Portugal should not be begrudged their win, but Euro 2016 raised serious questions about international football
As the fireworks went off at the Stade de France and the swarm of moths was supplanted by green, red and silver glitter, the sense was one of relief. The longest Euros in history, the worst since at least 1992 and perhaps ever, was over. The Eiffel Tower stood wreathed in tear gas, the hosts were shattered and the reputation of international football lay severely bruised. Not that Portugal particularly cared after lifting their first international trophy. If there wasn’t one dominant side at the tournament, it was at least won by the team who played the tournament’s prevailing style the best.
There was even, slightly surprisingly for many, a groundswell of sympathy of Cristiano Ronaldo, who found himself an international champion at last just as Portugal proved they could cope without him. There will still be those who insist his tears and his technical area histrionics were just further evidence of his egotism, of making it all about him, but that seems unduly sour: this was a man desperate to help his country win a trophy and fulfil the promise he had tearfully made after Greece had beaten Portugal in the final of Euro 2004. In a sense it was the perfect narrative arc: Portugal had to learn to be a little more like Greece, Ronaldo had to be subjugated to the team, before they could put right their failure at the hands of Greece.
But little else about the tournament was perfect. This was a slog, fifty-one games of which perhaps two will live in the memory. The football was stodgy, the atmosphere often fractious and fearful – although this being France, the food and wine offered significant mitigation. This felt like the whole notion of international football on the brink, played out in a Europe on the brink.
Euro 96, as I wrote in the Editor’s Note to the last Blizzard, was the centre-piece of the best summer of my life. In retrospect, I recognise the football probably wasn’t especially good and acknowledge that to accept the then-prevalent image of a new, happier fandom is to ignore the violence that followed England’s semi-final defeat, but that was a gloriously optimistic time – something that I don’t think was just down to my youth. The contrast with Euro 2016 could hardly have been greater.
There is a significant element of subjectivity here, of course, but again the tournament seems to reflect wider forces. The sporadic outbreaks of hooliganism at Euro 2016 – not merely among English fans but also those from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, Spain and France – reflect a Europe that is crumbling amid rising nationalisms. Early in the tournament especially the football felt almost an afterthought.
Central to that was June 23 and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Harry Kane claimed that Brexit had had little effect on the England squad because none of them really understood it. Perhaps he was offering a classic footballers’ dodge; perhaps he meant it. But Brexit and what it represented certainly had an effect on the tournament.
I’d booked my hotel in Paris in the summer of 2015. It was only when I arrived that I realised it was less than 10 minutes walk from the Bataclan Theatre, where 89 people were killed last November at an Eagles of Death Metal concert. I’d vaguely thought about paying a visit, but I came upon the theatre unexpectedly, fiddling about with my phone trying to work out where I was. It’s far smaller than I’d expected, which somehow makes the sense of terror all the greater; those inside must have realised very quickly that there was little chance of escape. It’s still surrounded by white-painted boards, sheets of corrugated steel and scaffolding but other than that, and a reporter doing a piece to camera on the crossing outside, it was entirely unremarkable – a reminder of the banality of terror.
The events of last November lurked in the background in those days leading up to the start of the tournament, to the extent that it was probably a good idea that the opening ceremony made no reference to them. Instead it was a silly, hallucinatory affair on a Folies Bergère theme, with huge lips, an accordion, pink fluff and can-can dancers swirling about amid shrubs on a maze backdrop that probably represented the Tuileries Gardens (or perhaps merely the layout of the under-signposted Stade de France which, excitingly, contained a secret press room accessible only to those who took a wrong turn by the gents and blundered through the fur coats in the wardrobe). And there was David Guetta, who apparently is famous. He certainly played his records and waved his hands very professionally, more than justifying his selection.
Perhaps it’s reading too much into what is always a rousing anthem, but in the singing of the Marseillaise there seemed an additional pride and defiance. France themselves were – just about – good enough, the brilliance of Dimitri Payet overcoming the defensive shakiness, the wastefulness of Olivier Giroud and the midfield’s lack of balance as the hosts began with a 2-1 win over Romania.
