional 0-0. It may be that in a league format the former is more effective but in knock-out games, the latter is preferable: the worst-case scenario is a penalty shoot-out.
In each of the past three tournaments, Spain's average share of possession and number of passes per shot has gone up. They've increasingly settled into the rhythm of holding the ball, wearing their opponents down and then, having gone ahead, keeping the ball from their opponents. In part, of course, the change in their approach has been conditioned by a change in their opponents' approach. The USA showed a way to beat Spain in the semi-final of the Confederations Cup in Bloemfontein in 2009 when they ended their record 35-match unbeaten run with a 2-0 victory. They sat deep, kept the midfield narrow, ceding the flanks, and left two players forward to strike on the break. Let Spain cross, ran the logic, because they have no significant aerial presence. Again and again in that match, Jay DeMerit beat Fernando Torres to balls looped in from wide. Other sides might have responded by playing a tall, muscular centre-forward such as Fernando Llorente (although he apparently turned up for the Euros so exhausted after a tough club season that Del Bosque effectively regarded him as unselectable); Spain simply stopped crossing. The reason they so often played a midfielder in the centre-forward role was to enhance their capacity to retain possession; playing a centre-forward to whom they could have crossed risked squandering possession — and thus control.
In a sense, that is the logical endpoint of possession football. When Ajax won their third straight European Cup, in 1973, they took a fourth-minute lead through Jonny Rep and then kept the ball. It was commonly said at the time that they were intent on humiliating Juventus, of emphasising the victory of their style over catenaccio. Perhaps they were, but the end result was the same: a way of playing that stifled the opponent, only achieved by proactive rather than reactive means.
When I first said that "goals are overrated" I was responding to a question from James Richardson on Football Weekly about who would be top-scorer at the World Cup. My point, not that I expressed it particularly coherently, was that it didn't matter who scored the goals because what was important at the highest level of the modern game was control of midfield. In fact, in a way, the number of goals was less important than the completeness of the control; better a 1-0 lead and domination of the ball than a 2-0 lead with chances being created at either end. The goals, or goal, came as a result of that control — which, once a lead had been established, becomes an end in itself — and, truly exceptional talents like Lionel Messi notwithstanding, tended to be shared around. As though to prove the point, Fernando Torres won the Golden Boot at the Euros despite being so far from a regular starter for Spain that he probably wasn't even one of their best 11 players in the tournament.
That Spain are exceptionally good at playing their way and that their method is exceptionally effective can hardly be doubted. They are prodigious, a phenomenon. No other side since the Second World War has achieved such a run of success; arguably, depending how seriously you regard those inter-War Olympic Games, no side has ever won three major tournaments in succession before. In their last 10 knock-out games at major tournaments, they haven't conceded a goal. They haven't just achieved an unprecedented level of success, they've done it without ever really being threatened: there have been no frantic scraps for a late equaliser, no games in which they've held out only thanks to brilliant goalkeeping or desperate defending. Even in an era in which the quality of the competition they've faced has been questionable, that is some achievement.
It also means that they aren't particularly exciting to watch. They don't produce a thrill a minute and that led many to proclaim them boring. Now of course viewers are quite entitled to find watching Spain matches boring; it's a subjective judgement and different things will stimulate different people. The oddity of the reaction was twofold, though. For one thing, nobody ever seemed to blame Spain's opponents for sitting deep, defending in numbers to deny them the profundidad [depth of field of play] Del Bosque kept insisting they needed to be at their best. Not that their opponents were wrong; Italy's 4-0 defeat in the final was evidence of the dangers of giving Spain any space at all in the final third. And for another, there was the level of anger. There seemed to be a feeling that Spain's responsibility should be to entertain rather than to win and hostility towards them for not doing so.
At the same time, the majority of people seemed enraptured by a fairly ordinary Germany. I'd been critical of them at the World Cup, pointing out that, discounting the third-place play-off, although they'd scored 13 goals in six games, 12 of those goals came in three matches — against Australia, England and Argentina. In each of those games, they scored in the opening 10 minutes and then picked off opponents who pushed too high. On the break they were superb, the intermovement of Thomas Müller, Lukas Podolski and Mesut Özil behind Miroslav Klose magnificent. But they were essentially a reactive team, a little one-dimensional. When they didn't find an early goal they struggled: games against Serbia, Ghana and Spain brought a single goal in total.
