- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 19, 2012

With the end of the group stage, Euro 2012 is more than two-thirds complete _ 24 matches have been played and just seven are left, culminating with the July 1 final in Kiev.

And, like a regular service on a car, this European Championship has provided a neat opportunity to lift up football’s lid, inspect its innards and assess its health.

So, in 12 days between co-host Poland’s opening 1-1 draw on June 8 with Greece to England and Sweden’s victories in the last group games on Tuesday, what have we learned?

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PLATINI‘S WINNING GAMBLE:

Basing the Euros farther east than ever before in Poland and Ukraine, to be followed in 2018 by the first World Cup in Russia, feels fresh and new and is helping the sport move beyond divisions dating back to the Cold War, which left much of football’s influence and wealth, best stadiums and future concentrated in the west.

The huge distances some teams traveled from bases in Poland to matches in Ukraine _ some 7,000 kilometers (4,300 miles) for the Netherlands squad, alone _ made Euro 2012 neither environmentally friendly nor logistically easy.

Hooligan brawls before and during Poland’s 1-1 tie on June 12 with bitter rival Russia, and allegations of racist behavior involving groups of so-called fans from Croatia, Spain, Russia and Poland showed football still attracts unwanted followers. Images of men, some drunk, fighting each other and police in Warsaw recalled rioting in London during Euro ‘96 and at the 1998 World Cup in France.

But pre-tournament fears that Euro 2012 might be dangerous for visitors, particularly in Ukraine, because of hooligans and racists appear so far to have been overblown.

Gambling on Poland and Ukraine, new frontiers for the Euros which looked ill-prepared for so long, is paying off for Michel Platini, UEFA’s president.

“We can do better, but better is perfection,” Platini said Monday. “It is very, very difficult to do better in this tournament than what we have done.”

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STARS SOMETIMES FLOP:

Platini, with a record nine goals, including two hat-tricks, at Euro ‘84, and Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane at the World Cups of 1986 and 1998 _ to name just three players who more than met expectations _ showed that football’s biggest stars can shine on its biggest stages.

Still, it’s also amazing how often they don’t.

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