Euro 2020(1): The Second Round – A Great Day For The Neutrals
It was the sort of day that leaves you breathless, your heart pumping, adrenaline coursing through every vein of your body. Through fourteen goals, a penalty shootout, an own goal straight from the Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning, three comebacks from two goals down and the tournament’s biggest surprise so far, yesterday was a day unlike any other in the entire history of tournament football that most of us would be able to remember.
Indeed, even for those of us with fairly long memories, it’s difficult to remember any day like this before. The only one that comes close is the day of the 1990 FA Cup semi-finals, when Crystal Palace beat Liverpool 4-3 at lunchtime followed by Manchester United and Oldham Athletic drawing 3-3 later that afternoon.
But even that day didn’t carry the jeopardy that this one did. International tournaments are unique in the way that they grab the attention of so many at the same time. When you’re watching matches of this nature, it feels as though the whole world is watching at the same time. Social media hums with white noise. The outside world is shut out for a few hours.
At the start of it all, it didn’t seem like there would even be that much to get excited about. True enough, Spain had scored five in their previous match, but these five goals came against a Slovakian team that effectively gave up the ghost by half-time and who were barely present by the end of it all. Croatia hadn’t uprooted too many trees in their group matches, either. And France vs Switzerland had the smell of the “comfortable win for the favourites” about it.
They started early, too. Spain had looked relatively perky for twenty minutes before Pedro Gonzalez rolled the ball back to goalkeeper Unai Simon, only for Simon to have one of those moments, letting the ball trickle under his foot and into the empty goal. And so it began. Spain raced into a three-goal lead, the third goal coming with just thirteen minutes left to play. That, we thought in these more innocent times, would be that, only for Croatia to come back with two goals in the last five minutes to rescue themselves an extra half hour.
On this occasion, though, it was all a step too far for Croatia, and there was something fundamentally pleasing about the fourth Spanish goal coming from a wonderful finish by Alvaro Morata, who has become something of an international laughing stock over the last few weeks, breaking his duck. Three minutes later, Mikel Oyarzabal extended Spain’s lead to two goals for the second time, and this time there was no route back for Croatia. They gave it everything, but somebody had to lose.
Following on from the high of this remarkable match, there seemed little reason to get excited about France playing Switzerland in the evening. France had won their group, but only after having won just one of their three matches, while Switzerland had sneaked through as one of the highest ranked third placed teams. And lightning seldom strikes twice in one day, not even during these balmy months of summer.
Not on this occasion, though. If we are to view his match through the lens of it being a story, this particular tale had so many twists and turns that it felt difficult to keep up. Switzerland grabbed the lead, and then had the chance to double their lead from the penalty spot, an opportunity that seemed to terrify Ricardo Rodriguez, who had to take it. His weak shot was saved by Hugo Lloris. Within three minutes, two goals from Karim Benzema had swung the game to France, and a glorious third goal from Paul Pogba with fifteen minutes left to play seemed to wrap things up for the tournament favourites.
You already know where this goes, of course. Haris Seferovic’s second goal, scored with nine minutes left to play, brought Switzerland back into the match, and with the whites of the eyes of the French defence now clearly visible, Mario Gavranovic scored to give us all thirty minutes of extra-time. Even then, there was time for Kingsley Coman to chest the ball down and shoot against the angle of crossbar and post with practically the last kick of the ball.
With the penalty shootout feeling like – for everyone bar the two team concerned – the perfect end to a perfect day of football, extra-time had a perfunctory feel about it. France had been playing in fits and starts all evening, mixing the sublime and ridiculous effortlessly. Switzerland absorbed the punches and tried to jab on the break. Penalty kicks may have been the outcome that none of the players wanted, but providence was on their side. Kylian Mbappé sliced the ball into the side-netting from a glorious Pogba pass. Penalties it was, then, for the first time in the tournament.
For nine kicks, everything followed a script that has been far from standard at this tournament, so far. Footballers are almost unbelievably skilled, these days, and the fact that so many penalty kicks have been missed during matches at this tournament may be considered a reflection upon the pressures under which they have to perform. Lloris got a hand on one, but all nine of those penalties found their target, eventually.
When Mbappé stepped forward to take the final kick, though, something didn’t feel right. He hadn’t yet scored in the tournament, and his darting eyes as he walked slowly to the penalty spot hinted at a player who hadn’t quite decided where he was going to place his kick yet. When he stepped up, his shot was firm enough, but the Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer has been performing superbly this summer and leapt to his right, palming the ball away. After a couple of seconds while the Roboref checked that Sommer’s foot had been on the goal line, the celebrations could begin. Switzerland were through to the quarter-finals. France, the clear favourites to win Euro 2020, were out.
Except we can’t, can we? No matter how short the odds are that England and Germany will suck the oxygen out of Wembley Stadium, we’re all chasing the dragon this morning, desperate for the high that we got last night. These are, of course, absurdly high hopes. One of the glories of football is that days like this can come around, but don’t often, and it’s doubtful that either Gareth Southgate of Joachim Loew’s heart doctors would be thanking anyone for a repeat of last night’s histrionics.
But there is a striking irony to the likelihood that the very moments that the rulemakers have been trying to iron out of the game for years are those that we cherish the most. Most sports are endless processions of brilliance, punctuated by the occasional error which determines who wins in the end. In many respects, football is the opposite to this, and its pearls amongst swine nature is part of what makes it so appealing. It reflects tha very nature of the human condition, because human beings are ultimately fundamentally flawed but capable of brilliance. It finds heroes from out of nowhere, and can bruise the reputations of the most exalted in the blink of an eye. Savour days like this. Their rarity is what makes them so valuable.