When I wrote that in a Guardian piece, though, I was savaged by commenters. I was accused of being anti-German. I'd like to think that's ridiculous — in fact, I do think it's ridiculous — but it was an allegation that unsettled me. Pointing out that I revere the West Germany sides of the 1972 European Championship and the 1990 World Cup sounded horribly like the "some of my best friends are gay" defence of casual homophobes. It's very easy for British people to be anti-German.
In qualifying, Germany were imperious, winning 10 games out of 10. Jogi Löw seemed aware of the limitations his side had demonstrated at the World Cup and made them a proactive team. I was seduced. Partly because I couldn't believe Spain could retain their hunger and partly because both Barcelona and Real Madrid looked exhausted in their Champions League semi-final defeats, I tipped Germany to win the Euros, ignoring the evidence of the five friendlies they played between the end of qualifying and the start of the tournament. In those games they conceded 10 goals and, while a 5-3 defeat to Switzerland could be written off because of the absence of the large Bayern contingent, a 3-3 draw against Ukraine was harder to explain.
Germany won all three games in the group stage but even then there were warning signs. They struggled to break down Portugal and, although they never looked like doing anything other than beating the Netherlands, the goals they scored both stemmed from Dutch sloppiness coupled with moments of individual excellence from Mario Gomez. Gomez, though, is an old-fashioned forward; if he isn't scoring goals he tends not to be doing much and that, in the modern game, places great strain on the midfield. The goal the Dutch scored, Robin van Persie accelerating through the space in front of the back four that should have been filled by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, raised further concerns. Schweinsteiger, inconsistent for Bayern after his return from injury, had played well, from an attacking point of view at least, but his form deserted him as Germany laboured against Denmark.
Löw changed three of his front four against Greece, bringing in Marco Reus, Andre Schürrle and Klose for Müller, Podolski and Gomez. Some saw it as arrogance, resting three players in a quarter-final; others saw it as a reaction to the specific problems caused by a Greece side that would sit deep and deny Müller and Podolski the space they need in front of them to be at their most effective. That hinted at doubts on Löw's part but the problems were actually at the other end. Germany won comfortably enough, 4-2, but they were open at the back.
Although the defence featured three of the Bayern back four, only one of them, Holger Badstuber, played in the same position he does for his club. More significantly, the Khedira-Schweinsteiger axis had stopped working. At the World Cup, Khedira had sat very deep, allowing Schweinsteiger to break forward and link with the creative trident. He has developed as a player at Real Madrid, though, becoming far more adventurous, not merely a stopper and a spoiler in front of the back four but somebody comfortable breaking forwards to make late darts into the box – as he did in volleying Germany's second goal against Greece in the quarter-final.
The problem with this is that it means either Khedira must curb his forward surges, or Schweinsteiger, whose form has been uncertain as he feels his way back from injury, must be prepared to sit deep when Khedira goes — and, as England know all too well from the eternal Gerrard-Lampard debate, that is not an easy balance to achieve in the limited time available at international level. "He's very important as a player for me," said Schweinsteiger. "He opens up spaces going forward, is always available, scores goals but we both can't be up front during a game. We have to make sure we know where our positions are and what we have to do."
The problems weren't rectified against Italy, while a new one emerged: Mats Hummels, so impressive until then, was undone by Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. Composed in possession he may be, but defensively he was made to look deeply suspect. Podolski, restored to the starting line-up, was ineffective. Özil seemed bewildered to be shifted to the right as Toni Kroos was brought into the middle to combat Andrea Pirlo. And, in the first half at least, Cassano and Balotelli found space again and again in front of the back four, in the area Khedira and Schweinsteiger should have been patrolling.
Yet still people seemed positive about Germany. Löw, having failed to solve a major tactical issue, was given a remarkably easy ride. Writing anything about Spain, though, particularly anything positive, would draw a barrage of Tweets or below-the-line comments complaining about their supposed boringness. I sat opposite a hollow-eyed Sid Lowe in a Georgian restaurant in Donetsk as he muttered repeatedly, "Don't they understand I don't pick the team…?" There were suggestions that they were destroying football, that they had to be stopped. That would have been hyperbole even for a team that spoiled and time-wasted and cheated like Osvaldo Zubeldía's Estudiantes at their worst, but Spain's only crime was to have mastered one of the key arts of football: control of the ball. Nobody has to like it but the desire to destroy it was odd; TS Eliot didn't like Paradise Lost but he never suggested all copies should be burned. The real problem was that Spain's opponents were unable or unwilling to come out, win the ball from them and then do something with it themselves.