That was to be a familiar pattern for France. Against Albania in their second game they were largely uninspired before late goals from Antoine Griezmann and Payet, again, salvaged a 2-0 win. It began to look as though it would be Payet’s tournament, but that goal proved his last decisive intervention. A 0-0 draw against Switzerland in the final group game meant little, although it did feature a ferocious opening 20 minutes from Paul Pogba, who struck the woodwork twice – a response seemingly driven partly by his anger at being left out from the start of the Albania game, although he came on at half-time, and partly by his irritation at L’Équipe which, having built him up in the months before the tournament, seemed determined to knock him down.
Switzerland went through in second, an early goal and the early dismissal of Lorik Cana in their opening game against Albania leading to a relatively simple 1-0 win. Although they subsequently went behind against Romania, Admir Mehmedi’s second-half equaliser led to stasis and a draw both sides apparently saw as mutually beneficial. The four points Switzerland had at that stage would have been enough to take them through; the win Romania imagined they would secure against Albania never materialised as they lost 1-0, Armando Sadiku’s goal giving the Albanians their first ever points in a major tournament.
I was not in Marseille before the game between England and Russia, but I was at Lille against Manchester United in 2005, a game played in Lens. A large number United fans behaved appallingly, letting off firecrackers on the train and being generally abusive, clearly relishing the opportunity to intimidate commuters. In the stadium, a crush developed behind the goal in the away end. A few spilled out of a gate in the fence. They were staggering, looking dazed, clearly not intent on causing trouble but distressed. The CRS [Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, the French riot police] set about them with batons, then fired tear gas canisters into the crush, causing panic. It was an armed forced attacking an unarmed enemy. Some United fans had behaved like arseholes; the CRS had behaved brutishly and stupidly and, I would say, criminally. It is possible for both those statements to be true, although many on social media seemed to struggle to comprehend that in the aftermath of Marseille. It was also remarkable how many slipped back into the clichés of the eighties and nineties when there hadn’t been a major incident of English hooliganism at a major tournament since Charleroi in 2000. The Spanish newspaper AS was particularly cretinous in its coverage, not that that should come as a great surprise given the general level of Spanish sports journalism.
There’s no doubt drunken English fans behaved yobbishly in the Vieux Port, the shameful rhetoric of much of the Brexit campaign perhaps contributing to a them-against-us mentality. Some of those fans were pretty clearly guilty of public order offences and criminal damage. The usual defence is boisterousness, “just having fun”, but that doesn’t really wash. You can’t expect foreign police to grasp nuances of behaviour that would be understood at home: you are guests and have to behave accordingly, which is to say, better, more politely, more respectfully than you would at home. And there’s not a whole lot of nuance in leering, repulsive aggression anyway, even if you understand that it’s not going to go beyond chanting and making life a bit harder, a bit more unpleasant for locals. Stand on a table and chant “Marseille is ours” or “Fuck off Europe” and you’re goading both police and local hard-cases.
But from the accounts of those who were there, journalists and fans of many nationalities, it’s also clear that England fans, many of them quietly having a drink or simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, were set upon by local youths. What happened on the day of the game was something else altogether: Russian groups in balaclavas, many dressed in black T-shirts, many wearing gum-shields and MMA gloves, many armed with knives, telescopic batons and, it was said, small axes, deliberately set about England fans, whether they were looking for trouble or not. “There were 150 Russian supporters who in reality were hooligans,” said the city’s chief prosecutor Brice Robin. “These people were well prepared for ultra-rapid, ultra-violent action. These are extremely well-trained people."
One Russian hooligan leader, Vladimir, gave an interview that was given widespread coverage. “Fans or hooligans from Russia are mainly younger, aged 20-30 and at home most of them are into sports,” he said. “They do sports like boxing or all kinds of martial arts. The aim is to come and prove that English fans aren't hooligans, they don't know how to fight. A lot of Russian guys come specially with this aim.” Self-aggrandisement is common among hooligan ‘spokesmen’ so such words must always be treated with caution, but what he said tallied with other reports on the ground and with my own experience in Russia.
