Three underdogs in semi-finals

Paris, June 23:

England have never managed it, despite a world title, Italy haven’t achieved it for 40 years and the Azzurri’s wait continues, as does Spain’s — for now.

Whereas Europe’s “Big three” of Germany, Italy, France have regularly pick-ed off World Cup honours, where the European Championships are concerned the glory has in contrast been spread around with nine different winners suggesting smaller nations are punching above their weight.

Inspired by Dutch, Danish and Greek wins in the past two decades the likes of Portugal and the Dutch themselved arrived for Euro 2008 looking to show that you don’t need a big population to finish top of the heap. Now, while the Euro drought goes on for the Italians and 2000 champions France must embark upon a period of self-searching and renewal — accompanying absent England down that twisting road — the four countries who have made it to the last four are a curious mix of what the European game has to offer.

Germany are, as ever, at the forefront, a squad that looks somewhat thin on major stars seemingly able to move up a gear almost at will, as the Portuguese found out to their cost in the quarters. The reputation of Die Mannschaft always goes before it with three titles and two finals as well as three World Cups.

But the remaining semi-finalists, while not small fry, hardly come to the table covered in past glories.

Form is not much of a guide with Joachim Loew’s side bested by Croatia in the group and the Spanish are the only group winners still in contention after Guus Hiddink turned “traitor” as his Russia sent his native Dutchmen flying.

Form goes out of the window almost when Russia which outplayed a Dutch team that had thrashed Italy and France began their tournament by crumbling to Spain. Only the Germans can call on their experience of excelling consistently both at World Cup and Euro level — something which their abiding eminence grise Franz Beckenbauer believes could be a crucial advantage as Germany build up a head of steam.

Beckenbauer and former international teammate Gunther Netzer maintain when push comes to shove, the last men standing will normally — Greece were a once in 30-years miracle according to coach Otto Rehhagel — be those who can point to a long record of achievement. That usually means the Germans or the Italians, who both tend to begin cautiously but then embark upon a continual upward curve.

With the Italians put on the spot and ousted Kaiser Franz says “Europe now fears” the Germans have had their blip, survived and are now ready to pounce for their first silverware since Euro 1996. “I couldn’t see any weaknesses in the team. With more performances such as that against Portugal they will be unstoppable,” says Beckenbauer.

With France and England in a trough and Italy trusting in negative brinkmanship once too often against Spain the semi-final draw is a fascinating mixture of the old “Germanic” world order and the underdogs who would unseat them.