Euro 2016: A Battle Between Hope & Expectation
The 2016 European Championships kick off in Paris next weekend with a sense that we are about to take something of a leap into the unknown. From the largely superficial to the almost existential, there is a feeling n the air that this summer’s tournament finds us at something of a crossroads, and that traditional pre-tournament fizz of excitement that comes with the build-up to a major tournament has been somewhat lacking this time around as a result of all of this. Compared to say, the sunny optimism in England twenty years ago, when an almost feverishly desperate nation was told, on repeat, that “football” was going to “come home”, the build-up to Euro 2016 has been skittish, febrile and tense. We’d love to concentrate solely on the football, but this isn’t always possible.
The most obvious threat to the well-being of the tournament and those who attend it comes, of course, in the form of the shadow of terrorism. The city of Paris, and in particular the Saint-Denis banlieue which contains the Stade de France and therefore both the opening and closing of the tournament, remains scarred by the attacks there last November and it would be a dereliction of duty for anybody concerned to seek to claim that there isn’t a possibility of an attempted repeat of those attacks during the tournament. Security at the venues is likely to be extremely high, but official venues aren’t the only places at which people will be watching matches and it might even be possible to argue that those that would seek to cause division through death with the aim of bringing about their twisted version of an apocalyptic war have already achieved a significant aim through the fact that this subject is in the forefront of so many minds on the eve of the tournament. We shall see, is the best that anybody can say on that particular subject.
The summer of 2016 is also proving to be a turbulent one for the future of the European Union, with a referendum on continuing membership due to be held in the United Kingdom in the middle of it all. The country seems to be deeply divided over the matter, and there is something of an irony to the fact that this is all happening when, for the first time in more than half a century, three of the constituent parts of this complex and difficult group of islands that sit just off the western coast of mainland Europe should be airing so much of its dirty linen, and so publicly. The skittishness that may well follow this tournament around is likely to be amplified in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
These tensions also extend themselves to the current condition of international football. Over the course of the last two years, the heads of both FIFA and UEFA have been toppled from their perches and the events of the last couple of days have amplified the feeling that the governing bodies of international football may well be incapable of administering the game without seeking to line their own pockets first. With the FIFA scandal over the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups still hanging heavily in the air and a feeling of greater schism between clubs and countries in Europe, the 2016 European Championships will begin with the rumbling of controversy at FIFA in the air, and UEFA, whose baby the European Championships is, may well find themselves being treated as guilty by association, whether they like it or not.
Even at a granular level, the Euro 2016 will be like no European Championships before. Twenty-four teams take part in this newly-expanded competition in six groups of four and with four of the six third-placed teams joining the group winners and runners-up in the last sixteen of the competition. Exactly how this will affect the standard of football remains to be seen, but it has been suggested that defensive football may be the order of the day, with some nations calculating that the lower points threshold required to edge through the group stages will not encourage coaches to throw caution to the wind. And with players’ contracts now so dizzyingly valuable, it’s not difficult to imagine that there could be some players who will largely be concerned with getting through the tournament intact. As much as we hope that it won’t be the case, Euro 2016 could end up being a summer of caution.
And yet, and yet. This summer’s European Championships have the potential to be a fascinating affair. France and Germany start the competition as favourites. France won as hosts of the European Championships in 1984 and as hosts of the World Cup fourteen years later. This French team is packed with talented players in the likes of Anthony Martial, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante, but expectations in France will be extremely high and automatic qualification as the host nation has meant that the team hasn’t really had the chance to prove that it is capable of reaching the sum of its lavishly assembled parts. Germany, on the other hand, are the current world champions and have, man for man, probably the strongest team in the tournament, but there have been points over the course of the last few months when they have looked brittle, notably in recent friendly defeats against England and Slovakia.
There are other possible contenders too, of course. It would be foolish to write off Spain, although the best days of the team that won two European Championship trophies and a World Cup between 2008 and 2012 have probably passed, and Italy have a historical tendency to perform above expectations when they’re written off before a ball is kicked. There are also a welter of other nations with players who are plenty capable of upsetting just about anybody. Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo. Poland have Robert Lewandowski. Sweden have Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Wales have Gareth Bale. These are elite footballers, amongst the very best in the world at the moment, each capable of turning the outcome of a match on a sixpence. Belgium are ranked as the FIFA rankings’ current number one team in the world. Even England have a cluster of talented young players and, should they click together, a potentially favorable draw.
The expansion of the tournament from sixteen to twenty-four teams hasn’t just been a numbers game, of course. Some have criticised this as a watering down of the tournament, but the opportunity is a huge one for nations such as Iceland and Albania, neither of whom have ever reached the finals of a major tournament before. There are also a couple of teams that haven’t progressed this far in a long time. For both Hungary and Northern Ireland, thirty years have passed since the last time that their national teams made the finals of a major tournament. A repetition of the glories of days long gone may be asking too much of either but, for supporters at least, football has always been an exercise in the triumph of hope over expectation, and both teams will be there, present and correct.
There are, perhaps, two conflicting versions of the world that will be coming together over the next few weeks or so in France. On the one hand, there is the pessimistic version, that which sets to pit nation against nation, religion against religion, one which thrives in a maelstrom of disquiet and disharmony. It’s noisy by necessity because it demands your attention and your fear in order to flourish. The other is a more optimistic vision. It’s the vision which includes at best what we already know and love about international football tournaments, though it might also be argued that this vision, in football terms, has also been commodified by those that administer the game, sponsors, and broadcasters in the pursuit of money. Perhaps, though, with the next two World Cups being tainted by the process by which the hosts were chosen and the next European Championships being played across the whole of the continent, we should try to enjoy this tournament as much as we can. We’re unlikely to see its like in Europe again for quite a few years.
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