Euro 2020(1): Day 8 – Game of Thrones

by | Jun 20, 2021

Hungary were punished for their fans’ racism in qualifiers of this competition. It is an oddity that their stadium in Budapest is the only one operating at full capacity. Hungarian supporters were seen throwing Hitler salutes during their opening match while a homophobic banner was also on display, while today hundreds of Hungarian supporters demonstrated against taking the knee. They were known to include neo-Nazis, and the black t-shirts seen in the pre-match  were very visible inside the Puskas Arena this afternoon. Indeed, it was somewhat odd that the BBC’s team for the match was so effusive in their praise for for them. Personally, I prefer my underdog stories without a side order fascism.

The differing responses to France’s start to the tournament with England’s has been a curiosity. Both beat a decent team that was considered not to be as good as they used to be, and then drew with one of the weakest teams in the tournament. France’s draw in Budapest this afternoon has, however, drawn about 5% of the hysteria that England’s draw last night did. France were away from home in both games, which may have contributed towards this, but they’re top of FIFA’s rankings while England are in fourth. (For the record, Germany are in 12th place, Croatia are in 14th, Hungary are in 37th, and Scotland are in 44th.) It probably says more about the psyches of the nations concerned than anything else. England are now up to 56 years of self-inflicted hurt, in both the European Championships and the World Cup. France have won the both the Euros and the World Cup twice each during those 56 years.

After 45 minutes of French profligacy in front of goal, which peaked with Karim Benzema slicing a shot wide when Olivier Giroud probably would have scored it, we were a minute and ten seconds into stoppage-time when Attila Fiola played a neat one-two with Sallai, then hit the turbo button to race into the French penalty area from an angle and shoot low inside Hugo Loris’s near post. There was bedlam, incuding shoving all the stuff off the desk of a woman who was sitting in the corner of the ground. She briefly joined the celebration, but she may have been blinking in morse code. Hungary, then, led at half-time but France came back in the second half, levelling midway through with an Antoine Griezmann goal midway through the second half.

Still, at the full-time whistle Hungary supporters celebrated as though they’d won the World Cup. Their country may have the highest Covid-19 death rate per capita in Europe, but the Ferenc Puskas Arena had 55,000 singing, shouting, hugging and kissing in close proximity. There seemed to be few masks on show. Hungary live to fight another day. Let’s hope the same applies for their supporters, too. France, meanwhile, are now guaranteed a place in the top three of their group, but they didn’t play with the same fluidity against this weaker opposition as they did in their first match. Their performance was an important corrective for those who’d convinced themselves of French invincibility, this summer.

Attitudes towards how we talk about other countries have changed a lot over the years, but Germany remain, in many British eyes, curiously monolithic. It feels as though there is a fear in this country that “Germany will wise again” in football terms after several years in the relative doldrums (much of this will ring bells with 20th century historians), and those fears willl have ratcheted up by several degrees after they comprehensively dismantled the holders Portugal in Munich last night. For twenty minutes or so, it had looked as though things might be somewhat different. Cristiano Ronaldo nudged them into the lead after a quarter of an hour, but four goals in 25 blistering minutes turned the tables in the group and started up a familiar raft of “Here come the Germans” memes.

For their part, Portugal were also complicit in their own downfall. Two own goals in four first half minutes by Raphael Guerreiro and Ruben Dias turned the score on its head before half-time, and two further goals from Kai Havertz and Robin Gosens put the score beyond any reasonable doubt with more than half an hour still to play. Gosens, whose club football career has been shaped by the recent success of Atalanta in Serie A, was the main thorn in the side of the Portugal defence, spending the whole afternoon tearing chunks out of the left wing, and even though Portugal did manage to pull a second goal back through Diogo Jota within minutes of Germany extended their lead to three, Germany won with a degree of comfort.

These days, every time Germany win a big match, air raid sirens go off across England. It feels as time as though there’s a common fear of some sort that Germany will get back to the levels of dominance that they have previously enjoyed in European international football, and every notable they win they manage adds grist to this particular mill. But they do remain defensively vulnerable – this match might, on another day, have finished 4-4, or perhaps even 4-2 to Portugal – and one swallow does not a summer make. This combination of results, though, does through this group wide open in a way that probably wasn’t expected before yesterday’s matches began.

Spain, however, remain stranded in Club Unable To Get Out of Second Gear. In Seville last night they were at home against Poland, who’d pointedly failed to set the world alight in losing to Slovakia in their opening match, and Alvaro Morata’s goal midway through the first half was greeted more by relief than anything else. Morata has been apparently uniquely unable to get his head round current interpretations of the offside law and had an incredible twelve goals ruled out last season for Juventus in Serie A. This time the flag initially went up, before the Roboref confirmed that a stray Polish leg had in fact kept him inside, for once. The long-running saga of Robert Lewandowski in major tournaments, however, took the match down another fork when he headed Poland level ten minutes into the second half, and Spain spent the remainder of the match chasing a winning goal that never came.

It wasn’t as though they didn’t have golden opportunities. When Jakub Morder trod on Moreno’s foot, the referee consulted t Roboref and gave a penalty, but Moreno’s shot hit the post, and the rebound fell to Morata, whose reactions weren’t quite fast enough. With the goalkeeper prone, defenders momentarily nowhere to be seen, and the goal gaping, Morata shot over. With five minutes to play, a diagonal ball into the penalty led to a scramble hich resulted in the ball falling to Morata, five yards out, but this time goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, despite having stumbled with his first movement, managed to scramble and block the shot. It was a moment that rather summed up Spain’s evening.

Spain, Portugal and France all failing to win did rather put England’s failure to get past Scotland on Friday night into some degree of perspective. The European Championships are difficult in the way that the World Cup finals sometimes aren’t. There are no makeweights from weaker confederations present, and every match is a challenge. It’s not easy, and this is why it means so much to all concerned, even though it’s not the global tournament that the World Cup is. Just spare us all hackneyed underdog stories about Hungary. We know what all those black t-shirts mean.