Euro 2016: The Story So Far

by | Jun 30, 2016

Mark Murphy has enjoyed Euro 2016. But he ALWAYS enjoys international football tournaments, regardless of quality.

It’s true. I have enjoyed Euro 2016 thus far, despite the tournament having a goals-per-game ratio which would have shamed the Italia ’90 bore-fest. Wales and Iceland being in the quarter-finals is evidence that the increase in finalists from 16 to 24 has had benefits. The Guardian newspaper’s Paul Wilson criticised the expanded field in his pre-tournament article Will it be a mouth-watering banquet or an overstuffed buffet? But he admitted that it was “good for the likes of Wales and Iceland,” as it has so heart-warmingly proved.

Critics of the format which eliminated 33% of the finalists after 75% of the games cite the fact that nearly half of Uefa’s national teams qualified for the finals. The 1996 finals, the first with 16 teams, were a success beyond the Lightning Seeds and manufacturers and vendors of flags of St George. That expansion was because Uefa had 47 national teams compared to 33 when finals were eight-team affairs, thanks to Middle and Eastern European geopolitics. The USSR played Yugoslavia in the first European Nations’ Cup final in 1960. Two nations then. Twenty-two now.

So the qualifiers-to-entrants ratio has increased from 1-in-4 via 1-in-3 to two teams short of 1-in-2. This, however, arguably reduced the number of meaningless games towards the end of the qualifiers and eliminated then entirely from the finals. However, whether or not the pros of the expansion have outweighed the cons, it has taken getting used to in journalistic circles. Ireland did NOT reach the last 16 for the first time when they beat Italy reserves (or “the next 16” as winning-goalscorer Robbie Brady called it in his emotion-packed post-match interview), as was said on ITV more than once. Nor is tomorrow’s game with Belgium Wales’ first-ever Euro quarter-final, despite what TV pundit Robbie Savage may think (although, of course, most things are “despite what Savage may think”). Iceland have made history. But we’ll get to them later…naturally. The smaller nations have justified their presence and added more to the tournament than established names, especially the universally awful Russians. Until England grabbed the prize on their way home, Russia had produced the tournament’s worst performance with their cluelessness against Wales, making Sam Vokes look international class while marking Gareth Bale like they’d never heard of him.

Other teams have had 45-minute horror shows. England were 2-1 down to Iceland at half-time but the second half particularly cheered much of Europe in the wake of the UK’s EU referendum result. Ireland’s second half against Belgium suggested that they’d have lost even if Shane Long had been awarded a penalty for being kicked on the head just before Belgium’s first goal. And in the second half against Spain, Turkey simply took the piss. However, Croatia/Portugal was a timely reminder that we’ve had very few 90-minute stinkers. Albania and Iceland’s direct routes to plucky territory weren’t easy to watch. But they, and slightly lesser culprits Northern Ireland, also intermittently warmed neutral hearts, even with 30% possession.

Hungary were easier to watch than expected, even in crushing defeat against an (eventually) on-form Belgium. Wales, too, at least in alternate games, which means they are due a good quarter-final. Italy have played well from the start, even if the depth of their squad was called into serious question by their reserves being genuinely second-best to Ireland’s huff, puff and, briefly, Wes Hoolahan. And Germany have been more Germany as the finals have progressed. Ireland would not beat them 1-0 now, although Thomas Mueller would clearly have missed the sitter with which he was presented in Dublin last October, as he is clearly being sponsored by a leading charity to NOT score in France.