English fans are still regarded as the masters of hooliganism. “The English always say they are the main football hooligans,” said Vladimir. “We went to show that the English are girls.” But that view is as prehistoric as his gender politics. The delighted seizing of flags as though they were the standards of a legion or the insignia of a firm – rather than something a couple of lads knocked up for their boozy holiday – seemed to confirm the basic category error. Perhaps 20 or 30 years ago, English hooligans really were the ‘best’ in the world and it really was worth challenging them. But that – thankfully – has changed and banning orders, anyway, mean that England’s remaining hooligans are left at home.
Hope of similar measures being taken by Russian authorities seem slight. “250 Russian fans repulsed an attack by several thousand English and forced them to flee,” said the state news service Vesti. “English fans started the fight by attacking our fans, but 250 Russians from different corners of our country did not flinch and repulsed the attack of the heavily drunken islanders.” It’s a remarkable paragraph, being inaccurate in every detail, whipping up xenophobic sentiment and glamourising violence. Vitali Mutko, the Russian sports minister, denied even what was obvious to anybody who saw the pictures, claiming Russian fans had not charged English fans after the final whistle. Video showed Mutko on the pitch applauding Russian fans shortly after their charge.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting,” Igor Lebedev, an MP who sits on the executive committee of the Russian Football Union tweeted. “Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!” In that context, the astonishing theory raised by certain Whitehall officials that the thugs were state-sponsored, their violence aimed at convincing the domestic audience that Russia is threatened by a vast international conspiracy, made a certain sense.
But whether that’s true or not, it’s clear the policing was wholly inadequate and, in certain cases, caused an escalation of the trouble. A friend spoke of a bar manager ushering fleeing England fans inside then bolting the doors against Russian hooligans, only for the CRS to fire tear gas, causing panic among those trapped inside. Others had an experience similar to mine in 2005, coming to the horrible conclusion that the police were not to be trusted to offer protection and were just as likely to do harm as either set of fans. Rebekah Vardy, Jamie Vardy’s wife, described how she and several others had fled tear gas inside the stadium, only to find themselves trapped in a crush by locked gates. There are those who have sought to excuse the police saying they’re particularly nervous after the events of November and exhausted from enforcing the state of emergency, but the truth is that there were elements of this that were a repeat of 2005. When facing a full-on riot, tear gas is perhaps an efficient means of dispersal but as a form of crowd control, when many there are innocent and bewildered, it is stupid and dangerous, particularly in an enclosed space. The CRS’s reliance on it suggests they have no capability for policing at football matches.
The sight of England fans fleeing the stadium in Marseille, clambering over fences to escape, should shame Uefa and local authorities. As in Basel at the Europa League final the previous month, a thin line of stewards was left for far too long to deal with an outbreak of violence in a stand. This, though, was far worse. In Basel there had been perhaps 10-20 combatants on either side and the violence came from nothing. This far more serious outbreak was entirely predictable and it was bizarre the CRS weren’t primed.
Tales of what followed, cancelled Metros and buses, fans wandering through an unfamiliar city, unprotected and terrified, are scandalous. Police and the CRS vanished when real trouble emerged and failed utterly in their basic duty of protecting the innocent.
But then the inadequacy of the French policing was only an issue because of the Russians and the misbehaviour of England fans, whose aggressive posturing continued in Lille, St Étienne and Nice, where it took on in places a distinct post-Brexit, anti-Europe edge. Others booed anti-EU chants, creating an uncomfortable dynamic. And as the carnage in Nice four days after the final showed, the police have far more important threats to worry about than pissed-up idiots acting moronically. The sense of relief when England were eliminated was palpable.
In terms of football, England played reasonably well but without incision for three and a half games, then brainlessly in the second half against Iceland as there came the familiar sense of numb panic and cross after cross was lumped aimlessly into the box. As ever, there was a complete loss of proportion and good sense. The scapegoating of Raheem Sterling, who had a poor tournament, his confidence shot, was disgraceful: he is 21.
