Euro 2012 has probably produced the finest international team of all time. But Spain aren't just unique in finally winning three major trophies in a row. They're also unique in their very make-up. No other international side benefits from such a deep infrastructure, such a deep integration of a core of players or such a deeply imbued philosophy.
The Germans may eventually replicate that level of cohesion but, as this tournament illustrated, their brilliant young team still has to go through a few long nights of the soul to accumulate the necessary experience and character.As such, there's been a massive quality gap between Spain and the rest of the field. That was illustrated by both the final and the fact virtually every opposition team had to completely compromise their style to try and even compete with the Spanish.
Of course, over the last decade, many countries have also been completely compromised by the all consuming nature of club football. Unlike before 2000, when national squads genuinely represented the pinnacle of the sport, the last ten years have more often seen teams who were tired collections of individuals rather than true collectives. The most telling examples were Argentina and Portugal in 2002 and England in 2010.But that's also where Euro 2012 may mark something of a watershed. For pretty much the first time since Euro 2000, the majority of the teams in the tournament played to their full potential. There were no upsets, no surprise semi-finalists and, as such, not too many disappointments in terms of teams or players letting themselves down.
So, although Spain were ultimately way out in front of the rest of the field in the manner France 1984 and Brazil 1958 were, that very field marked a significant improvement from the last decade.
Better than: Euro 2004, 2006 World Cup
Similar to: Sweden 1958, Euro 84
Worse than: Euro 2000, Mexico 1970
As much as the final was the ultimate illustration of the quality gradient of Euro 2012, it was something of an anomaly in terms of how its matches actually proceeded. In short, it was one of the few games where there was no tension about the actual outcome. By half-time, only the bravest gambler would have bet on Italy.
Then, compare it to Euro 2008. In terms of teams going for it, the Austria-Switzerland competition was arguably the equal of this one. The only problem was that there tended to be such a disparity between sides that it was game over as soon as one went ahead. Most notably, there were Netherlands' eviscerations of Italy and France as well as Spain's 7-1 aggregate score against Russia.Although that tournament was easy on the eye, it didn't completely grab the attention. Euro 2012 certainly did that. Among the most exciting contests were Poland's first two fixtures, all of Greece's group games, pretty much all of Group B and – even though the final will reframe it – Spain's opening draw with Italy.
While Euro 2000 had more comebacks and more high-scoring games, Euro 2012 had some high drama.Better than: Euro 2008, Euro 96, South Africa 2010
Similar to: Euro 2004, Euro 88, USA 94
Worse than: Euro 2000, Euro 84
When you look back through history, it often isn't the attacking football or even the quality of the elite teams that is recalled about tournaments; their realities are often lost to long-forgotten debates. It's the individual moments that really make a lasting impression.
Consider Italia 90. By most measures, it was a dismal tournament. Its legacy was saved, however, by the fact it had so many memorable incidents. Here, Euro 2012 also scores very highly.In ascending order, there was Poland's equaliser against Russia, Andriy Shevchenko's perfect ending, the last few minutes of Greece-Russia, Denmark stunning the Dutch, Mario Balotelli's second against Germany, Spain's first two goals in the final and, of course, Andrea Pirlo's penalty.
Sure, none of these reached the dramatic, emotional or narrative heights of Marco van Basten's volley, the Hand of God or the 1974 World Cup final... but many will occupy attention for far, far longer than the seconds they lasted.Better than: Euro 2008, Euro 92, Chile 1962
Similar to: Italia 90, Japan/Korea 2002, Switzerland 1954, Euro 2000
Worse than: Mexico 1970, Spain 1982, West Germany 1974
It was a tournament in which fortune favoured the brave. In almost every such clash, attacking play was rewarded, defensive approaches were exposed.
Of course, the irony of that is there has probably never been a poorer tournament for the most attacking players on a pitch: the forwards. This was epitomised by the fact the golden boot was won by the lowest number of goals since the tournament expanded to 16 teams as well as the very formation of its champions.As an experiment, try to pick the stand-out strikers. Are there any? The majority only truly performed for one or two matches. A telling fact is that all of the players who hit three goals scored them in just two games.
In that case, can you really put the likes of Fernando Torres or Balotelli in any team of the tournament ahead of Cesc Fabregas – the player whose position caused so much debate? Indeed, given the excellence of so many midfielders, should the team of the tournament resemble Vicente Del Bosque's 4-3-3-0?As heated as all of those arguments got, though, the formation is not original. Pep Guardiola played it – as well as Fabregas in that very position – at the start of the 2011-12 campaign.
That itself illustrates how modern competitions are at something of a disadvantage in terms of trend-setting. The remarkable, resource-driven rise of the club game has seen the two different levels of the sport swap positions. Generally, internationals now take their lead from those who fill their leagues.
Look, after all, at the differences between the 2011-12 Champions League and Euro 2012. In the club season, Chelsea's continental victory illustrated how defensive football just about succeeded. This summer's European Championship, however, took the general trend of 2008-11: proactive teams progressing, right down to Spain's Barcelona core winning again.
Better than: Euro 96, USA 94, France 1998
Similar to: Euro 2000, Euro 2008, Euro 84
Worse than: Switzerland 1954, Mexico 1970, West Germany 1974, Spain 1982, Euro 2004
The tournament held in Poland and Ukraine was by no means flawless. In terms of simple logistics, there is an argument it was the worst organised competition in the last 20 years. The opposite ends of the two countries were too far apart and too many problems travelling between them – as encapsulated by the fact a four-hour journey from Warsaw to Lviv took 11 hours due to all manner of ludicrous transportation problems. There were also issues with hotel availability and prices, particularly in Donetsk.
But, perhaps more importantly, the tournament was by no means joyless. It was impossible not to be warmed by the welcoming hosts and there was a vibrant, friendly atmosphere around almost all the matches. So many of the pre-tournament fears proved utterly unfounded. All over Ukraine, smiling locals would ask journalists whether they worked for Panorama with a cheeky rebuke.Indeed, the only real trouble came from one of the visiting teams: the Russian mobs attacking stewards was probably the most sickening moment of the tournament.
For the most part, though, the utterly superb and hugely distinctive stadiums were filled with cheery supporters who wanted to enjoy themselves. Some results aside – as the likes of the Irish will tell you – that was exactly what they did.Euro 2012 wasn't perfect. But, in many ways, that only added to its charm.
Better than: Euro 80
Similar to: South Africa 2010
Worse than: Germany 2006, Euro 2008