In contrast, Spain only resembled their old selves against a distracted Turkey and otherwise resembled older versions of their selves. Andres Iniesta showed flashes of form but where he would have had Messi or Dani Alves to pass to in Barcelona colours, here he had Nolito and acres of green, green grass. Spain’s two wins came over two finals’ flops, Turkey and the Czech Republic. While pre-tournament dark horses Austria were actually donkeys. Aleksandar Dragovic probably dreamt of being called “Austria’s Cristiano Ronaldo.” But not in the context of hitting the post with a penalty. Presumably. Ronaldo is still a preening prick. And his comments on Iceland’s “small mentality” and snooty prediction that they will “not do anything in the competition” were so arrogantly dismissive of a team he and Portugal had just failed to beat that the reaction to his penalty miss against Austria nearly registered on the Richter scale. Thankfully, no-one has been so arrogantly dismissive of Iceland since (cough).

BBC main mic-man Guy Mowbray is clearly no CR7 fan either, receiving news of Portugal’s potential exit to Hungary during the game of the tournament with unmasked glee, leaving Martin Keown to take Jonathan Pearce’s mantle as leading CR7 sycophant. I’m glad the Portugal/Poland quarter-final is on ITV…words I’ll surely regret when co-commentator Andy Townsend first says “in-and-around.” I’ve largely eschewed the TV punditry, though. However, Slaven Bilic was a star even before dropping the “F-bomb” during France/Romania. Unlike hyper-enthusiastic Christian Karembeu, habitually generalising about the half he’s just seen, regardless of the specific incident being discussed.

Tony Pulis starred in Wales v Russia, showing Savage that you can be biased and NOT an arse…even if his analyses were jargon-heavy and despite “The Lad” featuring more prominently in his games than all the others. If Townsend’s “in-and-around” isn’t the subject of country-wide sweepstakes, it should be. You’d have to sell tickets in ten-second slots to make the “first mention of ‘in-and-around’” competition prize money worthwhile. You could sell 22 tickets for the first player Townsend wants team-mates to get in-and-around, unless there are some particularly early substitutions. And it might only briefly divert attention from Townsend’s inanities. But “every little helps,” as one large-but-fading supermarket chain keeps saying. Especially when Townsend has suggested getting “in-and-around Harry Kane” so often that it now evokes mental imagery too explicit for psychological well-being. (And as if proof were needed that Townsend is a malign mental influence, I screamed during Ireland/Italy reserves: “How can you be in AND around a penalty area?…oh…wait…”)

Karembeu and the humourless Lothar Matthaus aside, the continental European punditry has been welcome…a fine advert for free movement of labour across the EU (no more German telly work for Savage or Lawrenson now that we’ve voted “Leave”). Some natives have been less impressive. Lawrenson’s hackneyed world-weariness was unsuited to Switzerland/Poland, one of many matches which were neither particularly good nor remotely as bad as they might have been. Especially as it contained the goal of the tournament, Xherdan Shaqiri’s 20-yard overhead volley, which itself gave lie to Townsend’s oddball claim during Switzerland/Romania that Shaqiri’s legs “aren’t long enough” to try an overhead kick. And Lawrenson exposed the false pretences under which he’s in France when, during Ireland/Sweden, Pearce produced some genuinely interesting information on Jeff Hendrick and Brady’s childhood connections and Lawrenson ridiculed him (“have you had a good day?”). Pearce was being a broadcast journalist, doing relevant research. You know…his JOB. Lawrenson was being…a dick.

ITV stumbled upon the reasonable idea of getting former referee Howard Webb involved in panel discussions. Unfortunately, this only happened after ITV had revealed that Webb was in a “next door” studio during one game but failed to reveal anything he had said about any controversial penalty incidents (he probably just muttered “penalty to Man United”…ho-ho). And when they finally asked Webb for his “expertise” he spent two minutes trying to justify an obviously ludicrous decision (waving play on when Ireland’s James Maclean was shoved over in the box by the Italy XI’s Federico Bernardeschi) rather than simply calling out the mistake. Townsend was reportedly seething at Webb’s contribution, echoing the thoughts of more than one nation.