And the oddest aspect of the hostility was the perverse sense that to admire anything other than hell-for-leather, hammer-and-tongs, up-and-at-'em, get-it-in-the-mixer football is to mark yourself out as a pseud, the equivalent of Louis Balfour, the John Thomson character in The Fast Show who sits in smoky bars listening to the most preposterous avant-garde jazz and proclaiming it "nice".
Football has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Given how, for many of us, football was a central strand of our growing up, the theatre in which dramas of our relationships with parents and friends, our coming of age, our acceptance of failure and loss, was played out, there's an understandable nostalgia for how things used to be. There is a quite reasonable unease at the transition of those who watch football from fans to consumers, at the so-called gentrification of the game, but what is odd is how that anxiety seems to underlie so many debates about the game that seem ostensibly to have little to do with it.
One of the weirdest criticisms directed at my tactics pieces is that I'm "clearly a post-Euro 96 fan". It's not a common line of attack but it's come up often enough to make me ponder the rationale behind it. My dad took me to my first Sunderland game in 1982 when I was six, I went to Roker Park regularly after that and I had three seasons in a row in the early nineties when I missed no more than three games a season home and away, so I feel quite secure in rebutting it, but what if I hadn't? What if I had first started following closely at Euro 96? Would that somehow invalidate what I was writing?
There's an obvious point, of course, which is that somebody who got into football in 1996 and is still talking about it has followed it for 16 years, which seems a long enough apprenticeship to assume their commitment is relatively serious. Equally, I grew up in Sunderland and had a dad whose idea of an ideal Saturday involved watching Football Focus, standing in the cold on the Roker End and falling asleep while reading the paper in front of the fire; the chances of me not liking football were pretty remote. Not everybody can be so lucky: not everybody grew up in football-loving families or football-loving cities (or countries). If it took a major event like Euro 96 to nudge them into recognising football's appeal, so what? The issue surely is not what prompted them to start watching football but how they have done so since: if, 16 years on, they're still enthusiastic, isn't that enough?
But there's another side to this, which is what is implied by the "post Euro-96" criticism. The suggestion is that the post-96 fan is somehow ersatz, a middle-class posturer who probably over-analyses or over-intellectualises the game; by extension that implies that 'real fans' are working-class and 'passionate'. The problem with that argument is that it is so close to having validity that it's very difficult to combat.
The issue of ticket-pricing and the way a certain type of fan, the fans who formed the core of football's support for the majority of the twentieth-century, has been edged out is very real. Given the way the age profile of supporters is rising, it may even become a major financial problem for some clubs. Certainly it's become harder and harder for fans to get into the habit of going to matches the way I did, simply by paying £2.50 every other week.
But it doesn't also follow that the only true fan is the old-school working-class fan, whatever that generation's incarnation is of the miners or steelworkers or factory-men who initially swelled crowds in the late nineteenth-century. Fans have never been drawn from one class and one class only. One of football's strengths has always been the broadness of its appeal, across classes, across cultures, across nationalities. Equally it can be enjoyed and appreciated in a multitude of ways. There seems to be an assumption that, because I often write about tactics, I can only appreciate a game as a series of coloured dots forming patterns across a magnetic board, that I'm some sort of analytical cyborg with binary code for blood.
But football at times moves me on a visceral level. Sometimes that's because of its beauty or brilliance; when Balotelli thumped in his second for Italy in the semi-final against Germany, for instance, I snorted at the ridiculous wonderfulness of it all and my mind instantly went back, presumably because of the way the ball sat up and was then smashed, to a goal Tony Yeboah scored for Leeds against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park in 1995 to which my dad and I had both reacted with similar throaty chuckles and disbelieving shakes of the head.
Sometimes it's for the storyline, for sport's tremendous capacity for moments of sentimental coincidence or redemption. When Zambia won the Cup of Nations earlier this year in Libreville, the city off the coast of which a plane crash wiped out their squad in 1993, for instance, their players singing a song of remembrance throughout the penalty shoot-out as Kalusha Bwalya, who had been part of that team but had not been on the plane, looked on from the touchline, I couldn't speak for the size of the lump in my throat.
