Euro 2016: The Final Reckoning

by | Jul 11, 2016

This wasn’t, it seems reasonable to say, the ending to the tournament that UEFA were most likely expecting. As Portugal danced around the pitch in front of their small but extremely boisterous group of supporters with the Henri Delaunay Trophy tucked under their collective arm, the inquests had already begun. How could a team that only won once in ninety minutes over the course of their seven matches win the trophy? Was this the fault of the decision to expand it all to twenty-four clubs? This conclusion on top of much of the football played over the last four weeks means that Euro 2016 may well not be remembered with a great deal of affection outside of Portugal, Wales or Iceland.

On the night, however, Portugal were a reflection of what they’d been throughout the entirety of the tournament. Not blessed with the lavish talent that they had been when they hosted the tournament twelve years earlier, their game plan was simple and effective. They made themselves extremely difficult to beat, squeezing through the group stages with three draws, and then took advantage of a lop-sided draw to edge through to a comfortable and extremely professional semi-final win against Wales before playing a waiting game against a host team which played a little as though it believed that all it had to do was turn up for the final in order to walk away with the trophy.

This was an act of self-deception that only seemed to amplify after twenty-five minutes, when Cristiano Ronaldo was clattered into  by Dimitri Payet. Football long ago descended into a world of truisms and over-simplifications and Ronaldo is far from a popular player, but as the world outside of Portugal howled with laughter at a player being withdrawn with injury having been barely able to leave any mark on the game, Portugal merely shuffled their pack and got on with the job of shutting France out of the match, and ultimately the tournament. This was a team with somewhat limited playing resources, who had a game plan and stuck to it. France were one-paced and sluggish in response, although only the width of a goalpost denied Antoine Griezmann a winning goal two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the match.

For some, this victory for Portugal is already being considered a manifestation of the failure of the twenty-four team format, and there may be some merit to this argument if we apply it to Portugal alone. After all, it was they who edged through the group stages of the tournament without a single win from their opening three matches. The lop-sided nature of the draw, however, cannot be pinned on this. If anything, it’s more likely that the short-sightedness of other teams, who underwent a form of tunnel vision by which getting through the group phase was all that mattered without much thought being given to how the knockout stages of the tournament might play out, that is as much to blame for this as anything else.

Of course, whether this is judged a successful tournament in years to come is very much in the eyes of the beholders. For Portugal, Euro 2016 has undoubtedly been a spectacular success, far beyond what most thought this team capable of. But Portugal have been star-studded, in their own understated way. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio, for example, barely put a foot wrong all tournament, not only in the high profile matters of a string of magnificent saves – of which we saw a couple last night – but also in the less-celebrated matter of defensive organisation, which was the key to the team’s progress above anything that the captain could have managed on his own. A tournament that always felt as though it was about the team over the individual found deserving champions, in this respect at least.

The hosts are most likely still shell-shocked from last night, but any assessment of French “failure” can surely come to focus on what went wrong last night, rather than over the course of the tournament as a whole. Through both the group stages and the knockout stages of the competition they were imperious, with the doubts that lingered in the backs of some minds over their ability to be able to pull a rabbit from the hat when required cast aside by their crushing of Iceland in the quarter-finals and their win against Germany in the following round. The final, however, saw France look more like the French team that laboured to  score against moderate opposition in the group stages. Perhaps they peaked too soon in that semi-final against Germany, a win that allowed a little complacency to set in to a squad that needed to do more than just turn up for the final to walk away with the trophy. Perhaps they had nothing more to give after what must have been both a physically and mentally draining semi-final win. They certainly didn’t seem to get out of second gear last night, and it feels today as though, whilst France didn’t do anything particularly wrong last night, they didn’t do a great deal right either, and that isn’t – and shouldn’t be – enough to win a major international tournament.

But what of the rest? Germany can point to having been extremely impressive prior to their loss to France, and Spain may count themselves unfortunate to have met Italy in the second round, though that came about as a result of losing their final group match. Italy themselves were also in this half of the draw as a result of having lost their final group match with a much-changed team. But, considering the low expectations with which they arrived in France, they may consider a penalty shoot-out defeat to Germany to be a reasonable return for their endeavours. This is more than can be said for England, who stuttered through the group stages and found their monosyllabic football picked apart by Iceland in the second round. But for all the huffing and puffing over the last couple of weeks or so, English football isn’t going change any time soon. This is a team that is neither flesh nor foul, representing a country that is giving up on the outside world in many different respects, a curious relic of a time that never really existed.

The lessons that should have been learned by England many years ago were displayed in excelsis by the team that put them out of their misery. Iceland had the ability to stick to a plan and to work together. They have a near embarrassment of riches in the number of youth coaches at their disposal. They had the support of their entire nation, and a desire to make the most of their involvement in the competition. They ran out of steam against a host nation that looked to be surfing the crest of a wave, but left with their heads held high, having proved several not inconsiderable points. Wales also made the latter stages of the competition, although it sometimes wasn’t clear whether they were blowing hot or cold. Excellent against Slovakia, they mismanaged their game against England, before winning the group with a excellent performance, albeit against a rapidly imploding Russia. In the knockout stages of the tournament, they were tepid against a clearly limited Northern Ireland, outstanding against Belgium – one of the best team performances of the tournament, there – but were ultimately undone in the semi-final against Portugal. The disappointment of having come so close to making the final may be difficult to stomach, but Welsh football has built its own folklore over the last few weeks, and the benefits of this may benefit them for some time to come.

As a whole, though, Euro 2016 was a tournament that never really quite turned up. There were some excellent matches, but these were outnumbered by those that never quite managed to catch light. The terrorists never turned up, though they didn’t really need to, with Russian, English and local agitators happy to make a couple of cities unvisitable during the opening weeks of the tournament. And perhaps Euro 2016 will prove to be the end of an era for international tournament football, at least for European supporters. The next two World Cups don’t seem terribly enticing for visitors and the next European Championships will be spread across the width of the continent, from Baku, in Azerbaijan, to Dublin. Whether this will add something to the tournament or take something fundamental from it is something that we’ll only find out once it gets under way. For today, though, victory belongs to Portugal – and that really is the only thing that matters, when all is said and done.

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