| Fresh feet: Arjen Robben (top), Milan Baros
Lisbon, June 28: Old Europe has taken such a battering at Euro 2004 that Britain alone has a bigger population than the four semi-finalists combined.
Portugal and Greece can each count as many heads as the mayor of London (around 10 million). Holland has only six million more. International football has made an evolutionary leap in which the great powers have been left behind by a huge stylistic change, and even the finest players are made to look geriatric at 30.
Here is a list of this summer’s damned: Italy, France, Germany, England and Spain. And here is an index of underperforming aristocrats: David Beckham, Luis Figo, Raul, Thierry Henry, Christian Vieri, Paul Scholes, Francesco Totti, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane (arguably).
Next, an inventory of the four semi-finalists at the last World Cup: Brazil, Turkey, South Korea and Germany, who had only Paraguay and the United States to beat to reach the last four, and who now can’t beat the Czech Republic’s reserves.
Japan and South Korea two years ago was filed away as a freak: a brief overturning of the world order caused by culture shock and fatigue. But France’s tame capitulation to Greece in Lisbon on Friday was born of the same malaise. There is now compelling evidence to show that the multi-millionaire Champions League footballer is incapable of rousing himself emotionally or spiritually for an international tournament at the end of a gruelling season with his club.
Against the Greeks, Henry was a hollow man and Zidane’s orchestrations were often the stuff of lullabies. David Trezeguet, Henry’s accomplice, left the team hotel in body but not in spirit.
The French ideals are speed, agility, balance and dexterity, topped off with Gallic hauteur. But for the second tournament running there was a lethargy and a listlessness about the generation who completed the 1998-2000 World Cup and European Championship double.
Watching them surrender to the hyperactive Greeks, many of us strolled back up the Champs Elysee of the mind, to the spontaneous all-night street carnival that followed the great triumph over Brazil in Paris six years ago — the country’s biggest outpouring of public joy since the end of World War II.
If some of football’s artists and elder statesmen are leaving Portugal with thousand-yard stares it is because they have been overwhelmed by the speed and relentlessness of the modern game. Even the ball has been repainted so that it resembles the silver orb in a pinball machine — or a computer-generated sphere in a PlayStation game.
The modern television ad emphasises haste: Zidane, Beckham and Co. speeding to Portugal on mopeds and dribbling their way through town squares past flummoxed locals. Or Henry charging around his own flat, knocking pictures off the walls and performing high-speed pirouettes round the coffee table.
The artist, the figurative No. 10, plants his foot on the ball, considers his next move and then disappears under a swarm of wiry 22-year-olds. It’s not hard to pick out the most impressive youngsters of the competition so far: Wayne Rooney (England), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Arjen Robben (Holland), Milan Baros (Czech Republic) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany).
All are rapiers, all have the featheriness and velocity of youth. When Portugal’s Jorge Andrade — the man who stood on Rooney’s metatarsal — previewed Wednesday’s semi-final between the Netherlands and the hosts, he said he expected “an attacking, thrilling game”.
If Beckham and Scholes have noticed their own wattage drop, it may be because the pace of the modern game is turning them old before their time. There was, in Beckham’s sombre self-analysis last week, an admission that his legs may not hold up beyond the 2006 World Cup. Both he and Scholes have been playing high-intensity football at Champions League standard for eight years or more.
At this level, Beckham gets knocked over by the scooter of youth and rapidity. Suddenly Scholes looks like a ballroom dancer trying to keep up at a rave.
A personal suspicion is that many leading footballers will feel the ground beneath their feet begin to crumble at 29 or 30. This is the realisation you see in Beckham’s eyes. It’s not the volume of club games that is the problem so much as the intensity of Champions League football, which drains the appetite for exhausting sprinting contests with the Czechs or the Greeks.
All the semi-finalists here share one characteristic: small-nation zeal. They are all hard-grafting brotherhoods.
The Daily Telegraph