Spain ended two debates once and for all with its master-class performance in a sensational 4-0 Euro 2012 final victory against Italy: No, it is not boring to play with six midfielders and no clear center-forward; and yes, it deserves to be called one of the greatest teams of all time after becoming the first side to win three major international tournaments in succession.
This was a tournament to remember. Fourteen of the 16 sides went into their final group games with a chance of qualifying; there was drama in the knockout rounds (thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo and penalty shootouts) and a shock finalist in Italy. The 16-team format makes way for 24 teams in 2016 in France. However UEFA spins it, the European Championships won't be the same.
Now, on to my awards for the best -- and worst -- of Euro 2012.
Best Player: Andres Iniesta, Spain
The influential midfielder earned yet another Man of the Match performance in the rout of Italy, becoming the only Spanish player to win the award at least once in each of Spain's three successful tournaments. It was his exquisite pass that set up the final's opening goal (see below).
In the group stages, he was just as dominant -- earning the Man of the Match against both Italy and Croatia, then he made light of France's quarterfinal tactic of starting two right backs by splitting both of them for Jordi Alba to cross for Xabi Alonso's opening goal. After that, he simply moved over to the right side to create more havoc. He was the player most likely to make the breakthrough in the semifinal against Portugal -- he also calmly scored a penalty from the shootout, it almost goes without saying -- before another virtuoso performance in the final.
"When he has the ball, it's like everything else stops," Fernando Torres told The Observer. "Like the camera is going in slow motion. He's decisive."
And so it proved, once again.
Best Final Moment: Sublime Spain
So outstanding was Spain's performance, numerous moments from Spain's dominant first 45 minutes stand out. But two sublime passes rise above the others: Iniesta's ball to Cesc Fabregas in the build-up to the first goal; and left back Jordi Alba's one-two with midfielder Xavi Hernandez on the second.
Alba's first-ever goal for Spain was particularly sensational. Xavi trisected Italy's backline with a perfectly weighted ball to former Alba, the one-time left winger who coolly slotted it past Italian keeper Gigi Buffon to make it 2-0 and leave Italy with a mountain to climb.
By the time Fernando Torres scored in the 84th minute and set up another Juan Mata's goal in the 88th, the match was long over -- but the joy on Torres' face was memorable. As a striker who has had his fair share of tough times in the past 12 months -- explained here -- this was a great ending to a record-breaking season for him. Maybe he just realized he had won the Golden Boot award.
Best Goal: Mario Balotelli, Italy vs. Germany
Honorable mentions: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden vs. France; Danny Welbeck, England vs. Sweden
Sometimes a brilliant goal is worth more than just a goal -- it can also have a dramatic effect it has on the player who scored it, and also on the opposition. Balotelli's second goal in Italy's 2-1 semifinal victory over Germany is a good example.
The mercurial striker clearly had learned his lesson from failing to shoot against Spain and having a chip blocked against England, so he wasted little time in smashing the ball past German keeper Manuel Neuer. It was powerful and devastating -- and seemed to knock the wind out of Germany. It also proved to be the winning goal. Ibrahimovic's volley against France was a deluxe version of Balotelli's against Ireland, while Welbeck's superb twist-and-flick was a rare bright moment for England.
Best Coach: Cesare Prandelli, Italy
Honorable mentions: Vicente del Bosque, Spain; Paulo Bento, Portugal; Slaven Bilic, Croatia; Fernando Santos, Greece
Prandelli gets it, not for picking a front line of Balotelli and Antonio Cassano and living to tell the tale, but for totally overhauling Italy's playing philosophy in the space of two years with largely the same group of players.
Reaching the quarterfinals was seen as a good achievement -- after Italy finished rock bottom in its World Cup group in 2010, goalkeeper Gigi Buffon said it would be a miracle if it even qualified for the European championships -- while the manner of the victories against England and Germany has made Italy proud of its team again.
The successful integration of players like Balotelli, Thiago Motta and Riccardo Montolivo, shows Prandelli wants a side to reflect the diversity of Italian society; and just as Italy leads the way in creative fields like fashion and art, so he has encouraged the Azzurri to shed its 'catenaccio' image. "He's like Galileo," Gianluca Vialli told the BBC. "He's a visionary."
Producing a winning team on top of all that is an impressive achievement. And losing to Spain does not lessen what Italy accomplished at the European championships.
Most overblown story: Spain can't succeed without a center-forward
Honorable mention: Goalkeepers can't be captains
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has somehow maintained his cool throughout all the questions, doubts and the criticism about his selections, every one of which (bar Alvaro Negredo's start against Portugal, quickly rectified) was vindicated.
The final was his crowning moment: Spain already had four shots on goal before it opened the scoring after 13 minutes after outstanding combination player between Iniesta, Fabregas and David Silva. At the press conference the day before the match, Del Bosque shrugged as, for the umpteenth time, he explained that Spain plays a 4-3-3 formation. The attacking three? "Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva, they play up front," said the coach. And who knows, if Iniesta's pass to Fabregas had been met by a traditional striker, he might have fancied a shot rather than running to the byline and cutting it back for Silva to score.
Best Save: Iker Casillas, Spain vs. Croatia
Honorable mentions: Stipe Pletikosa, Croatia vs. Italy; Joe Hart, England vs. France; Przemyslaw Tyton, Poland vs. Greece
No surprise that one of the best individual goalkeeping moments belonged to the captain of the winner. Casillas, who went more than 500 minutes without conceding a goal, oversaw Euro 2012's tightest defense. But it was his point-blank stop in Spain's final group game that may have kept Spain in the competition. After Croatia's Luka Modric crossed for Ivan Rakitic to head seven yards from goal, Casillas moved sharply to punch the header away.
Breakout performance: Jordi Alba, Spain
Honorable mention: Alan Dzagoev (Russia), Theodor Gebre Selassie (Czech Republic
When Spain won Euro 2008 four years ago, Alba was representing La Roja at the Under-19s edition of the competition; when it won the World Cup, he had just competed his first season at Valencia, who snapped him up from Cornella after his education at Barcelona's academy La Masia. Even 12 months ago, Alba had not yet made an international appearance.
But this month he has been the tournament's most outstanding left back -- and he topped it off with a marvelous team goal to kill off the final just before half-time. No wonder, then, that last week he completed a return back to Barcelona, joining seven of his new teammates in the final.
"He's flying at the moment, he's a hell of a player," his defensive team-mate Gerard Pique told ABC. "He's got it all, and more: defends, attacks, maintains position when necessary, goes up at the right time, crosses, shoots." Xavi added: "A spectacular player, a 10-out-of-10 guy. He's competitive, aggressive, defensively strong, and he's ready."
What's more, Alba is just 23 and he only cost Barcelona €14m. What a bargain.
Most Dysfunctional Team: Holland
Dishonorable mention: France
This is a tough one. France at least managed to win one game, which is more than can be said for the Dutch. The Netherlands was unlucky against Denmark, sloppy against Germany and downright awful against Portugal. By the time the third game was under way, the division in the camp was plain to see. The Dutch press had a field day after the team's elimination, alleging the squad was split into camps supporting either Wesley Sneijder or Robin van Persie, while Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar moaned from the sidelines about a lack of chances. When those chances came against Portugal, it only vindicated coach Bert van Marwijk's decision to leave them out in the first place.
Van Marwijk resigned shortly after the Dutch returned home.
Biggest disappointment, individual: Robin van Persie, Netherlands
Honorable mentions: Wojciech Szczesny, Poland; Wayne Rooney, England.
OK, so Van Persie did score in Holland's loss to Germany, a decent goal but it was no more than a consolation that briefly lifted the gloom of this Dutch campaign. But it was what preceded that was the problem.
Van Persie fluffed a handful of chances against Denmark, the missed two chances to score in the first 15 minutes in the second crucial group against Germany. The first was a volley he scuffed straight at Manuel Neuer, the kind of chance he would have buried for Arsenal last season, when he won the Premier League's Golden Boot.
His relationship with Wesley Sneijder was once again put under the spotlight by the Dutch press after Holland's exit. Arsenal fans, meanwhile, worried about his contract situation, jokily hoped that his performances would put off clubs wanting to sign him this summer.
Most surprising former player to be invoked in the knock-out stages: Antonin Panenka
Panenka never gets mentioned until a player attempts a slow-chipped penalty down the middle of the goal, something that the Czech international did for the first time to beat West Germany in a shootout in the Euro 1976 final.
In successive knockout matches, though, two players pulled off Panenka penalties and both succeeded. First, Italy's Andrea Pirlo felt that Joe Hart was an intimidating stopper in the England goal in its quarterfinal, so his 'cucchiaio' was intended to lessen his presence, but it had a knock-on effect -- it rattled the next England taker, Ashley Young, whose shot hit the bar.
The next match to be played, Spain's semifinal against Portugal, also went to penalties: Sergio Ramos scored his 'Panenka' and the next up, Bruno Alves, also hit the bar. What did we learn from that? That the risky strategy, when it pays off, can be very useful: not just bringing your team back into the shootout (both Italy and Spain had missed their spot-kicks first) but to destabilize the opposition as well.
Most surprising disappearing act: Russia
Dishonorable mentions: Germany, France
Russia lit up day one of the tournament with a 4-1 thumping of Czech Republic, and there were hopes that this Andrei Arshavin- and Alan Dzagoev-inspired team might repeat its achievement of reaching the Euro 2008 semifinal.
It proved to be short-lived. Russia could not beat Poland, then crashed and burned in a shock 1-0 loss to Greece to fall from the top of Group A to third.
The fallout continues: Coach Dick Advocaat was at the end of his contract; FA president Sergei Fursenko also resigned in disgrace after a meeting with president Vladimir Putin. Fabio Capello is reportedly a candidate to replace Advocaat, but no appointment will be made until Fursenko's successor is in place.
Most likely to be overpaid in the transfer market: Mario Mandzukic, Croatia
Croatian striker Mandzukic signed with Bayern Munich last week, but until he scored three goals in Croatia's first two group games, the Bavarian giant had not shown interest. In fact, Mandzukic thought he was heading to Everton in the summer, to join up with international teammate Nikica Jelavic; a fee of €7M had already been agreed with his club Wolfsburg, according to the Croatian press.
Three goals later (one of which, against Ireland, actually came off the post and the back of Shay Given's head before going in) and Wolfsburg suddenly raised its asking-price to €15M. That ended Everton's interest, and Bayern swooped in. The fee remains "undisclosed" but you can be sure it is more than the initial fee quoted.
Most Dramatic Substitution: Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine vs. Sweden
Honorable mention: Przemyslaw Tyton, Poland vs. Greece
In the end, the match mattered little, but for those present at Ukraine's opening game in Donetsk, it was a moment of pure emotion.
No one expected Shevchenko to start against Sweden, but the captain did more than that: He scored two second-half goals to lead the co-hosts past Sweden, and also secured his place in Ukraine's record books as the only man to be the team's youngest and oldest scorer. When Shevchenko was replaced by Artem Milevskiy after 81 minutes, the stadium rose to his feet and gave praise not just for those two goals, but for his whole career.
Polish keeper Tyton deserves mention for the penalty save against the Greeks with his first touch, which helped him keep his place for the rest of the tournament.
Best Display of Emotion: Giorgios Karagounis, Greece vs. Russia
Honorable mentions: Mario Balotelli kissing adoptive mother Silvia; Slaven Bilic kissing a pitch invader; Gigi Buffon singing the national anthem
The Greek captain only played three matches but what an impact he had. Karagounis missed a penalty in the opening-game draw with Poland, and was booked in the same game; in the group decider, he scored what proved to be Greece's winning goal against Russia, and soon after was tripped in the area by Ignashevich and demanded a penalty. When he didn't get it, and was booked for diving, he couldn't believe it. The tantrum that followed was amazing to watch, especially from a 35-year-old with 120 caps to his name. Karagounis was subbed off before the yellow became a red, and, just like he was suspended from the Euro 2004 final, he missed the quarterfinal loss to Germany.
Best Quote: Sweden manager Erik Hamren
"The operation went well, but the patient died." That was Hamren's reaction to Sweden's 3-2 defeat to England and elimination after match two. Sweden had played well and were briefly ahead in the game, hence the coach's positive slant. Sweden captain Ibrahimovic was more succinct: "I don't give a sh*t who wins this tournament now, I'm going on holiday," he said.
Notable mentions also go to Russian captain Arshavin, who told fans on arriving back in Moscow after a group-stage elimination: "If we did not fulfill your expectations, that's your problem, not ours." Former Ireland captain Roy Keane had an enjoyable spat with coach Giovanni Trapattoni. When Keane said after Ireland's second defeat in two matches, "No player has come out of the two games with any credit. That's why there should be 11 changes against Italy," Trapattoni responded: "[Keane] was a great player. Now, he's a coach, he should focus on getting results."
Most Blatant Display of Nudity: England fan Tim O'Leary, England vs. Italy
Honorable mention: Sweden reserve goalkeeper Johan Wiland.
