The new balls, the dry pitches – and the midges. How conditions in Poland and Ukraine are having an effect on the players
At the end of Monday, all teams at Euro 2012 will have played their first matches. Some of the football has been superb (Russia's performance against the Czechs stands out at the moment) and we have not had a goalless game yet. But that is not to say that the players have had it easy. With the tournament coming after a gruelling season, the players have had to encounter difficult balls, slow playing surfaces, fans blowing whistles in the crowd, the heat and – of course – the midges.
As before every major tournament, a new ball has been introduced. This one is called "Tango 12" and after England's recent friendly against Belgium Joe Hart said he was worried about how the goalkeepers would be able to deal with it in Poland and Ukraine. "They're really quick," he said. "When the lads get hold of them with a quality strike, they really move and when the Belgium lad hit the post on Saturday I couldn't even get a token dive in."
As it happens, though, it is the outfield players who have struggled so far. Only 36% of the shots at Euro 2012 have been on target ahead of Monday's games. The average at major tournaments (since 1968) is 42%. In five major European leagues this season, it was 45%. It could be, of course, that the players are still getting used to the Tango 12 – or it could be that the ball has been designed for speed rather than accuracy.
Germany's squad should be more at ease with it than most others. It is an updated version of the ball used in the Bundesliga in the season that just finished.
Most of the pitches have been good but Spain were so incensed by the playing surface in Gdansk that they considered lodging a formal complaint. Cesc Fábregas said it was "lamentable" to have to play on such a slow surface. Andrés Iniesta added that it was "incredibly dry" and that to see the pitch in such a condition "was a disaster". Strong words from the Spaniards but, funnily enough, the Italians seemed quite happy with the same pitch in that 1-1 draw.
And the Polish Football Association president, Grzegorz Lato, sided with the Italians. "What nonsense," the former Poland striker said. "The grass was the perfect. The pitch is often watered before the game but you need agreement from the two teams. The Spanish wanted it to be watered, the Italians did not."
So sour grapes from the European and world champions or a fair complaint?
In 1982 Kuwait walked off the pitch when France scored a fourth goal in their World Cup encounter. Why? The Kuwait players claimed they had heard the referee blow his whistle. Prince Fahd Al-Ahmed Al-Jabar, the president of the Kuwaiti Football Association, even threatened to withdraw his team if the goal was not disallowed. In the end the referee gave in and disallowed the goal and Kuwait came back on to the pitch (only to concede a fourth goal anyway …).
On Sunday night in Poznan, during the game between Republic of Ireland and Croatia, there was also someone in the stands with a whistle. It was most notable just before Ireland's equaliser when – certainly if you were watching on TV – it sounded as if the referee had blown his whistle for an infringement or offside. The players, however, did not seem to react and Croatia did not stage a sulky walkout.
However, in the upcoming games, if the players hear a whistle and stop it becomes a big problem.
Few expected Holland to lose to Denmark but one factor that seemed to play a big part in bringing the Dutch down was the heat in Kharkiv. Dennis Rommedahl, at 33, said he believed that the Danes "felt fitter" than the Dutch players towards the end of the game. The heatwave in Ukraine will no doubt play its part in the early game on Monday as well when England take on France. The average temperature in Ukraine in June is below 20C but it has been above 30C the past week.
On Sunday Roy Hodgson, the England manager, had to admit at the press conference that his players would not wear ice jackets at half-time. The French will wear them, however, so it will be interesting to see whether that has an impact during the second half.
Will the midges play a part in Donetsk too? The England team will not only play France on Monday – they will have to take on the insects as well. England's players will have anti-repellent sprays to deal with the midges but, having flown in from Poland for the game, they will not be as used to conditions as the French, who have been in the area for five days.