Holden A Minute
In his Wednesday column, Mike Holden responds to the cynics who piled undue pressure on Spain and Croatia in Gdansk on Monday...
Biscotto talk leaves a sour taste
And so it never came to pass. The conspiracy that everybody feared was safely averted. Spain and Croatia managed to avoid playing out the 2-2 draw that would have taken both teams through at the expense of Italy and now we can all rest easy in the knowledge that the integrity of the game has been preserved.
For me, though, the rather disconcerting level of cynicism that greeted the possibility of this outcome in some quarters leaves a sour taste. For some, it was an opportunity pour scorn on the game where it needn't exist, a chance for the doomsayers to create an unnecessary stink.
Such was their influence, we had a situation whereby a perfectly feasible outcome simply wasn't allowed. Spain versus Italy could have easily finished 2-2, or 3-3 for that matter, but if Spain versus Croatia had finished 2-2, it would have been against the concept of fair play, no matter how honestly the four goals had come about.
Laughably, it was the Italians at the forefront of this rallying cry for the common good. Yes, that's right, the nation where allegations of match-fixing have surfaced for the third time in the space of six years. The nation that would top any poll among Europeans on who they'd consider most likely to agree to such a pact.
In the build up to Monday's Group C climax, I spoke to John Foot, author of the excellent Calcio and other great literary insights into Italian psyche, and asked him why the Italians would be so scandalised by the idea of exiting the tournament in such a manner. His response was typically insightful: their hysteria was fuelled by familarity with the concept.
My interpretation is that the Italians were so up in arms, so vocal about the moral concerns in their press conferences, because they were jealous of what they saw as a gift. Like an elder brother might say to a younger sibling offered £20 by a doo-lally granny: "No, you can't take that." Even though you know damn well he would have taken it himself!
Fair play, I suppose. The Italians have got every right to look after their own interests and if they can help to prevent an agreeable result that screws them over by kicking up such a fuss through the media, then more power to them. All's fair when it comes to mind games and Gianluigi Buffon certainly played a blinder with his remarks about Spain being "too proud to sully their prestige".
What disappoints me is that so many neutrals bought into the view that it would be a disgrace if Spain and Croatia drew 2-2, that somehow such an outcome was only possible with a pact. This is where the situation crossed the line from laughable to distasteful, although I suspect much of the uproar was coming from the pocket of those who had backed Italy to win the tournament.
The biggest argument, of course, was that UEFA were somehow at fault with their scoring system in the group stages. Now I'm hardly someone who's in the habit of jumping to the defence of the football authorities on such matters but you have to say UEFA run a pretty mean competition.
Football is the biggest entertainment industry of them all and they pay good money to great mathematicians to ensure that everything from co-efficient formulae to seeding systems are organised with value and probability in mind. Their job as a commercial enterprise is to ensure maximum possible drama, so when they snub the standard practice of goal difference it's not a decision they take lightly.
And, from that perspective, you have to say Euro 2012 has been a complete triumph. Putting aside your profit and loss figures for a second, imagine how dull it might have been had the groups been settled on goal difference. Both games in Group A would have been virtual dead rubbers for a start, and we also would have been denied a thoroughly engrossing night in Group B.
Some might argue that the quarter-finals would have been more attractive had Poland and Russia both progressed but competitions like this are meant to be survival of the fittest. It's only right that groups should climax rather than peter out and the weak-willed should wave goodbye.
There's no perfect solution for splitting teams on equal points but if you like high stakes football - and I believe all serious punters should - then the head-to-head system is clearly the lesser of all evils. The occasional opportunity for a biscotto is a small price to pay for keeping so many teams incentivised for so long.
And I say that not only as somebody who was stung by the Denmark-Sweden controversy when backing Italy to win the competition in 2004, but I was also chinned by the Azzurri getting out of the group at this tournament.
My only wish is that people wouldn't be so quick to foresee scandal because I'm convinced it had a negative (and unfair) impact on the manner in which Croatia and, particularly, Spain approached their game.
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