Euro 2012: round two and tattoos

The second round of games are done and Euro 2012 is proving itself to be a great competition. Of the sixteen teams in the tournament, all have scored at least one goal, fourteen can still qualify for the quarterfinals, and no-one has guaranteed their place in the last eight. There were dramatic draws between Poland and Russia, and Italy and Croatia, and pendulum-swinging victories for the Portuguese against Denmark, who grabbed a late winning after throwing away a two-goal lead, and England, who held, lost, then regained the lead in a thrilling game which eliminated the Swedes. The only other team certain to be going home are the Irish who were torn apart by the Spanish, spearheaded by an increasingly confident Torres and orchestrated again by Iniesta. The Greeks probably ought to pack their bags too, as they need a highly-improbable victory against Russia.

Russian fans somehow managed to smuggle a giant flag into their game against Poland, which typified the imperial attitude that makes many in Poland so uneasy. Chants of “Rossiya” have been heard at many of the games, and Polish and Ukrainian attendees are also happy to cheer for their own nation irrespective of who is playing. More seriously, Uefa has charged Croatian fans with racism after reports from their game against Italy. Mario Balotelli’s loneliness isn’t just tactical.

Flares have disturbed a couple of matches but the most spectacular and effective interruption came from the weather, when torrential rain and spectacular lightning sent the French and Ukrainian players off the pitch for an hour. Amidst hilariously stupid pictures of fans dancing/swimming in the rain, ITV’s Adrian Chiles was on top form, referring to Cliff Richard at Wimbledon and promising highlights of old cricket tests before introducing repeated highlights of England against France with, “Let’s hope we sneak a second goal this time.” He’s at his best when he says what fans think but slightly funnier than we would.

When the games were being played, midfielders continue to catch the eye: Schweinsteiger set up both of Gomez’s goals against the reverting-to-type divided Dutch, and Pirlo’s pearler of a free kick helped Italy to a point against the Croats. I have particular affection for Pirlo because he’s one of the few players in the tournament who is older than me, but he tired in the second half. Menez and Cabaye scored for France, Gerrard has now struck two successful Hollywood passes, and Iniesta remains Iniesta: a joy to watch. Defenders and goalkeepers are less notable, with only four clean sheets and an average of 2.8 goals in the sixteen games played so far.

There has been plenty of skill to admire, no doubt in part thanks to the fact that the ball being used in this tournament doesn’t seem to have the properties of a something you’d buy from a beach hut. It’s the Adidas Tango 12, whose design brings back memories of Subbuteo and blurry footage of tournaments in the late 1970s and ’80s. Of course it’s accompanied by the usual incredible nonsense: “Etched into the Tango design are three bespoke graphics which celebrate the decorative art of paper cutting, a tradition in the rural areas of both host countries and link to the key characteristics of football – unity, rivalry and passion.” Brilliant.

The designs that have really annoyed me have been the tattoos that many, if not most of the players have had etched into them. I think tattoos are terrible: I’ve never seen one I liked, and combined with the generally clean lines of football kits they look even worse. I blame David Beckham: before he started to colour himself in there were definitely fewer of them around. Who now can pioneer clean skin? It’s a difficult kind of abstinence to promote but the only man famous and scribble-free enough to do it is Ronaldo. Unfortunately, he’s currently concentrating on proving the oft-repeated charge that he’s a flat-track bully.

So to England. Yes, they’re still not great at keeping possession and that’s a very important part of the game, but they have a manager who knows what he’s doing for the first time in a very long time. He has had limited time with limited talent but he’s made the most of it. Andy Carroll justified his selection with a header of almost-primal power, and the introduction of Theo Walcott changed the game decisively. The win was less disciplined than the draw against France but it showed tactical variety and character. And if you don’t have skill, at least have character. This was the first time since 2004 that England have come from behind to win a game in a major tournament. Small steps maybe, but they’re in the right direction. The defence looked shakier with Gerrard and Parker irreplaceable but wearying in front of it.  If Rooney’s return brings the best out of Young, and Welbeck keeps taking his chances with such aplomb, there could be better times ahead than anyone expected.

I still refuse to make confident predictions as my reverse-Midas touch continues: I told Theo Walcott not to shoot just as he curled the ball into the space recently vacated by the Swedish goalkeeper.