So here we are again. End of another football tournament, which truth be told, wasn’t a ‘classic’ by any stretch of the imagination - most games often had late goals, no goals, or own goals. The keener eyed readers amongst you may actually point out that there were very few own goals in these Euros, removing a lovely football metaphor for anyone who has heard of “Brexit”. But much like BBC and ITV pundits, this article has taken on the more informed view that facts matter little as long as one speaks in the football truisms that Alan Shearer and Phil Neville are so well versed in.
Traditionally, the “winner” of the tournament is usually considered the team to emerge victorious in the final and gets to lift the shiny cup in front of all the photographers. This outdated view no longer applies to the Euros, a tournament held together by the storylines of the various underdogs and their triumphs against the more established international teams.
Don’t get me wrong, Portugal are worthy winners. They deserve congratulations for somehow winning the entire tournament, despite even their best intentions. Not winning a single football match within the first 90 minutes wasn’t evidence of their lack of cutting edge, but rather proof of how much they enjoyed playing football. Coach Fernando Santos even lamented the fact that group stages didn’t also have extra time; thankfully, UEFA have decided that instead of expanding the number of teams in the tournament, the next edition will instead feature expanded matches that last 120 minutes rather than just 90. If Albania vs. Ukraine doesn’t seem like 120 minutes of fun, I don’t know what does.
Where do we start? Let’s start with the man of the moment, new Portugal assistant manager, Cristiano Ronaldo. His tactical nous masterminded a famous victory - one looks forward to him continuing this player/manager role that he has already perfected. His selfless side was also exposed during this tournament, as he only took more shots on goal than seven of the 24 teams playing in this expanded competition format. His ‘outburst’ after the 1-1 group stage draw against favourites Iceland was misunderstood as criticism, when he was in fact outlining Portugal’s strategy for the rest of the tournament. “Iceland didn’t try nothing, they just defend, defend, defend, they had two chances and scored a goal, it was a lucky night for them. We’re frustrated, they didn’t try and play. It’s why I think they will do nothing here. In my opinion, it’s a small winning mentality.”
Neutrals all around the world were desperately cheering the biggest of tournament underdogs, England, to succeed in this tournament. Having gotten out of the group stages, Roy Hodgson was able to exceed all expectations, and was desperately unlucky in what was a close fought game with pre tournament favourites, Iceland. England are definitely a team for the future - one must only wonder how they can replace one of their most successful tournament managers, who led the team so ably in both Brazil and France. His tactical nous and game management really came to the fore in game that will last long in the memory of neutrals. The press, for obvious reasons, could not stop talking about the plucky underdogs, whose very qualification was a surprise given their failed attempts in the past and the apparent shortcomings of their manager, and how they almost defeated the pre-tournament favourites Iceland. Sadly though, football doesn’t always reward the deserving.
This tournament was not just an opportunity for countries to either boast their prowess at football or pretend like they have never played the sport before; it gave individual players the big stage in which to showcase their talents. Pundits and other experts continue to blabber on about the usual players: Griezmann, Ronaldo, Bale, Kroos and so on, but for me, the best player was definitely Joe Hart. Although he has been blamed for his individual mistakes, no other goalkeeper came close struggle to match Hart’s style and grace in goal, particularly when almost saving free kicks. The one other player who has a realistic and credible claim to the man of the tournament award will come as no surprise to you I hope; Tamás Kádár from Hungary. The timid, clumsy defender epitomized the Hungarian team and spirit, and was one the main reasons that they were able to concede 6 goals in just 3 games. Undoubtedly, this was one of his better tournaments and Kádár should look back on it with pride.
Sweden, or rather Zlatan, as they are now known as, also played out of their skin. Zlatan’s only clearcut chance all tournament on goal was blazed gloriously wide, reminiscent of Fernando Torres in Chelsea heyday. Much like this tournament, neither Sweden nor Zlatan really fit into this article but I fear that an article without Zlatan would simply not be worth reading.
Rivalling Sweden/Zlatan for recognition as the biggest overachievers of the tournament was a monumental challenge - but it was one that Belgium were ready for. After the underwhelming performances in recent years, Belgium’s success in this tournament was a welcome change. Although they were easily one of the top three most gifted sides, they graciously chose not to defend against Wales to try and make the game more of a contest. Critics may argue they would have benefited from some tactical coaching, or at least some time on the training pitch together as a unit, but that is simply not the Wilmots way.
Which reminds me (on a completely unrelated note), that we all owe Monsieur Platini and his UEFA chums a big apology. His critics cynically accused Platini of courting the smaller nations by opening up qualification groups, and warned of both the ethical and footballing consequences. Whatever alleged corruption charges they have had to deal with, and for all the slander they received in the press, one can confidently conclude that expanding the tournament to include more nations had absolutely no adverse effect on the quality of football on display. Quite the opposite in fact; as viewers of the nail biting 1-1 Ireland - Sweden football epic can attest to, the Euros was an even more enthralling spectacle than usual. These Euros had the added advantage of intimacy- never before has a regular fan truly felt like they definitely belonged on the football pitch, probably in the starting XI of half teams, and arguably the star striker that Austria was calling out for.
This article would also be remiss if it did not recognise that one of the best teams in the tournament, Russia, could not have set the tournament on fire the way that it did had it not been for its glorious fanbase. Rarely has a major international sports event such as this taken place amidst such heightened security concerns, and the always helpful Russians took it upon themselves to increase security at stadiums and in cities. After their looting in Marseille cheering in Paris, Russian striker Arterm Dzyuba reassured his fellow patriots that “This is not a street fighting championship, this is football” and that they could therefore continue to enjoy the Euros in their characteristically good natured fashion. Marseille was clearly unprepared for any potential violence, so the contributions of Russia’s trained professional hooligan squad and England hooligans regular supporters were especially welcome. One Russian MP, understandably proud of the diplomatic progress and improvements to safety that Russians were contributing towards, boldly told supporters “well done lads, keep it up.” Rumour has it Marseille will soon offer him a a key to the city, if for nothing else but to give police offers a day off.
Given how the Confederations Cup is less than 11 months away and soon after the World Cup itself, both hosted in Russia, this tournament has given them the right time to build their confidence and restructure their thinking. By overcoming their difficulties, namely that they have no head coach, and that their federation is facing dire financial difficulties, this team was successful in redirecting attention back onto the pitch. Certain fans will always be unreasonably demanding. It was left to Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, an expert in anti corruption measures and understatement, to offer a strong defence of the Russian footballers caught celebrating in a Monte Carlo nightclub days after exiting the Euro group stages as triumphant participants. Having done their nation proud, they chose to celebrate in the best way possible, spending more than 500,000$ on champagne at next Italian manager Flavio Briatore’s nightclub. Unfortunately, luddites will always criticise - yet as Putin’s spokesperson so eloquently remarked, “If it [conceited disgrace] was done by the soccer players themselves, let God judge them.” One waits with baited breath then for Mr. Putin’s verdict.
Alas, I can ramble no further as the tournament has now ended. The one lasting regret that all fans have, and can’t escape, is never finding out what Will Grigg can really do when he's on fire. But fear not - football will begin in August again, and I can’t wait to see what he does for Real Madrid next season. For those too restless and still eager to waste the rest of the summer, I highly recommend the Rio Olympics. Having been one of the lucky few to have been given the script for the tournament well in advance, I can only suggest that the organisers have some surprises planned as to the winners of the 100m sprint, tennis doubles, and long jump. Until then, au revoir!