Euro 2020(1): Day Eleven – Rainbows vs Blackshirts
There were six minutes to play when Leon Goretzka’s moment came. It had been, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable evening for Germany. Hungary, outsiders in the Group of Death™, had hassled and harried them all evening, snatching the lead and leaving German coach Joachim Loew considering that this, after all these years, is where the exit comes, on a rain-sodden evening in Munich with the sound of a second successive tournament elimination at the group stages ringing in his ears.
Goretzka’s low shot flew past the Hungarian goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi’s out-stretched arm and in, and in the midst of his celebration the Bayern Munich midfielder pointedly made a heart gesture with his hands. The message, at the end of yet another few days of culture war-style politics, was clear. Hungary, this Hungary, with its democratically-elected hate and its sizeable number of black t-shirted fascist followers, were not wanted. The underdogs that no-one wanted were going home.
It was an evening of high drama in both Munich and Budapest, where France were playing Portugal. Three of these four teams could be eliminated and any of them could still qualify for the next round, and the first stirrings that this evening might be different to other evenings came after eleven minutes in Munich, when Roland Sallai crossed from the right for Adam Szalai to stoop and head the ball past Manuel Neuer to give Hungary the lead. In the group of death, Hungary had been considered to be the sacrificial lambs, but on this occasion the lambs weren’t going to take their slaughter laying down.
With Germany unexpectedly labouring in Munich, Portugal’s chances of advancing were assisted after half an hour in Budapest by a helping fist from Hugo Lloris, who comically misjudged a cross and punched Danilo Pereira instead, earning Portugal a penalty which Cristiano Ronaldo converted. Two minutes into stoppage-time at the end of the half, though, Kylian Mbappe may or may not have brushed against Semedo inside the Portuguese penalty area and Karim Benzema equalised from the spot, while barely two minutes into the second half Benzema scored again, this time after being released by a glorious pass from Paul Pogba. Since Benzema’s first goal had come in first half stoppage-time, both of his goals had been scored with pleasing symmetry, after 46 minutes and 44 seconds had been played.
Germany were, at this point, fumbling for their calculators, but they might as well have thrown them away. In the space of six minutes, three goals were scored which tugged the teams’ group positions all over the place. In Budapest, a second penalty for France, this time after a Ronaldo cross was blocked by the unnaturally positioned arm of Jules Koundé. Ronaldo converted the penalty kick to bring Portugal level again.
Germany were heading out of the tournament for six minutes, before Gulacsi made a bit of a mess of clearing a cross with his fists – okay, a complete mess – and Mats Hummels headed on for Kai Havaertz to touch the ball home from close range. German joy, however, was to be short-lived. Less than two minutes later, and with the German team still apparently celebrating their goal, a lobbed ball down the middle put András Schäfer through, and he lobbed it past the onrushing Neuer to put Hungary back into the lead.
Everything seemed to be conspiring against Germany. The Hungarian team was putting in another accomplished performance, and when the heavens opened for a storm so severe that it made the Allianz Arena look as though it had been shrouded in fog, it even seemed as though pathetic fallacy was against them. Germany looked shambolic. They’d dominated possession, but their movement was laborious, their passing frequently sloppy, and Hungary seemed to be having little difficulty in keeping them at bay. Even the introduction of the 73 year old, half-fit, Thomas Mueller didn’t seem to make any appreciable difference. Until Goretzka’s intervention, that is.
A point was enough for Germany, who qualify in second place in the group. They now travel to London next Tuesday to play England in a match that is sure to bring out the best in everybody. Still, this match was originally scheduled for Dublin rather than London, so we should probably be grateful for the fact that England vs Germany didn’t take place there. France, meanwhile, will make the relatively short hop from Budapest to Bucharest for a second round match against Switzerland, while Portugal now play Belgium in Seville.
Earlier in the day, Martin Dubravka brought a little piece of Newcastle United to the Euros, as Slovakia crumbled to dust against Spain. It took half an hour for this to properly manifest itself, when Pablo Sarabia’s long range shot hit the crossbar and bounced improbably high in the air, allowing Dubravka to reposition himself, jump, and… push the ball down into his own goal rather than tipping it over the crossbar. Yet another own goal for a tournament which has now had more of them than every other European Championships finals combined. Dubravka was in nomansland again in first half stoppage-time as Moreno crossed from the right for Laporte to score Spain’s second and put the result beyond reasonable doubt.
As Slovakia imploded, the match between Sweden and Poland in Saint Petersburg was – admittedly from a low bar – turning into a far more interesting game than anybody was likely expecting. Robert Lewandowski hit the crossbar twice within a few seconds early in the game after Emil Fosberg had given Sweden a very early lead, but it was during the second half that this match really caught light. Much has been made of Lewandowski’s relative failures in international tournaments when compared to the club game, and when Fosberg added a second goal for Sweden it looked as though he was going to crash out of this one with a whimper.
This time, though, Lewandowski, did at least manage to leave a positive mark on the tournament in some way. Two minutes after Fosberg’s second goal for Sweden he pulled one back for Poland, and with six minutes to play he pulled them level from close range, a goal which put Spain top of the group at the same time as leaving Poland one goal short of qualification. Deep into stoppage-time, though, and with Poland having committed just about everybody forward, Viktor Claesson scored a winning goal for Sweden which put them top of the group and eliminated Poland once and for all.
Back in Seville, meanwhile, Slovakia had collapsed. They conceded three goals in fifteen minutes early in the second half, scoring one of the Spanish goals themselves, before Spain shut up shop. A team that had been plaing very much as though they had left their shooting boots in the departure lounge at Madrid airport throughout their previous two games found that Slovakia had spare pairs that they could lend them. Spain aren’t back to the quality of the team that they had a decade ago – Slovakia’s performance was about sa far removed from their opening win against Poland as it’s possible to get – but if they needed any shooting practice to get their eyes in, Slovakia seemed happy to provide it.
With that, the group stages come to an end. They have, on the whole, been challenging but interesting. Of course, with this being 2021 there have been scares various over the Coronavirus, while UEFA’s support for homophobia over the last few days has been as galling as it has been predictable, as has the normalisation of Hungary’s lurch into fascism. Underdogs in black t-shirts cease to be cute when they’re singing homophobic songs and protesting against anti-racism initiatives. England played as though the Wembley pitch was covered in a thick layer of treacle, Scotland and Wales both continued their diametrically opposite attitude towards qualifying from groups at major tournaments, and the player who had a near-death experience on the pitch in front of millions survived.
And if you think the noise is going to die down at all now that there’s a moment to catch our breath, England play Germany at Wembley on Tuesday night.