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Michael Ballack and Lukas Podolski during their match against Poland
© dpa-Bildfunk
Fresh legs trump experience in first round of Euro 2008

June 11, 2008

Holland, Portugal and Germany won thanks to sterling performances by young players, while veteran squads like France and Italy are looking old and uninspired. Is this a trend in the making?

As an old-school footballer, Günter Netzer isn't usually quick with superlatives. But even the laconic German playmaker turned sports broadcaster could not help expressing his "huge admiration" for 24-year-old Dutchmen Wesley Sneijder.

The young midfielder was all over the pitch in Holland's 3-0 thrashing of Italy on Monday, June 9, winning balls, feeding Ruud van Nistelrooy for his side's first goal and scoring the second with a superb volley past arguably the best keeper in the world.

Sneijder made Italy look old, which is perhaps not all that surprising since, with an average age of around 31, the Squadra Azzurra is in fact relatively long in the tooth.

The importance of any one match should not be exaggerated, and Italy still have a good chance of progressing in the tournament. But Sneijder's performance stood in marked contrast to the efforts of Italian strikers, Luca Toni and Alessandro del Piero, who are 31 and 33 respectively.

Could it be that players in their early 20s are simply fresher in the summer, when many of the Euro 2008 participants have already played 40+ matches in international, league and national cup competitions?

Germany, Portugal on the rise

Germany's two biggest stars are Miroslav Klose and Michael Ballack. But the man of the match in Germany's clear 2-0 win over Poland was 23-year-old Lukas Podolsksi.

Normally a striker, Podolski adapted swimmingly to being shifted back to the left side of midfield, scoring both of Germany's goals. But perhaps more impressive than the fact that he, like Sneijder, seemed to be everywhere at once on the pitch.

Podolski, who struggled to get playing behind Klose and Toni at Bayern Munich, looked like he had more gas left in the tank than either of his teammates.

The story is much the same with Portugal, who won 2-0 against Turkey, with the winning goal coming from 25 year old defender Pepe.

Pepe played a nifty combination with striker Nuno Gomes, sprinting past the Turkish defense to give the stylish Portugese the advantage.

Pepe was in and out of the starting line-up of Real Madrid this season, and he certainly wasn't suffering from fatigue in his national team's opener.

France, Czechs looking peaked

Meanwhile, Italy isn't the only veteran side that may be asking itself whether it needs an infusion of young blood.

The Czech Republic were very fortunate to get by the Swiss in their first match -- and 35 year old striker Jan Koller in particular seemed like he was on his last legs.

Much the same was true with Croatia, who only just squeaked past arguably the worst team in the tournament, Austria, and whose sibling defense-midfield tandem of Robert and Niko Kovac are a combined 60 years of age.

And France, whose goalless draw against Romania provided the lowlight of the tournament thus far, is even more ancient. Willy Sagnol, Lilian Thuram, William Gallas, Claude Makelele -- all fabulous players in the past -- looked riper for retirement than for one last international title.

Their combined ages are a century-and-a-third -- hardly a statistic that would lead many to believe that Les Bleus go far in the world's toughest soccer tournament.



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© Deutsche Welle
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