What then have we learned from the European Championship finals? In England’s case, a team often criticised for “giving the ball away,” we have been reminded of how sadly, expensively and depressingly the team lacks a playmaker, schemer, general or whatever you want to call him.
There would have been one and a good one in the 20-year-old Jack Wilshere but as you know, the gifted, precocious player missed the whole of last season with England and Arsenal. In his absence, and that of any potential contender, there was no one who, in the Italian phrase, could “invent the game.”
Italy had one; and he tormented the English defence throughout that quarter final. Though I much admired the way in such a short time Roy Hodgson reorganised and regenerated the team – though even he, no Frankenstein, could hardly invent another playmaker – I was surprised that Ande Pirlo was given so much time and space to work his wiles.
It was not that one pundit after another had issued warnings about him and the damage he could do, before the game. If changing the 4-4-2 formation was the price to pay for subduing him or at least reducing the damage he could do, it should surely have been paid.
A prophet as we know is often without honour in his own country and Milan, where Pirlo spent so many productive years – though very seldom scoring – must surely be kicking themselves for allowing the 33-year-old to move to their bitter rivals, Juventus, last summer; where he promptly won a Campionato medal.
His has not been wholly a smooth career. Born in Brescia – where, by the way, Mario Balotelli, born in Palermo, was brought up by adoptive parents – he had just one Serie A game for them in season 1994/5, where they were relegated to Serie B.
Not a single league game for them there the following season, though the following season – 17 games and just two goals, he has never been a heavy scorer – saw him help them back into Serie A. Inter bought him in 1998 but those were not fruitful years. 18 games and no goals, a season’s loan to Reggina then briefly in A; just four games for Inter the following season, before in January 2001 they sent him back to Brescia. But Milan signed him the following season and there he productively stayed for 10 seasons, his scoring never getting into double figures, till Juve bought him.
Once upon a time, England had a Johnny Haynes, a Trevor Brooking, a Glenn Hoddle, a Paul Gascoigne, classic creative players. Such ”schemers” like Pirlo himself and Germany’s Mesut Ozil don’t have to be very big. When the remarkable Luka Modric arrived at Tottenham, there were those who said he was too small to succeed in the Premier League. What fools they were!
Long, long ago at Tottenham, from 1951 onwards, Modric was preceded by a still smaller player, the wisp like but wonderfully effective user of the through ball and the pass to the far right flank, Tommy Harmer. I still remember his extraordinary debut in the first League game of 1951-2 at White Hart Lane, against the big, bewildered Bolton defenders. He never got a cap.
In English football, it is an age-old temptation to hit the ball forward long and high. Codified in the 1950s by one Wing Commander Charles Reep, whose theories were followed many years later by Graham Taylor of Watford. Contemporaneously with long ball-ism being compulsively applied, to huge general detriment, by Charles Hughes when running or distorting the FA’s coaching scheme. Could it be that his devoted and deluded younger followers may have poisoned the wells of a game which has historically been prey to the school of up and under?
Meanwhile, this has been a Euro tournament of infinite shocks and surprises. How could Russia lose to Greece, France succumb to Sweden? And can Holland rise from the ashes of their ineffectuality?