The matches in Euro 2004 have so far been a mixed bag, ranging from the torporific (Switzerland-Croatia, most of Denmark-Bulgaria) to the dazzling and compelling (Italy-Sweden). For us England fans, things are looking brighter than they were this time last week; the 3-0 win over Switzerland was comfortable, if somewhat lacking in technical brilliance.
For a few days, though, everything will probably seem drab in comparison with one match in particular. Group D was always going to be interesting, with past winners Holland, Germany and the Czech Republic queuing up to gain some easy points from little Latvia. However, with Latvia showing surprising pluck and discipline, and Germany plummeting into that same slough of despond which brought their Euro 2000 campaign to a premature end, the Group of Death was not going according to popular speculation.
So when Holland went 2-0 up against the Czech Republic after only 19 minutes, the tale of Group D took another twist, and it began to look as though one of the tournament favourites might not progress to the quarter finals. Holland’s constant attacking was fast and highly focused, but the Czechs responded in kind, scoring almost immediately. From that moment, the match never slowed down; the half-time break only seemed like a brief pause for breath amid the barrage of attacks and counter-attacks. By the time the Czechs equalised, the two teams had done more for football PR in 71 minutes than FIFA have done in… well, ever.
From a neutral perspective, that 2-2 scoreline would have been the fairest outcome, but the Czechs had the necessary extra stamina and creativity in reserve. They certainly gained an advantage through Johnny Heitinga’s unjustified sending off (the niggly refereeing was the only poor aspect of the match) but their turnaround, capped by Smicer’s winning goal, seemed inevitable even before that.
As someone said on a web forum just now, how are they going to compile highlights from that? They should release the whole thing on DVD.