Expect grand end to glittering tourney

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


And so to final day. Tonight we shall all shuffle over the precipice and - depending on your team colours (sorry, I don't believe anyone is going into this humdinger as a neutral) - we shall tumble cheering or commiserating into the history books.

When the dust settles, Spain will either have claimed a historic consecutive third international tournament title or have lost one of their prized crowns to the maverick Italians, the country that defines what this great game is all about; passion, flare, derring-do and a scintilla of crazy genius.

Just over three long weeks ago in Warsaw, Uefa president Michel Platini faced the media. He deflected with shrugs and defiant Gallic expressions the relentless questions about racism and poor infrastructure. He was accused of presiding over what seemed like a misguided vote to grant Poland and the Ukraine the right to host.

Football will do the talking, he promised with confidence. The hosts have pulled all the stops out to get ready, he claimed - and the Euro 2012 initiative had sparked a building programme like no other.

The road gangs missed the Kharkov to Donetsk highway. There are potholes that must be 30 years old and some felt 30 metres deep when driving through them. They have caused minor damage to my Land Rover, a lost axle dust cap and a disintegrated rubber shock absorber. The last time one of the latter components expired it was on the bandit-infested goat track masquerading as a road on the hot plains of northern Kenya.

Still, I won't be sending a replacement-parts invoice to Uefa. We can't blame Mr Platini.

Bar any major mishaps tonight, the organisers of the third-largest sporting event in the world will have been wholly vindicated of their alleged crimes. They will be congratulated on their mission to head this far into uncharted Eastern football waters. It has certainly thrown the gauntlet down to Russia's 2018 World Cup showcase.

I cannot attest what impact the tournament has had in Hong Kong, the mainland and East Asia. But from the number of mainland journalists here, interest there has been on an industrial scale. And I know that despite the ugly time difference, many of the bars of Hong Kong have enjoyed unexpected rush hours just before the crack of dawn on school nights. Expect June productivity stats to show a downturn.

Here on the ground it has been an adrenalin rush like no other, whether I was in the stands of the magnificent stadiums, or joining the massed ranks in the Fan Zones in the eight host cities. In the truck stops and roadside cafes, cities, towns and hamlets where I stopped for a breather on my long journeys, the football flags have hung proudly and the site of my exotic license plates ensured I was made welcome and indulged in football chit-chat.

And so to tonight. Will Spain's coach Vicente del Bosque rue the day two weeks ago when his stars failed to eliminate Italy in their final group C match? The world and European champions knew that a 2-2 draw against Croatia would see them both qualify for the knockout stage at the Italians' expense. Instead, Cesare Prandelli's Azzurris go in search of unlikely glory with nothing to fear from the Spanish and with Mario Balotelli peaking.

What a game it shall be. What an end to a glittering tournament. Once more, football and the footballers on the pitch - and one in particular - have taught us the three most important things about the beautiful game. Always expect the unexpected, always hug your mother on the roads to fortune - and next time, consider catching a train or plane to avoid the potholes.