Patrick Vieira had the ball at his feet, as he sauntered in customary style across the familiar field. And then, suddenly he didn’t – the ball whipped rudely from him by some suddenly outstretched legs, which swiftly strolled up and away as Vieira stumbled over himself as much as anything else, gradually and dazedly to regain his balance just in time to see his disposer Cesc Fabregas, at the other end of the pitch, deftly setting up that crucial first goal.
Not tonight in Hanover, but a few months ago at Highbury – the moment which seemed to encapsulate how old master and young pretender had been transformed into young pretender and old master: Vieira of Juventus, and only formerly of Arsenal, humbled by the teenage tyro who had replaced him. Fabregas is talked of as the future of Spanish football – not so, say team-mates; he’s the present – Vieira was surely the past: very, very past-it.
Ah, but perhaps that wasn’t quite the neat ending to the story it seemed. Tonight Vieira added an intriguing and unexpected epilogue – and Fabregas showed that for all his phenomenal talent, self-assurance and potential, there are still things to be taught by the bigger boys.
I was just noting down how the excellent Italian referee had reached 65 minutes without booking a player, only to look up and see Vieira very lately catching Fabregas with his studs and deservedly earning a yellow.
But Fabregas, if he proved an inch too quick that time, wasn’t quite emulating the influential poise of his earlier cameo appearances this tournament. At times, as the stylish Spaniards struggled to break down and break away from a dogged, unspectacular French defence, he looked the most perplexed and lost of the lot.
Sadly for him, the worst was to come – a free-kick dubiously won by Thierry Henry was floated across the box by Zinedine Zidane, the defending likes of Fabregas for a vital moment confused and confounded, watching the ball bounce aimlessly off a leaping Xabi Alonso only back into the simple path of Vieira to nod in from virtually on the goal-line. Two-one France with just seven minutes to go – the 92nd minute extra by the still-got-it Zidane was a beautifully-intelligent spectacle, but otherwise the referee might as well have blown the final whistle nine minutes earlier, for all the likelihood of deflated Spain equalising.
Such a shame they’ve shown the old Spanish disease yet again, and again so early, having strolled through the group stage playing some of the most attractive football of the tournament.
Oh, and their fans really, really wanted this one – not least to avenge the French hex over Spain from crucial clashes such as the Euro 2000 quarter-final, when Raul blazed a late penalty embarrassingly high, and the 1984 European Championships final when Platini, Tigana, Rocheteau and the rest reigned triumphant.
Approaching Hanover stadium felt less like entering a top-level football stadium, more like a secluded but spacious private health farm, or the sports grounds of a particularly well-off school or college – or at least one lucky enough to sit alongside a pretty park in suburbia.
The inside of the stadium was similarly airy and spacious and, well, pleasant – even with the odd rail along the roof resembling the looping track round which the fake hare runs on and on and on at the greyhound stadium.
Ah, but the Spanish were in no mood to exchange niceties and discuss the scenery, booing, jeering and whistling La Marseillaise far more fiercely than I’ve heard any fans treating a rival national anthem this summer. In fact, I can’t remember any abusing the opposing anthem, even those infamous English.
The corner chunk of bright red Spaniards were certainly relentlessly rowdy and enthusiastic from then on (until the 83rd minute, anyway), without quite enveloping the entire stadium in their aura – more like crimson, cut-price Argentinians in their fervour and musical appeal.
Zidane, trotting across to take an early corner only for the referee to eventually, albeit very slowly, change his mind and award a French goal-kick – was booed and abused mercilessly. Not everyone, then, was happy to bow the old man out with style and a smile. Mais, c’est le foot.
Funny old game. Just ask those two Arsenal midfield lynchpins, past and present.
Only expect one of them to smile just now.