Roy Hodgson had always said, with a certain amount of reason, that this England, with its pace in forward areas, would be at its best when it was able to counter-attack, when it came up against a side that played proactively against it. It’s debatable whether the defence was ever good enough to make that possible, but it’s equally true that the last side to attack England in a competitive game was Switzerland in September 2014. England picked them off to win 2-0. Hodgson’s assertion remained forever in the realm of potential but, for all England’s campaign was portrayed as a disaster, it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality in which a couple more of the 82 shots they managed in the tournament – more than anybody else after the round of 16 – went in, or Joe Hart hadn’t made either of his two chocolate-wristed gaffes, or the defence had responded competently to a basic cross against Russia and a basic flicked long throw against Iceland and England had found themselves preparing to test Hodgson’s counter-attacking theory in a quarter-final. Only in the second half against Iceland, when there was a complete mental and tactical collapse, did England actually play badly.
Hodgson was blamed, as managers always are, and had the good grace to resign immediately before rather ruining the effect by refusing to give a press conference until he’d been cajoled into it the following day. It was widely alleged, as it often is, that he’d had no plan and that he’d confused the players. The truth is he had a clear plan: 4-3-3 against sides who sat deep, 4-3-1-2 against more proactive sides. The injury to Danny Welbeck – and then Adam Lallana – and Sterling’s loss of form denied him width, while both Harry Kane and Dele Alli, who respectively played 50 and 46 games for Tottenham last season, looked weary.
The more audacious move was to make six changes for the game against Slovakia, leaving out Kane and Sterling on grounds of form, resting his full-backs and giving Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere game time in the knowledge he would need at least one of them in his midfield against a better side. Perhaps that did disrupt the rhythm but the gamble was, knowing England were almost certainly through, to prepare the side for later in the tournament. In that game they had 29 shots to 2: it’s not unreasonable for Hodgson to think that ratio might have yielded a win.
But of course the reaction to England’s exit was a predictable call for root and branch reforms, ignoring the fact that the Elite Player Performance Plan was implemented in 2011 and Greg Dyke’s England DNA project unveiled in December 2014. It took Germany 14 years from their reboot to win a World Cup – and they’re good at things like winning. Patience and long-term thinking are rarely strengths of football. And besides, Iceland didn’t beat England because they have better players: they won because they were more composed.
Russia were even more disappointing than England. Leonid Slutsky is a very fine coach1 and the way he inspired an ageing squad to qualification from the wreckage left by Fabio Capello deserves great praise, but even he couldn’t overcome his nation’s habitual underperformance away from home, a task made all the harder by the loss of his entire midfield in the run up to the championship. Outplayed by England before grabbing an injury-time equaliser, they were undone by two first-half goals from Slovakia’s left flank before a dismally supine performance against Wales, who ended up topping the group thanks to that 3-0 win and an opening victory against Slovakia.
Wales’s 3-5-2, designed to include all three of their high-class midfielders – Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey – while giving Gareth Bale a free role, worked superbly – or at least it did against opponents who came onto them. As in qualifying, when they had struggled against Andorra and Cyprus, Wales were less sure against a side who sat deep against them, as Northern Ireland did in the last 16. That game at the Parc des Princes was dire, a reminder of the “No football, please, we’re British” headline that followed England’s 1-1 draw with Ireland at the 1990 World Cup, resolved when Bale finally did something brilliant, creating space for a cross that Gareth McAuley turned into his own net.
McAuley, though, had had his moment earlier in the tournament, heading Northern Ireland in front in their 2-0 win over Ukraine. Niall McGinn added a second to cap what was a genuinely impressive display from Michael O’Neill’s side in a game that was briefly held up during the second half by a heavy hail shower. Northern Ireland’s fans and their endless renditions of “Will Grigg’s on fire” were one of the brighter features of the tournament, determinedly enjoying themselves despite being roundly outplayed by both Poland and Germany. Michael McGovern’s performance in that final group game was extraordinary – even if, as O’Neill said, he gets plenty of practice playing for Hamilton Academical – although just as memorable was Germany’s apparent bewilderment at Northern Ireland’s gleeful reaction to a defeat and the complaints of Jogi Löw at a structure that meant their opponents played to protect a 1-0 deficit.
