At halftime, Euro 2012 shows the best of football

Once again, the European Championship is fulfilling its billing

as the best tournament in world football.

A compelling first two rounds of Euro 2012 group stage matches

provided most of what fans and television viewers want – and what

the problem-plagued 2010 World Cup lacked.

Exciting matches, plenty of goals, excellent refereeing.

Even the players and the tournament ball have behaved well.

Some positives could have been predicted: Spain’s football is

pretty as a picture; co-hosts Poland and Ukraine roused national

passions; Ireland’s drinking, swaying, smiling choir of fans

deserve their own talent show.

Then add the pleasant surprises: Italy is mostly fun to watch;

England is easy to like; no team has come just to ”park the bus”

and play defensively.

”It has been a very good tournament,” football author and

analyst Simon Kuper told The Associated Press in a telephone

interview from Kiev. ”Because European teams are better, they are

more confident about attacking.”

That perception of Euro 2012 is backed up by the numbers.

A total of 46 goals have been scored in the first 16 games,

before the final round of group matches begins Saturday. That works

out at 2.88 goals per game.

The Euro 2008 group stage in Switzerland and Austria reaped 2.38

goals per game.

In South Africa two years ago, the 32 teams managed just 2.1

goals per game in the 48-match group stage.

It was so bad there that FIFA President Sepp Blatter appointed

the grandly titled Task Force Football 2014 to suggest changes that

would help make the next World Cup more entertaining in Brazil.

Kuper suggests that UEFA’s event benefits from a different

mindset to the World Cup, where Europe provides 13 qualifiers who

intimidate some opponents.

”A lot of non-European teams are desperate not to be

humiliated,” the author of ‘Soccernomics’ said. ”The easiest

thing for them to learn is defense. You get a really boring team

with a couple of 0-0 draws who go home with honor.”

In Europe, Kuper suggests, national teams focus on constantly

trying to improve themselves.

”If the Spanish do something right, then the Germans look at

what they are doing,” he said, highlighting a gradual

transformation of Germany’s style since a poor team was quickly

eliminated at Euro 2000.

Euro 2012 also appears to have benefited from the increasing

intensity of Champions League football, especially in the 16-team

knockout rounds which captivates football fans worldwide each

February through May.

”Most of the players at the tournament are Champions League

regulars and they know the rules of international football,” Kuper

proposes.

Denmark coach Morten Olsen hinted at his underdog team’s problem

of playing group opponents Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal,

whose squads are loaded with talent from elite clubs.

”We are facing players from Bayern Munich, (Borussia) Dortmund

and Real Madrid,” Olsen said. ”They are Champions League clubs,

all of them. It’s a totally different level. We need to get up to

that pace.”

The Champions League has also prepared the 12 referees selected

by UEFA to deliver high class performances.

In the 15 matches since Spanish referee Carlos Velasco

Carballo’s slightly shaky handling of the opening match between

Poland and Greece, not one red card has been shown, no penalty has

been awarded and there have been no disputed goal

controversies.

”They are less overawed,” Kuper said. ”And they are used to

the speed of the games and the high-profile pressure.”

While the World Cup had a notorious goal line decision, which

robbed England of a legitimate goal against Germany, the only

similar call here was judged correctly.

Portugal defender Pepe’s shot against Germany – with goalkeeper

Manuel Neuer beaten just as he was by Frank Lampard – was correctly

judged to have bounced on the line by French referee Stephane

Lannoy’s team of assistants.

The quality of Euro 2012 officiating might yet help sway FIFA’s

rule-making panel, at a July 5 meeting in Zurich. The session could

approve the five-official system on trial at Euro 2012 after two

seasons of tests in the Champions League.

FIFA officials could feel a little aggrieved that the reputation

of the European Championship sparkles while the World Cup is

treated like a soap opera in comparison.

Racism in the stands and violence on the streets at Euro 2012

has been worse, particularly in Poland, than dire predictions of

trouble in South Africa that barely materialized.

FIFA also was roundly criticized for thousands of empty seats at

2010 World Cup matches, yet Euro 2012 stadiums have also had bare

patches in the stands.

In the rather charmed world of Euro 2012, even disappointments

on the field have fed fascinating story lines.

Ronaldo’s continuing underachievement at major tournaments; the

state of the Netherlands squad’s collective psyche; the worst team,

Ireland, redeemed by the best fans.

And where official ball provider Adidas failed with the infamous

Jabulani in South Africa, the same company’s Tango 12 is a

blameless, unremarkable presence in Poland and Ukraine.

At the halfway stage of matches played, Euro 2012 is a success –

even as allegations of racist abuse of black players tarnish the

overall image.

”I feel it’s lacking a sense of importance,” Kuper said.

”There has not been the usual hysteria and hype.”

Instead, Euro 2012 has been more purely about the football. The

kind that fans like.