Wiland must have thought he had this in the bag when he dropped his shorts and bared his backside for Sweden's players to take pot-shots at before it played England in Group D. Wiland had lost a training-ground bet and this was his punishment, though it caused a scandal back home -- with anti-bullying groups protesting and the Prime Minister stepping in.
But the award goes to O'Leary, a 35-year-old England fan standing directly behind the goal who dropped his shorts, baring himself full-frontal, just as Alessandro Diamanti stepped up to take Italy's decisive penalty in its shootout victory. O'Leary was wearing a full England kit -- including boots and shin-pads, for some reason -- and later told The Sun newspaper: "I would do anything to see England win."
Team of the Tournament:
I like a challenge and have limited myself to only one player per team. That means I can't include Andrea Pirlo and Balotelli, for example, or Iker Casillas and Andres Iniesta. The formation is 4-2-3-1, as that's what most of the teams in Poland and Ukraine are playing. Feel free to disagree!
GK: Przemyslaw Tyton, Poland: The Poland reserve keeper was an unlikely hero when he saved Karagounis's spot-kick with his first touch. He then did so well against Russia that he kept out Wojciech Szczesny for the final group game. And this was meant to be Szczesny's big moment.
Right Back: Theodor Gebre Selassie, Czech Republic: There was a buzz about the Czech fullback before the tournament, and he was one of Euro 2012's breakout stars. Excellent going forward, solid in defense, he tied up a €2M move to Werder Bremen last week, which looks like very good business by the German side.
Center Back: Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Greece: Not even a starter entering the tournament, the Schalke youngster came on after Avraam Papadopoulos was injured and impressed throughout. He's only 20 but with a debt Champions League campaign behind him, he's going to be a star of the future.
Center Back: Laurent Koscielny, France: He only got his chance in France's quarterfinal against Spain, but played so well that we were left questioning Laurent Blanc's wisdom in sticking with his Philippe Mexès-Adil Rami partnership, which looked shaky on occasion. Koscielny proved he is now ready to be France's first-choice center back.
Left Back: Simon Poulsen, Denmark: The attacking fullback caused Holland and Portugal all sorts of problems going forward, and with the canny Michael Kroen-Dehli finding space ahead of him, it was no surprise that most of Denmark's danger came down the left.
Midfield: Sami Khedira, Germany: There were some excellent performers in the Germany side but Khedira stood out, perhaps because Bastian Schweinsteiger was subpar (and carrying an injury). Khedira developed under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid and was an attacking threat as well as a brilliant defensive holder. His volley against Greece was dramatic, and crucial, too.
Midfield: Steven Gerrard, England: No player came out of England's fairly tame tournament with more credit than its captain. His right-foot delivery set up goals of each England's group games -- the crossing was reminiscent of David Beckham at his best -- but his discipline, leadership and all-around game were there to see. A shame his teammates couldn't meet the same standard.
Attacking midfield: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal: The Portugal captain threatened to make this competition his own by destroying Holland and Czech Republic to reach the semifinal. But Ronaldo fell just short against Spain; for all his shots on goal, he failed to hit the target and test Iker Casillas. The same was true, bafflingly, in the shootout, as Portugal exited without a Ronaldo moment.
Attacking midfield: Luka Modric, Croatia: The pre-tournament knock on Modric was that he never turns up for international football but even the craziest Croatian would have revised that opinion. Modric ran the game against Ireland and was a danger to Italy. Against Spain, he nearly kept Croatia alive with one of the best crosses of the tournament; alas Ivan Rakitic could only head it straight at Casillas, sealing Croatia's early exit.
Attacking midfield: Andres Iniesta, Spain: On a team that has battled with the unfair label of being boring ('dominant' would be a better word), Iniesta has provided the moments of levity, of relief, of brilliance. France picked two right backs to stop him but he still found a way to split them to set up the first goal; he then moved over to the right to have more fun. Iniesta, more than Xavi and David Silva, provided the creative spark that kept Spain going.
Forward: Mario Balotelli, Italy: Why Always Me? Because, Mario, you have been brilliant, even before the momentous double strike against Germany in the semifinal. Dangerous, if profligate, against Spain and England, Balotelli has been the standout forward when it has mattered -- yes, Mario Gomez, Dzagoev, Ronaldo and Torres also scored goals -- and at just 21, it is scary to think what Balotelli can achieve. If he avoids those unnecessary yellow cards every time he scores, that is. He is my Italian pick ahead of Pirlo because the other centre-forwards fall so short in comparison.