And sometimes it's for Sunderland, whether misting up over the glories of 1973 or anxiously counting down the seconds to a goalless draw against a big side. Nobody who saw me during the Manchester City game on New Year's Day as I passed from resignation at inevitable defeat to hopeful fretting at the possibility of a draw to half-crouching expectancy in the final seconds of injury-time as Ji Dong-won wasn't called offside, stumbled round Joe Hart and kept his balance to roaring but disbelieving release as he poked it in — "He can't miss that. He can't miss that. It counts. It counts!" — could think football was 'only' an intellectual pursuit for me.
But again, what if it were? Why should there be a 'right' way to appreciate football? If you don't like my way of looking at football, fine, don't read me. If I make a mistake or you think I've missed a key point or you disagree with my conclusions, fine, engage and join the debate, but why insist my entire way of interacting with football is somehow wrong or insidious? It's the aggression I don't understand.
This is something Brian Phillips touched on in his piece about the use of the term 'real fan' in The Blizzard Issue Five. His argument was that a fan is a fan no matter where he or she lives and no matter whether he or she consumes their football at the stadium or on television. And here again we enter tricky territory. On a rational level I agree with him, particularly when it comes to online debates. The argument that "I'm right because I've been a season-ticket holder for 20 years" is no more valid than the "You've never played the game" argument spouted by so many ex-pros. The answer to both, of course, is, "Yes, so use your superior experience, that advantage you have, to explain why I'm wrong."
But on another level, it seems to me sad that clubs that were once beacons of their communities are now effectively franchises for the whole world. "There's something spectacularly silly about fans policing other fans for their adherence to the laws of fandom, as if not having one favourite club, or preferring to watch from a seated position, is a "VERY SERIOUS INFRACTION that should be SWIFTLY AND MERCILESSLY DEALT WITH," Phillips wrote. "Because, you know, the economic recovery can't gather steam if Kyle in Ohio thinks it's fun to watch Chelsea on television." Put like that, of course, his argument is hard to refute and yet equally, at least from the point of view of a fan conditioned to British notions of what a club is, it's not to think that Kev from West Brompton, whose family have been season-ticket holders at Stamford Bridge for four generations, shouldn't somehow have more of a say than Kyle.
Perhaps the reason for the difference of opinion is revealed in Phillips's assertion that football "has no real importance beyond its ability to add some enjoyment to our lives." Again, on a rational level that's hard to dispute. It is just some men kicking a ball in a game that is probably derived from an ancient fertility rite. And yet, on an emotional level, I can't help thinking he couldn't be more wrong.
I actually wish I didn't care as much about Sunderland. I wish I didn't feel nauseous when they go ahead. In his entry in Life's a Pitch, an anthology of pieces by journalists writing about the clubs they support published in September 2012, Mike Calvin writes of envying his mother's "detachment" watching Watford lose the 1984 FA Cup final while he went through agonies. I wish I had the detachment of Brian Phillips, but my support for Sunderland is deep-rooted. As somebody who moved away in 1999, fandom links me to home, to old friends and, most particularly, to past generations of my family. I didn't choose Sunderland; it just was.
I hesitate to say that my form of fandom is the right one, or better than other modes, but equally it seems to me that to ignore that cultural aspect of football, the fact that it is more than an entertainment or a business, is to miss something profound. And that is why Manchester United's flotation on the New York stock exchange and its move to be controlled by a company based in the Cayman Islands is so depressing. It's not like we couldn't see this coming and to an extent this is the logical outcome of a league in which the majority of players, coaches and owners are foreign, but if United's holding company isn't even paying tax to the British government then they have become effectively an international franchise that happens to be based in Manchester.
Which brings us, oddly, back to the Euros, which was less a Polish tournament or a Ukrainian tournament than a global tournament that happened to be based in Poland and Ukraine. When the announcement that the tournament was to be held there was made in Cardiff in 2007, I was torn. On the one hand I was delighted that Uefa was reaching out to the east and that, after a 36-year hiatus, eastern Europe would again stage a major championship; on the other I was deeply sceptical about their capacity to do so. This, though, is the new logic of football's governing bodies, that, as they break new frontiers, having the infrastructure to host a tournament is itself a reason you will not get to host it.
The stadiums, in the end, were excellent. It's hard to draw any definitive conclusions but, anecdotally at least, most people who went to Poland and Ukraine had a good time. English fans in Donetsk, in fact, were made to feel so welcome and were so infuriated by Panorama's scaremongering that they staged a demonstration mocking Sol Campbell's assertion that black fans risked "coming home in a coffin". So in that sense the tournament was a success.