Germany weren’t the only giants who found it hard to come to terms with a minnow’s delight. After Iceland had come from behind to draw with Portugal, Birkir Bjarnason volleying an equaliser unmarked at the back post following a simple ball into the box, Cristiano Ronaldo seemed disgusted by Iceland’s celebration of their first ever point in a major tournament, condemning their “small” mentality and insisting they would never achieve anything if they kept playing as defensively. It was a fascinating outburst for two reasons. Firstly it suggested his utter lack of comprehension of a world beyond his own (of course Iceland have a “small” mentality – they’re the smallest nation ever to play in the Euros; of course they celebrated a point – they’d never even played in a championship game before). And secondly it suggested just how solipsistic he can be, unable to appreciate the joy of another while they’d frustrated his desires.
Ronaldo’s tournament got worse before it got better. Against Austria, he missed chance after chance, culminating in a penalty he drilled against the post and a header ruled out for offside, an incident that prompted the uncanny sound of tens of thousands of people laughing. At the final whistle, a fan sprang from one end and managed to run unobstructed for perhaps 80 yards to make it to Ronaldo, at which stewards finally caught up with him. Ronaldo intervened and insisted the fan be allowed his selfie. There will be those who see that in the context of his self-love or who point to the security implications if other fans think they will get away with the same trick – Ronaldo appeared similarly approving of one of the performers at the pre-match ceremony before the quarter-final who managed to join the end of the team photograph – but at the time it seemed a gesture born of humanity.
Before the final group game, against Hungary, Ronaldo threw a reporter’s microphone in a lake after being interrupted on a squad walk. Whatever the provocation, it was a gesture that was only ever going to look petty as it was replayed again and again. The microphone ended up being retrieved by a diver and auctioned for charity.
Hungary had been perhaps the most surprising qualifiers, making it to their first major tournament since 1986 by beating Norway in a play-off. What they lacked in quality they made up for in the nous and pragmatism of their coach, Bernd Storck, who had taken an enormous gamble before that play-off by sacking numerous staff; had they lost, he, surely, would have been on his way out, but they won, largely because of his astute tactics. The formula was similar in the finals as Hungary stifled an Austria side who never came close to fulfilling their potential and then struck twice in the break. A draw against Iceland meant Hungary were through and had the luxury of resting numerous players in the final group game against Portugal.
It turned out to be perhaps the most exciting game of the tournament. Ronaldo scored twice, a first-time flick with the inside of his foot and a powerful header, but both were equalisers as Portugal drew 3-3 with Hungary in a game in which they were never ahead and in which defeat would have meant elimination. As those final games in Group F went into injury-time, it seemed Portugal would finish second in the group and so face England in the last sixteen, but at the Stade de France, as Austria threw men forward in search of a winner that would have taken them through, Bjarnason broke on the right for Iceland, charged forward, and crossed low to the back post for Arnór Ingvi Traustason to slide the ball in. It gave Iceland their first ever win in a major tournament game, ensuring they finished second behind Hungary, and sending their commentator Guðmundur Benediktsson into paroxysms of squealing joy that reverberated around social media. A couple of days later, Benediktsson, who worked as assistant coach of KR, resigned along with the head coach following a poor start to the season.
England’s problems in breaking down massed defences were part of a wider pattern brought about by the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams. Question the bloating of the World Cup and the Euros and there will always be those who point to underdog successes like Wales and Iceland. And they’re right. Wales and Iceland were two of the great stories of the Euros, refreshing and invigorating. And, assuming Iceland hadn’t slacked off in their final qualifiers as they did having booked their place in France, they’d both have qualified for a 16-team tournament. To protest about the expansion is not to support a closed shop; it’s to suggest a quality threshold to prevent a series of mismatches in which one team essentially defends and the other attacks. The best, most engaging football comes for a meeting of equals when there is cut and thrust on both sides.
Pit two sides of differing abilities against each other and, inevitably, the weaker one defends. They should defend. It is their duty to defend. That’s how they can get the best possible result out of the game. That’s true at club level as well – although in league football the variation in quality tends to be less defined (which is one of the reasons that, beyond the odd headline, the early rounds of the FA Cup often produce such tedious football).
But the real problem is that at international level, attacking structures tend to be less well-defined than they are at club level. Defensive systems vary little. Most sides, once their initial press is done, settle back to a system with two banks of four. Sometimes there’s an extra player in one bank or other and sometimes there’s a player between the banks, but the principles do not differ radically from one team to another. Players coming from clubs to the national team can adapt relatively quickly.
