The kick-off is just perfect

Seems more like Real Madrid camaraderie than international rivalry. David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane during the England- France match. -- Pic. PHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES-

Euro 2004 has begun on the right note, as a quintessence of football skills. This is just a starter, the main course is yet to come, writes S. R. SURYANARAYAN.

IT is amazing how the Beckhams are made for news. The paparazzi catch David in his underpants and a front-page picture is assured in the newspapers. If that was nasty then sometimes they can be innovative as the other day when they caught little Romeo crying during the match, sitting on his mother Victoria's lap. The child's grief was perhaps a kind of foreboding, for England lost in injury-time. The child's famous father was himself caught almost in tears at the end, for such was the effect of the French revolution that had magnified his own folly. The Estadio da Luz itself was engulfed in a melange of emotions. Not that there was a major calamity but football lovers had just witnessed an incredible turnaround of a contest.

England was leading 1-0 against its cross-channel rival and defending champion France till the 90th and last minute of the match when the contest entered the stoppage time. The dramatic transformation came about then. An imminent winner became the shocking loser. "One minute it is there, then two or three minutes later it's lost," aptly summed up Sol Campbell, a key member of the English squad, of that moment that was to shatter the dream of a whole lot of Englishmen. It was not the final but a league contest. Still, the stakes were similar to that of a Cup final, considering the rivalry, which raised the question, "How did it happen?" If there is a scale to determine the degree of improbability then this has to be there right at the top. If you believe in miracles then this has to be a classic case. It was an act of a genius. Where the French rank and file had resigned to the inevitable, one superhuman being thought differently. Not for him the pressure of time and tide. On that starless night in Portugal's Oporto town, Zinedine Zidane had a totally different perspective. It was a case of his seeing, seizing and signing off in style with two deft, decisive touches — a free kick and a penalty kick.

Ironically, David Beckham too could have done that prior to Zidane. He bent one free kick that led to a goal but muffed the penalty. Critics would blame Beckham but that is to belittle the sublime touch of another artist.

Touted as a competition that matched the World Cup in terms of passion and breathtaking action, Euro 2004 could not have had a greater start, in a way reminiscent of the opening phase of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. Senegal then made everyone sit up and take note of an emerging African power after it shocked the reigning champion France. On that occasion Zidane had sat out miserably with an injury. France, of course, did not progress much, but Euro 2004 could just be different. There is that urge to excel, backed by technical proficiency and most of all there is Zidane. It is a different matter that France, despite its riches, has kept the fans on tenterhooks. Against Croatia too next, France had gone on a tailspin before David Trezeguet, whose golden goal had brought the country the crown four years ago, ensured the team did not lose. Nonetheless, France has given enough indications to hold on to the trophy. Need there be any bigger warning for the other aspirants?

In a way Zidane and Beckham have brightened the competition with their divine abilities. And what is more Beckham and England have taken that fall to France in their stride. The reason: the match against Switzerland raised a new promise with 18-year old Wayne Rooney taking the spotlight.

Lighting up the proceedings further were the twists and turns and breathtaking goal area sequences that have taken football excellence to a new level.

Pre-tournament evaluation had not given Greece much of a chance. But, coached by a German (Otto Rehhagel), the Greeks made life tragic for host Portugal. And by upsetting Spain's calculations later, the dark horse really stirred up the Group. Who can now say that Konstantinos Katsouranis or Stylianos Giannakopoulous are mere tongue twisters, any more than El Hadji Diouf and Papa Bouba Diop, the Senegalese heroes after the Korea-Japan World Cup!

Talk of German doggedness and invariably the big stage brings up that quality vividly. Archrival Holland had a feel of it. But as they say class cannot be stifled and in this case the flying Dutchman, Ruud van Nistelrooy, showed why he is such a highly rated and handsomely paid footballer in the English Premier league when he conjured up a goal which did not seem to be there. The net result, Germany, which was sailing with a 1-0 lead, had to accept the rival's credo: go Dutch!

A remarkable departure from these tight-rope acts was Henrik Larsson's performance. The Swede had returned to the national side after two years and with two eye-catching goals in two minutes he helped Sweden to a massive 5-0 win over Bulgaria. This scoreline must have heartened the FIFA bosses whose obsession for goals is well known. If that result forcefully put across Sweden's claim for a passage to the next round, then it was reinforced by Zlatan Ibrahimovic's late retrieving act that helped Sweden level against Italy. That effort also saw Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper, done in for the first time.

Indeed, one of the features of the opening phase of Euro 2004 has been the goalkeeping standards. True there have been mishaps, lighter moments too like the Swiss goalkeeper Joerg Stiel using his nose to block the ball, even indiscretion as Sergei Ovchinnikov would tell you when he was handballed outside the penalty area and sent off (on the lines of Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca in World Cup 1994).

But the Dane Thomas Sorensen and Buffon for a change, provided some stirring moments to give a new dimension to a difficult art — goalkeeping. The gravity-defying lunges and the India-rubber ball like flexibility of these custodians made goal-seekers looking for that bit more of sharpness to their efforts.

To think all these were just starters! The main course of the feast is yet to come. But will the host (read Portugal) be there to preside over the final festivities or will a Beckham or a Zidane stage a few more magical moments? There is much to look forward to.