Beautiful finish looms for Euro 0
Spain striker Fernando Torres celebrates after scoring a goal against Ireland during their Euro 2012 Group C match at PGE Arena in Gdansk, Poland, June 14, 2012. (PASCAL LAUENER/Reuters)
Every sport needs the dream of ultimate performance -- it has to do with the oxygen of greatness and the working on the spirit.
In this ancient city there is a sharply emerging prospect that may run very close.
The suspicion has been building with some intoxicating force these past few days and for it we have to thank the footballers of Spain and Germany, the aging masters and the perennial contenders.
They have arrived, it has become increasingly clear, not just to win but to set standards on how the game should be played and, when you get right down to it, honoured for its own sake, its demands and its beauty.
Their work is displaying a rare capacity to linger in the mind, to be replayed again and again not just for the success it is bringing but for all the nuances of skill and discipline and all that can be achieved by professionals of the highest quality.
Its magnetism is drawing us toward the day of the final July 1 at the Olympic Stadium. In the anticipation there is the reminder of how boxing was sustained for so long by the out-of-body glory of Muhammad Ali and that for the coming Olympics Usain Bolt is so much more than a shooting star. He is someone uniquely able to carry us on to another dimension beyond all the hype and the corporate hustling.
There is the same expectation when you consider the possibility of Euro 2012's final match.
Here, you have to believe, is something that could just make a vapour trail of all the problems, some real and others imaginary, which have threatened to drag down the world's second most important soccer tournament.
Sadly, there is no escaping the risk of fresh outbreaks or racism and hooliganism and price-gouging, but these are problems for the politicians and the police and also the conscience of the UEFA organizers who made Poland and Ukraine the hosts without seeking minimal safeguards for fans.
Many fans tell stories of nightmare logistics but most of them concede that the quality of soccer so far has been refreshingly good and that maybe in the end could be nothing less than sensational.
Who knows, the Russians and dazzling star Alan Dzagoev might sneak a route to the last day in Kiev. Italy and Croatia have had their moments, and it may be that the third and fourth favourites, France and England, still entertain hopes for intrusions of their own. However, it is not so easy looking beyond Spain and Germany. Friday, some bookmakers had Spain at 12-5, Germany 13-5 and next best was France a long way back at 8-1. England was at a not stupendously generous 11-1.
The compulsion of a Spain-Germany final is twofold. It is about the ability of Spain to hold on to the edge it proclaimed four years ago in Vienna when it beat an unformed Germany in the European final -- and the possibility that Germany may it have closed the gap.
Spain is not only a championship team but also has the most extraordinary passers of the ball. Yet in the absence of David Villa, the swordsman of the World Cup triumph in South Africa two years ago, the worry was that the great virtue had turned into a fault -- and a grievous one that touched on disaster when Spain could only draw with Italy after fielding a team that lacked a recognized a striker.
The unsuccessful objective, presumably, was to pass the Italians the death.
Now we have, maybe, the resurrection of Fernando Torres -- he was not only the killer of an eviscerated Republic of Ireland on Thursday, he might also have been the liberator of Spain.
Spanish coach Vincente del Bosque, who preferred Cesc Fabregas against the Italians, was certainly entertaining the possibility in a post-match comment that was less triumphant and more a public act of contrition. He said, "We had possession of the ball and we had to make best use of Fernando's speed and movement. He played the ideal match and those people who thought he could have played the first as well were also partly right."
In the unlikely event of Germany, the world's third ranked nation, suffering even the most fleeting moments of apprehension between now and the end of the month it merely has to rerun the video of the destruction of fourth-rated Netherlands this week. It was a victory of stunning authority and beyond the superb work of such as Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller, there is a frame or two which says so much about the German sense of well-being -- and perhaps some of the relief displayed by Del Bosque when Torres scored two goals, including his first in four years for Spain.
Another point of huge encouragement for the Germans is the steady force of improvement since a Torres goal beat them in the Vienna final. In the World Cup it was apparent they had a new and formidable young side, destroying England and Argentina on their way to the semifinal against Spain in Durban.
Spain was a different order of opponent but if Xavi and Iniesta were as relentless as ever in covering the ground and making their passes, they were surprised by the degree of German resistance. Indeed, the decisive breakthrough came only when the Germans assumed that Xavi was about to deliver yet another short corner. Instead, he fired it to the tousled head of Carles Puyol. It was an old-fashioned sucker punch from the masters of a new game.
Germany is too smart now to fall for such a ruse and, anyway, Puyol is missing. In that semifinal in Durban you could sense the ebbing of German confidence early in the second half. After England and Argentina, they were stunned by both the artistry and the proficiency of the Spanish game and then when Puyol scored his unlikely goal they realized there was no easy way back.
It is a doubt that may well re-form in the Olympic stadium in a few weeks. But then no one, including the Spanish, can any longer be quite so sure of anything. It means we are likely to have both splendour and intrigue in the air. Between them they are the lifeblood of sport and it is good to see them working so beautifully here.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK