Over the years many, many people have tried to put an adequate label to the game of football. It has been the Glory game, the Beautiful Game. All those cynics and those disillusioned stay away fans, who have laughed and jeered at such verbal extravagance should have been here in France for the finals of the 1984 European championship. The matches were brilliant, the crowds enthralled, the football exhilarating, the skills supreme and the overall effect magnificent.
This was the finest tournament of its kind since the finals of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, when the demands of coping with altitude slowed the pace of the game and worked fast to induce the sort of mistakes born of weary bodies. Far and away, this was the best finals tournament of the European championship's 24 years. The pace and drama of 1976 was here. But more still. The 1976 finals in Yugoslavia enveloped only four games. Here in France the class and quality endured through two weeks and a full programme of 15 matches. That France should emerge as winners was a climax for which all football fans should rejoice. Their victory was a deserving prize for the stimulation, entertainment and sheer fresh air which the French have breathed into the game through the finals of the World Cup in both 1978 and 1982.
So often in football the deserving teams come away empty handed. Brazil in 1950, Hungary in 1954, Holland in 1974 and the French themselves in 1982- all these fine teams finishing short of the ultimate prize in those assorted World Cups. France have now re-established a sense of football justice. Teams can win at the highest level while concentrating on the virtues of skill, technique and vivacity; teams can win at the highest level with superior class. The only irony of Europe '84 was that, in the Final itself, the hosts struggled to achieve their long-deserved, long-awaited victory.
Poor Luis Arconada must have gone through all the agonies in the succeeding hours. After his disastrous World Cup two years ago he had brilliantly resurrected his reputation with a string of fine saves earlier in these finals. Yet when Michel Platini curled that wicked, deceptive free kick around the defensive wall in the 56th minute, the gods smiled on La Belle France. Arconada saw the ball early, timed his move to perfection and swallowed the ball deep into his body. Too deep. It squeezed out beneath his left elbow and rolled over the goal line as Spain's captain floundered after it like a fish seeing his life running away. From that moment Spain were always second best; always chasing a lost cause. They didn't play badly. Indeed, given the absence through suspension of two of their finest players, Maceda and Gordildo, they did well. But in terms of skill and class they never matched the French and had to strive to narrow the gap with a physical drive borne of pride.
Ricardo Gallego hasn't played sweeper for about 18 months. When he first stepped up into the Real Madrid senior squad from Castilla there was quite a tussle as to whether he or Uli Stielike should tuck in there at the back. It was a duel ultimately resolved by pairing both men in midfield, where Gallego has remained ever since. Before the European finals, Spanish manager Miguel Munoz hoped that Gallego might, in his subtle way, take over the central mantle assumed in recent years by the long-injured Jesus Zamora of Real Sociedad. But against France there was no choice. Maceda, the stopper, was suspended; Andoni Goicoechea was injured. Gallego had to move back and - that awful rugby tackle on Bruno Bellone apart - filled in well.
In midfield Julio Alberto ran his heart out trying to cover for the electrifying bursts of suspended Rafael Gordillo down the left. The question over whether the disciplinary system needs overhauling must remain open; but Spain covered for their absentees better than expected.
Before the Final the London bookies were quoting France at 15-8 on and Spain at 9-2 against. The Spaniards were worth a bet at that price. Spirit they had in buckets. Up front Santillana played his finest game of the finals and, but for Battiston's brilliant covering on the goal-line, would have put Spain into the lead with his 31st minute header. Alongside him in attack Jose Francisco Carrasco proved that the orthodox winger can still be one of the most effective attacking forces in the modern game.
For Spanish football one can only hope that defeat in the Final does not overshadow the achievement of reaching it. After the shambles at the 1982 World Cup finals, manager Munoz has worked a near-miracle. Remember, Spain were not only runners-up in the European championship at senior level, but among the under-21s as well. And two of the stars of the under-21 team, midfielders Francisco and Roberto, appeared against France in the Parc des Princes. For Spain, their progress so clearly marked in these European finals is but a new beginning.
Throughout the championships we saw sure signs of blossoming new talent in so many countries. Portugal, mixing the artists so superbly with the artisans, were perhaps the true revelation of the finals; Yugoslavia were again so unlucky to go home early with so little credit for some outstanding football; Denmark and even embattled Belgium did much to thrill the fans. Even Rumania had their moments and the West Germans, deposed as champions, took heavy criticism not because the likes of Kalle Rummenigge, Rüdi Völler and Karlheinz Förster are short on talent, but merely because that ability wasn't represented by the usual high-percentage success rate. Jupp Derwall has lost his job because West Germany didn't win. Yugoslavia's Todor Veselinovic is also on the way out. Yet these men contributed a major part of their careers towards making these 1984 European finals one of the game's greatest events.