And yet there was also a feeling, common at tournaments these days, that the real story was happening in the margins, in the spaces between the antiseptic, homogenised stadiums and fan zones. Were so much of the BBC these days not obsessed by populist sensationalism, they might have looked in more detail at Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych (the man, who 'lost' the Orange Revolution of 2004) and his treatment of the former prime minister Yulia Tymoschenko. They might, had they not been so busy scaring black fans and the families of black England players from travelling to watch matches, have looked at the human rights record of the Ukrainian police.
An Amnesty International report released shortly after the tournament revealed that Ukrainian police had been told not to touch fans from eastern Europe while carrying on intimidating and abusing their own citizens. On 8 June in Donetsk, for instance, three women were allegedly beaten and sexually molested by police in an attempt to compel them to confess to a theft from a Swiss national; when they protested, the father of two of the women was threatened, the third woman was attacked in her home and the man who helped them file their complaint was accused in a police statement of being a pimp. On June 15, three members of the feminist group Femen were detained by security forces in Donetsk and held without charge for several days. On June 17 a man arrested for drunkenness was allegedly sexually assaulted with a baton while his brother was forced to pay $20 for his release. He subsequently required surgery to repair internal organs.
"Before the European championship, Amnesty had raised a number of human rights concerns in the country, noting particularly that an often violent and corrupt police force posed a significant threat to affluent Europeans visiting for the football," the organisation's Ukraine campaigner Max Tucker said. "We detailed numerous cases where police used electric shocks, suffocated or savagely beat their victims in order to extort money, extract a confession, or simply because of the detainee's ethnicity or sexual orientation. In the event, Euro 2012 fans were spared such treatment thanks to police orders not to touch visiting fans. So how did the Ukrainian authorities manage to bring this brutal, ill-equipped and underfunded force into line to effectively police a major sporting event? The answer, of course, is they didn't. Officers were simply ordered not to touch foreign fans while police business continued as usual for ordinary Ukrainians."
Panorama might even, heaven forbid, have looked at the conditions that led, two weeks after the tournament, to hundreds of Ukrainians taking to the streets in protest at moves to give regional status to 18 languages spoken by minorities. If a bill were passed, it would mean the languages being taught in schools and used in official documents, prompting fears that Ukrainian may be sidelined, particularly in the east of the country, where Russian is commonly spoken. Under the proposed measures, Russian would be taught in schools for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. The language issue crystallises the more general divide between west and east in Ukraine that also underlay the Orange Revolution.
In terms of the tournament itself, there was the fact that the transport and hotel infrastructure simply wasn't good enough. Prices for the most modest guest houses reached £300 or £400, beyond the reach of major media organisations, let alone ordinary fans. It became common for journalists to sleep on each other's floors, something I've never known even at African Cups of Nations. Ukraine, unfortunately, became notorious for its rip-off culture. "Don't you care that people will form a bad impression and won't come back?" the Bloomberg journalist Tariq Panja despairingly asked one taxi-driver. "People aren't going to come back to Donetsk," the driver replied, and he is probably right. For an industrial city, Donetsk scrubs up pretty well, and the long thin strip of parkland, bars and restaurants that makes up Pushkin Boulevard is a delight, but it is an industrial city; it's not somewhere people are going to go on their holidays. At the other end of the scale of cynicism, one driver waited two hours for Tariq at Boryspil airport after his flight was delayed and, in a pantomime of apology, explained he had business to attend to on the way to the hotel. Which is how Tariq ended up helping a Ukrainian taxi driver buy a cat.
In the chaos that followed the Spain v Italy game in Gdansk, my first-class ticket back to Warsaw earned me a strip of corridor floor about four feet by 18 inches, where I tried to sleep with a laptop bag for a pillow as people going to the toilet whacked my legs with the carriage door. There was no agreement to allow people to take hire cars from one country to the other which, given that taking the train meant a minimum six-hour wait at the border as the carriages were lifted from one gauge of wheels to another, meant that flying, despite the cost, was the only realistic option. The quickest possible route to get from one semi-final to another by scheduled flights was six hours. The absurdness of people's journeys became a badge of honour: "How did you get here?" "Via Vienna." "That's nothing; I came through Copenhagen." "I missed my connection in Antalya so I ended up being routed via Istanbul and Athens." I read a couple of John Le Carré novels during the tournament; frankly his spies' efforts to disguise their intentions by flying from Berlin to Hamburg via London came to seem half-arsed.
