KIEV, July 2 (Reuters) - One of the greatest soccer tournaments of all time ended with a “cherry on the cake” final when Spain retained their European Championship title with a 4-0 win over Italy on Sunday.
Their victory brought the curtain down on a glittering three-week festival of football that, despite repeated fears about Poland and Ukraine’s ability to host the event before it started, proved a success on and off the pitch.
Most of the 31 matches were of the highest quality, with some mouth-watering goals, played in a sporting manner with few sendings off, little or no dissent from players towards referees and, with one or two minor exceptions, little trouble from fans.
Spain’s triumph against Italy not only rekindled belief in what Pele called “the beautiful game” but it also established Spain beyond any doubt as one of the greatest international sides ever, following their initial triumph at Euro 2008 and in the World Cup hosted by South Africa two years ago.
Once they took the lead through David Silva in the 14th minute of Sunday’s final and doubled it with a stunning second from Jordi Alba four minutes before halftime, Italy, who themselves had a very good campaign, were never going to recover.
Two more goals in the last 10 minutes from substitutes Fernando Torres and Juan Mata gave Spain the biggest winning margin in a World Cup or Euro final.
The victory delighted UEFA’s technical experts whose chief heaped praise on Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque on Monday for what his team have brought to the game.
Andy Roxburgh, who heads UEFA’s technical delegation, told reporters: ”He has been a role model for others. He is so modest that even last night he carried on as if it was nothing to do with him.
“But he has contributed so much. We as a technical group feel that the way he has handled it, so humble, like most of Spain’s players, who showed such humility, is so impressive.”
Roxburgh and his technical team were also delighted with the overall standard of the tournament in which only two of the 31 games ended goalless in the tense knockout stages.
The matches also threw up some intriguing new tactical developments including much better use of the wings, quicker reorganisation by defending teams after an attack breaks down and far more fluid forward play.
Roxburgh added: ”Those are developments we are still analysing. We used to have box-to-box midfield players, now we have wide men doing the same job against defensive blocks who get back so quickly. The game is changing.
”But as far as we are concerned, there are three benchmarks in international football, the World Cup, the Champions League and the Euros as to what can be achieved at the highest level.
“These Euros had so much quality they have left a kind of glow. And what a way to finish. We had so much cream, and the final was the cherry on top of the cake.”
Spain secured the biggest win in any major final even though they startdc the Italy match without a recognised striker and instead deploydc a midfield of guile, brilliance and creative invention, encapsulated in Andres Iniesta.
The diminutive midfielder was named Player of the Tournament by the technical committee who included 10 of Spain’s 11 starters on Sunday in their 23-man Team of the Tournament.
The unlucky player to miss out was Alvaro Arbeloa, who nevertheless played his part in Spain’s success which eclipsed the great West Germany side of the 1970s, the last European team to reach three major finals.
Germany again were in contention in the later stages here and contributed to one of the best games at the finals in their 4-2 quarter-final win over Greece.
Thunderous goals from Philipp Lahm, Sami Khedira, Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus, whose volley late in the game looked like a schoolboy’s dream goal, put paid to their opponents.
Greece, the surprise Euro 2004 champions, had played their part too, contributing to the tournament’s great start, a 1-1 draw with co-hosts Poland in Warsaw on June 8.
From the time Robert Lewandowski put the Poles in front with one of the 22 headed goals here, the barometer was set fair for a superb finals and stayed that way throughout the biggest sporting event in eastern Europe since communism collapsed.
Apart from Ireland, beaten by Spain, Italy and Croatia in a tough group, none of the 16 teams were outclassed.
Ireland at least got one award as their fans were officially nominated as the best in the tournament with UEFA president Michel Platini heading to Dublin to present their prize.
Other teams shone in bursts like Russia, Portugal and the Czech Republic, and while neither host nation made it through to the knockout round, they were not disgraced either.
Poland exited after two creditable draws while Ukraine enjoyed a frenzied night in Kiev when they beat Sweden 2-1 in their opening match with the great Andriy Shevchenko scoring both goals before announcing the end of his long international career when they went out after losing to England.
That group match saw the one moment of real controversy when Ukraine appeared to have equalised with a ball that crossed the line, but the goal was not given and England advanced before losing to Italy on penalties in the quarter-finals.
The Italians, not highly fancied before the tournament, then made it to the final where Spain were waiting to lay claim to their place among soccer’s elite on an unforgettable night in Kiev which capped a memorable event. (Editing by Ken Ferris)