So much for the runners-up; so much for the also-rans. But what about our new European champions?
French manager Michel Hidalgo had waited a long time for personal revenge. In 1956 he was a member of the Reims team beaten in the old Parc des Princes by a Real Madrid captained into the first-ever Champions' Cup final by Miguel Munoz...the same Munoz who survived a car crash last summer to bring his national team back to the French capital. In the meantime Hidalgo had changed from an outside right of average ability to a manager with the respect of the world. The European Final was his last match in charge. After eight years he is retiring to a less-pressured post in the French federation and, hardly surprisingly, several of the world's top clubs would love him as their manager.
But a club job would perhaps be too confining for Hidalgo. As manager of France he could develop not just a team, but a football philosophy: that style is what matters. Then again, a man who has at his disposal players such as Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Michel Platini can afford to give them their head. Their quality can be judged by the fact that the talented Bernard Genghini and the bright new prospect Jean-Marc Ferreri were allowed only fleeting appearances in the finals. Giresse and Tigana, Bordeaux team-mates, are the men whose mobility and sheer enjoyment in their own skill led many observers at the last world Cup to call France 'the European Brazil'.
And of Platini, what can we say? He captained France to victory; he scored in every game in the finals; he totalled nine goals in all, including two hat-tricks; he broke Just Fontaine's French all-time national team scoring record; he laid major claim to the 1984 European Footballer of the Year crown (via France Football) and the 1984 World Player accolade (here from World Soccer).
Platini dominated the 1984 European championships just as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge dominated in 1980. On top of his success for France he helped Juventus win the Italian league and the Cup-winners' Cup, and was, for the second year in succession, crowned as top scorer in the Italian league. He has only one annoying habit -- throwing himself about in the penalty area like a Swan Lake ballerina when any defender comes near him. But then, Platini is still "only" 28. He is now the worlds top player, a giddy height reached because while Diego Maradona has been busying himself with his cash and his controversies in Spain, so Platini has got on with the business of playing football.
And not only playing, but winning.
England manager Bobby Robson returned from touring South America to take in the semi-finals and final and remark that France were fortunate to be playing at home, and that they would look a much different side minus Platini. His judgment was, to an extent, vindicated by Platini's comparative anonymity in the final under the pressure of persistent close marking from Jose Antonio Camacho. With their leader subdued, France had problems getting their game together.
It is a fact which must be recognised, despite the rose-coloured spectacles adorning everyone present in France, that when it comes to big final matches, Platini is far from the same player.
The pressure gets to him. In the 1983 Champions' Cup final, which Juventus lost to Hamburg, even in the victorious Cup-winners triumph this year, Platini was not the man who inspired his team to get that far. So with France in the European finals, Platini says that while he is close marked he is content because this gives his team-mates more room in which to manoeuvre. But what is surely taking selflessness too far. Maybe in the 1985 Champions' Cup final with Juventus, or in the 1986 World Cup Final with France, Platini will show us an extra dimension to his big-match temperament.
Such criticism is, of course, comparative. How can a fan today, engulfed so often by all that is negative in the game, not fail to respond with gratitude and delight to the sort of matches thrown up by the European semi-finals? The match between France and Portugal, which the French won 3-2 after being 2-1 down with six minutes to go in extra time, was one of the great games. It had excitement, drama ... and the highest quality. On the following night, when Spain and Denmark battled right on to a penalty shoot-out, the drama was repeated. But the class wasn't there to anything like the same degree.
The "names" of the 1984 European championship finals reel off the typewriter: Platini, Giresse, Morten Olsen, Santillana, Schumacher, Scifo, Chalana. But only one team can win. And that had to be France. Had to be France because this nation which has given so much to the world game in administrative terms so deeply deserved a similar success out on the pitch.
The game paid tribute to the memories of Jules Rimet (father of the World Cup), Henri Delauney (after whom the European championship trophy was named) and Gabriel Hanot (founder of the European Champions' Cup) in a very special way...by saluting the French national football team as supermen in Europe. Perhaps even, given the present South American uncertainties, in the world. Football is indeed alive and well and living...through France.
This article first appeared in the August 1984 edition of World Soccer magazine. Subscribe here.