When Michel Platini, in one of his off-the-cuff policy announcements, commented that it's easier to get from London to Paris than from Kharkiv1 to Gdansk as a justification for his idea of hosting Euro 2020 in "12 or 13" European cities, he was right. If you are going to host the tournament so that it requires journeys of five or six hours to get from one venue to another, where is the advantage of hosting it in one or two countries? South Africa at the 2010 World Cup was much the same, Brazil in 2014 will be and so too will Russia in 2018. If cities that far apart really are the preferred option, then the logical end point is multiple hosts. It's widely expected that the centenary World Cup in 2030 will be hosted by Uruguay, which staged the first tournament, and Argentina. Given Montevideo is an hour's flight, or a short ride on the ferry, from Buenos Aires, that makes sense. But in that case, would it really hurt to hold some games in Asunción as well, given there's no way Paraguay could ever host a tournament alone?
That's the logic; whether it's right or not is another issue. There needs to be a debate on what a tournament is. Up to 1976, the European Championship consisted of home-and-away, round-robin qualifiers, followed by two-legged knock-out games, with the last four meeting in one country to play the semi-finals and final; until the last four, the format was not unlike that of the Champions League. In 1980, the format was changed so that seven sides qualified to play in the finals in Italy, who qualified as hosts. The World Cup had always had a finals tournament, logically given the difficulties of travel in 1930. Europe in 1980 didn't have those restrictions but there was presumably a sense that the tournament should be a festival at which fans, coaches, scouts and journalists could mix, watching as much football, sharing as much information, as possible. That has been lost.
In Sopot, near Gdansk, it seemed that Irish, Spanish, Croatian and Italian fans mixed happily and there was a sense of festival, but very few of those fans bothered with the five-and-half-hour train ride to watch games in Warsaw. If that's the case then, as Platini said, does it really matter whether the cities are in the same country or not? The only problem presented by a London-Paris tournament as opposed to a Warsaw-Gdansk tournament is immigration and even that could readily be solved by the issuing of an EU-wide visa for the duration of the tournament.
Sentimentally, I'm still drawn to the idea of one nation hosting. I like the sense that each tournament has an identity. The ideal still seems to me a tournament in which you could, say, watch England v Ukraine at Wembley today, Germany v Portugal at Villa Park tomorrow, Italy v Croatia at Old Trafford the day after and Russia v Poland at Anfield the day after that, before returning to London for Ukraine against France at the Emirates. But if I'm going to be asked to flog about by plane, it might as well be efficient international flights to cities with a wealth of hotels rather than Aerosvit to a duvet on the floor. Maybe hubs are the answer — a tournament hosted by four major cities (or nearby pairs of cities), each providing two stadiums: Wembley and the Emirates in London, Hampden and Parkhead in Glasgow, the Amsterdam Arena and De Kuip in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the Stade de France and the Grand Stade Lille Métropole in Paris and Lille, for instance.
But then again, given the vast majority of viewers consume their football on television perhaps this is a minority concern. The rush to build new stadiums for every finals coupled with Uefa's insistence on taking over grounds and their surroundings completely and making them over so they become just another part of football's corporate homogeneity, means there's next to no local colour at games, unless you count the cringe-inducing mini-opening ceremonies at each match in the Euros. Matches may as well be hosted on vast floating stadiums in the middle of the ocean, which would have the added benefit of getting Fifa and Uefa round the awkward issue of local tax regimes. CGI crowds would cut the policing bill as well.
And perhaps the issue of consumption on television helps explain the hostile reaction to Spain. In a stadium a fan is much more a part of the drama, much less a consumer. The sense of effort and struggle is much more tangible. Sitting in an armchair in front of the television, the temptation must be far greater to disengage, to flick over to see how the golf's going, or to catch the last 10 minutes of Neighbours, or to check if you've seen that episode of Murder, She Wrote. There must be a greater sense that football has to compete for attention.
But that's to make a category error: football is a sport, not an entertainment. It's about finding a way within the rules and spirit of the game to get the best result possible. It's about who wins and Spain are unprecedentedly good at that. If other teams aren't good enough to compete, that's not their problem. It may not produce the most thrilling spectacles, but history will deem us fortunate to have seen a side this masterful.