The actual referees have been good, despite Scotland’s Willie Collum being one. Errors have been so few-and-far-between as to be stories. And many have been “lesser” errors such as throw-in or goal kick awards. Iceland’s first goal against Austria was possibly the most significant mistake. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson’s goal from a long-throw should have been disallowed as Aron Gunnarsson was on the pitch when he released his thunderbolt. Still, it was Iceland… Likewise Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic’s sprint from his line to save Sergio Ramos’s penalty for Spain. You sense that a goalkeeper will bravely save at a penalty-taker’s feet before the encroachment law is ever evoked. Still, it was Sergio Ramo. Unlike many previous international tournaments, the games in France have felt like “real” matches, a sense you couldn’t get from – e.g. Romania/Switzerland in Michigan in the 1994 World Cup or Portugal/Poland in Jeonju in 2002. Mainly because fans have been highly visible and audible. Dismally in the case of Russia in Marseille and part of Croatia’s support in Saint-Etienne. But very commendably elsewhere.

The contrasting behaviour of some England fans and those of the other British and Irish nations puzzled many observers. If the two Irelands could support their team with such similar fervour and good-nature, why could England not match Welsh joie-de-vivre? Yes, Wales have yet to fashion an exit to which to react. But both Irelands were gracious-plus in defeat, with Republic of Ireland fans awarded the “Medal of the City of Paris” for “exemplary sportsmanship.” And while one England/Charlton fan’s reaction to the Iceland defeat went viral and was occasionally funny, “this has been f**king AIDS” was an unwelcome throwback to former boorishness. Croatia’s fans won the “Parliamentary Labour Party shooting itself in the foot to make an admittedly valid point” award after disrupting their team’s serene progress against the Czechs with on-pitch pyrotechnics in protest at Croat Football Federation corruption.  “Flares were thrown” still evokes childish images of airborne wide-bottomed trousers. But when pyrotechnics explode on the pitch near people, the joke’s over.

All four quarter-finals have something to them. Ronaldo and Poland’s Robert Lewandowski have personal tournaments to improve, Lewandowski having only looked like scoring in the penalty shoot-out against Switzerland. We are all now Welsh as they face rapidly-improving Belgium. Both Italy and Germany are good and in-form, the Azzurri unrecognisable from their qualification huffing-and-puffing. And France/Iceland will be a celebration if the hosts win and a challenge for Icelandic commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson if his side prevail. If they do, only dogs will hear him scream.

And speaking of screams…England… a blight on the “home” nations tournament on the pitch too. Northern Ireland did themselves justice throughout, bar being a little too defensive against Poland. And Wales continue to do themselves justice-plus.  But England. Introducing an early “news from the England camp” feature, the BBC’s Gabby Logan cited “the defensive lynchpin that is Chris Smalling.” That sent shivers down MY spine. And I’m no England fan. England weren’t actually too bad in the group games, unlucky not to beat Russia and Slovakia and deservedly beating Wales. Against Iceland, I assumed England could not physically be as bad in the second half as they’d been in the first, a feeling I had during Ireland/Belgium which proved distressingly prescient. I was wrong. England were worse. As worse as it gets. “Top, top players” making errors which would be booed by Isthmian League crowds. Even the most ardent “anyone-but-Englander” must have been a little shocked… before laughter regained control (a famous Daily Mash article from 2007, Scotland dies laughing, got a predictable re-issue).

It has been easy to mock the TV pundits’ pre-match confidence, which shouldn’t stop anyone doing so (it hasn’t). The normally measured Lee Dixon was surprisingly bullish (“I think we’ll beat them quite easily”). But when Rio Ferdinand said that if England “can be clinical and…score an early goal, this game will be a walk in the park,” you knew what he meant. Still, when Alan Shearer called defeat “unthinkable” you remembered that “thought” has never featured highly in his punditry. Sky’s Paul Kelso quoted a Russian hooligan suggesting that “Russia play like England fight,” meaning slowly and ponderously. By the end of the Iceland game, England were playing like Russia played. They won’t be missed.