Euro 2020(1): The Quarter-Finals – The Nearly Men

by | Jul 3, 2021

One of international football’s greatest conundrums is that there aren’t enough trophies to go around. Every year, club sides get a handful of opportunities to parade around a half-empty stadium with a tin pot on their heads. If it’s not your turn this year, there’s always next year, even if, in many countries, next year will also belong to one of an ever-shrinking coterie of financially-plumpened clubs. One of the great ironies of professional football is that its love of wild west capitalism has put it in the position of letting something that ultimately hates competition become its dominant state of mind.

For international teams, though, it could never be said that there is too much silverware to go around. In Europe, the competitions that matter are the World Cup and the European Championships. The Olympic Games, of course, have a football tournament, but the restrictions on who can enter it limit its appeal, and while UEFA recently introduced the Nations League in a bid to do away with the ‘meaningless’ friendly, but while this has been successful to a point, it hasn’t yet but up enough familiarity as a competition to mean very much in and of itself to the watching public.

The result of this is that European international football’s history is littered with the bodies of teams who are extremely fondly recalled, but who never actually won anything of great note. The Austrian wunderteam of the 1930s, the Hungarian team of Puskas and Kocsis during the early 1950s, the Dutch total football team of the 1970s, the Danish team of the 1980s and Portugal’s golden generation of the first decade of this century have one Olympic gold medal – Hungary, in 1952 – between them, and you could make a decent stab at making a greatest team of all-time comprised entirely of players from just those five teams.

All of which brings us onto the subject of Belgium in 2020. It’s not that Belgium have already joined this cast-list of international football’s nearly men. The fact that there’s a World Cup scheduled for just 18 months’ time sees to that. But when a country with a population of 11.5m people is blessed with the abundance of footballing riches that Belgium has been over the last five or six years, there comes with that good fortune a parallel concern that the shelf-life of such a team is limited. When Germany were knocked out of Euro 2020 by England last week, it was understandably very disappointing for German fans. Germany, however, has a population of 83m people. They’ll be back. Defeat never has to feel like an existential issue for Germany.

For Belgium, though, there was a feeling that this team had either reached or perhaps had just passed over the top of the hill. The signs of strain were mostly clearly visible in a defence with the combined age of a Ford Model-T, but they could also be seen in the race to get star played Kevin De Bruyne back into the team even after an injury in their previous match had, we’d already been told, ruled him out of this one, and in the growing feeling that perhaps coach Roberto Martinez had, to coin a cliché, “taken this team as far as he could.”

Bad luck plays a role in this, of course, and not only in terms of injuries and the like. Three years ago, Belgium’s World Cup semi-final defeat to France was the “real World Cup final”. Last night, their quarter-final was “the real Euro 2020 final”, for some. Such are the vagaries of the draw. Last night in Munich, Italy left Belgium standing at the altar in their bridesmaid’s outfits again with a 2-1 win which continued their glide towards the latter stages of the tournament.

Italy had to work very hard for their win, though, and their further progress in this summer’s jamboree will have to happen without Leonardo Spinazzola, one of their outstanding players thus far, who was lost to a serious achilles tendon injury during the second half. All three goals came in the first half, with Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne putting them them into a two goal lead before a Romelu Lukaku penalty hauled Belgium back into the game in first half stoppage-time.

The second half was taut and tense, rather than thrilling and free, and Italy’s closing down of the game over the last ten or fifteen minutes was a masterpiece of shithousery, with the five minutes to be added at the end having a minute and a half added onto it as a result of Italian players tumbling to the turf upon the slightest contact. Prior to the start of the competition there was conjecture about the quality of opposition that Italy have faced over the course of their three-year winning run, but it as felt over the last couple of weeks as though they have slowly revealed themselves to the world, answering every question about them positively as and when they’ve come up.

In the semi-finals they will play Spain, who are showing themselves to be one of the Jekyll & Hyde teams of this tournament. At first, they were struggling in front of goal, with just one scored in their first two matches against relatively moderate opposition. After that slow start, though, they scored five in two successive matches, although their travails against Croatia hinted at a defensive vulnerability that they they hadn’t previously displayed.

Last night in St Petersburg, though, they reverted to type against Switzerland. A Denis Zakaria own goal – somewhat harshly given as such, considering that the Jordi Alba shot that deflected off him was on target in the first place – gave them the lead, but they couldn’t build upon this and midway through the second half their central defence went absent without leave to allow Xherdan Shaqiri to bring Switzerland level. Thirteen minutes from time, though, Remo Freuler’s challenge on Gerard Moreno brought about a red card for the Swiss player, and for the next 43 minutes there was little else that Switzerland could do but repel wave after wave of Spanish attack in a desperate bid to hold out for penalty kicks.

It’s not that penalties are a ‘lottery’. It’s more that the results can be highly variable. It was only four days since Switzerland put five perfect penalty kicks past France to knock the favourites out of the competition, while Spain’s record from twelve yards has been about as weak it’s possible to be, of late, and when Spain missed their first kick it felt as though Switzerland were set to be rewarded for the heroic defending that had got them that far in the first place.

On this occasion, though, everything went south for Switzerland. Fabian Schar, Manuel Akanji and Ruben Vargas all missed for Switzerland, before Mikel Oyarzabal converted to send Spain through to the semi-finals, albeit under the somewhat unusual circumstances of having won a penalty shootout despite having missed two kicks themselves. They now travel to London to play Italy on Tuesday night in the first of the two semi-finals. Switzerland had never reached the semi-finals of a major tournament before. They may well be kicking themselves at missing this opportunity, despite the way in which the rest of the afternoon had panned out.