Column: What have we learned so far at Euro 2012?

Tuesday - 6/19/2012, 7:34pm EDT

AP Sports Columnist

(AP) - With the end of the group stage, Euro 2012 is more than two-thirds complete _ 24 matches have been played and just seven are left, culminating with the July 1 final in Kiev.

And, like a regular service on a car, this European Championship has provided a neat opportunity to lift up football's lid, inspect its innards and assess its health.

So, in 12 days between co-host Poland's opening 1-1 draw on June 8 with Greece to England and Sweden's victories in the last group games on Tuesday, what have we learned?



Basing the Euros farther east than ever before in Poland and Ukraine, to be followed in 2018 by the first World Cup in Russia, feels fresh and new and is helping the sport move beyond divisions dating back to the Cold War, which left much of football's influence and wealth, best stadiums and future concentrated in the west.

The huge distances some teams traveled from bases in Poland to matches in Ukraine _ some 7,000 kilometers (4,300 miles) for the Netherlands squad, alone _ made Euro 2012 neither environmentally friendly nor logistically easy.

Hooligan brawls before and during Poland's 1-1 tie on June 12 with bitter rival Russia, and allegations of racist behavior involving groups of so-called fans from Croatia, Spain, Russia and Poland showed football still attracts unwanted followers. Images of men, some drunk, fighting each other and police in Warsaw recalled rioting in London during Euro '96 and at the 1998 World Cup in France.

But pre-tournament fears that Euro 2012 might be dangerous for visitors, particularly in Ukraine, because of hooligans and racists appear so far to have been overblown.

Gambling on Poland and Ukraine, new frontiers for the Euros which looked ill-prepared for so long, is paying off for Michel Platini, UEFA's president.

"We can do better, but better is perfection," Platini said Monday. "It is very, very difficult to do better in this tournament than what we have done."



Platini, with a record nine goals, including two hat-tricks, at Euro '84, and Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane at the World Cups of 1986 and 1998 _ to name just three players who more than met expectations _ showed that football's biggest stars can shine on its biggest stages.

Still, it's also amazing how often they don't.

Two years after they reached the World Cup final, the Netherlands go down as the major flop of Euro 2012. Premier League top scorer Robin van Persie managed just one goal, Bundesliga top scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar got none. In losing all three group games, the Netherlands' stars played as if they were looking out for themselves, instead of each other. They went home having proven that even in Dutch there is no 'I' in 'team.'



The 2008 world player of the year scored just once at the 2010 World Cup _ against lowly North Korea. At Real Madrid, he has at times been eclipsed by Barcelona's Lionel Messi. After missing goals in Portugal's 1-0 loss to Germany and its 3-2 win over Denmark, there were again doubts at Euro 2012 about whether Ronaldo has the big-stage game to match his own inflated sense of self-worth.

But his two goals, his unflagging desire, his physicality and the way he worked for his team that defeated the Netherlands 2-1 in its last group match, advancing Portugal to a winnable quarterfinal on Thursday against the Czech Republic, were awesome. It was the single most impressive performance so far by any player at Euro 2012.

Having led Real Madrid to La Liga title, and with Messi not having a major international tournament to shine at with Argentina this year, Ronaldo could be world player of 2012 if he keeps this up.



As at the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012 has thrown up another sharp example of why football needs goal-line technology, heaping more embarrassment on bureaucrats in the sport _ including Platini _ who resist it.

In South Africa, Frank Lampard's shot for England against Germany crossed the line and should have been awarded.

In Donetsk on Tuesday night, Marko Devic's shot for Ukraine appeared to cross England's line before it was hooked clear by John Terry.

Under Platini, UEFA introduced extra officials to spot such incidents and to ward off pressure for the use of technology that can tell when a ball crosses the goal-line.