Attacks vary a lot, in both shape and style. The mutual understanding that comes through constant drilling and practice day after day, week after week inevitably isn’t there at national level. Attacks are slower, less slick, less sophisticated, easier to defend against. The result is that at international level, it’s simpler to defend. A national side that wants to frustrate an opponent can do so more easily than a club side. That’s also why the countries that have prospered over the past decade or so tend to have a core from one or two clubs – for example, Spain and Germany – or, like Chile, have a group of players who have played together in a coherent system for so long that they come to feel almost like a club side.
How would the tournament have differed had it featured 16 teams? Take France plus the 15 teams with the best qualifying records (allowing for qualified teams easing off towards the end). We’d have lost Hungary and Ireland, both of whom won one game and were then eliminated in the last 16, plus Sweden, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania, Albania and Russia. In other words, a 16-team tournament would have featured 14 of the 16 teams who got to the last 16 anyway. Was it really worth two weeks of football and 36 games to swap the Czech Republic and Austria for Ireland and Hungary? This is the promotion of mediocrity in the name of inclusivity. But of course almost no country will ever vote against expansion because nobody wants to make their own qualification harder.
But it’s not just about quality. It’s that reducing 24 teams to 16 is awkward and promotes cautious football and the playing out of draws or narrow wins/defeats that suit both sides. What’s left is a 16-team knockout with a two-week qualifying tournament tacked on the beginning – and that creates its own problems. Four groups of four worked because every game mattered but there was a chance for a side to get over a slip-up or a very tough draw. This structure goes overnight from not enough jeopardy to too much. Greed and political expediency have ruined the early stages of what was once the best international tournament, reducing them to a glorified training ritual of not particularly good attack against reasonable defence.
Italy were, by some margin, the most tactically interesting team in France. With the Juventus quartet of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini providing a platform, Antonio Conte was able to shape his midfield according to circumstance. He had acknowledged the weakness of this Italy squad before the tournament, saying it had to become as much like a club side as possible to overcome that. That meant long sessions of tactical drilling about which Conte was so secretive that he banned even some of his own staff from attending. Up to a point, the plans worked. Italy were impressive in beating Belgium in their first group game and, although they then suffered the tournament’s familiar malaise of struggling against a more defensive side in Sweden (before losing what was for them a dead rubber against Ireland), they showed their quality again in seeing off Spain in the last 16.
If there was any doubt that the 2014 World Cup represented the end of an era for Spain, this tournament dispelled it. Their opening game, against the Czech Republic, was typical of Spain under Vicente Del Bosque, as they dominated and dominated but scored only late on as Gerard Piqué, up for a set play, headed in at the back post. A fluent 3-0 win over Turkey hinted at past glories, but there then came a sloppy 2-1 defeat to Croatia, including a missed Sergio Ramos penalty, in the final group game. Against Italy, they looked less motivated, less driven and less sharp than their opponents. Sergio Busquets, so often the metronome at the back of midfield, could barely get a touch, so focused was Italy’s pressing, so helpless were Spain against it. By half-time, Italy not only had the lead, thanks to Giorgio Chiellini’s goal, but had completed more passes than Spain, something almost unheard of in recent times. Although Spain rallied to an extent in the second half, Graziano Pellè’s injury-time strike sealed a comfortable 2-0 win for Italy and effectively ensured an end to Del Bosque’s time as national coach. The 65 year old retired a few days later.
Italy had produced arguably the two best performances of the first two weeks but, as is so often the way in tournaments, attrition built up and they could not eliminate a third favourite, losing to Germany in the quarter-final. Germany had a strange campaign, one representative of Löw’s reign as a whole. His decade in charge has brought a World Cup and five other semi-final appearances and yet it has been weirdly unconvincing.
His best team, arguably, was that at the 2010 World Cup, when they played thrilling counter-attacking football, ripping apart England and Argentina thanks to the organisation and slickness on the break of Miroslav Klose, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller and Lukas Podolski. The problem with that team, though, was that they were only really effective as a reactive side. Not including the third-place play-off, which is often a strange game, Germany took the lead in the opening 20 minutes of three matches in South Africa and, as the opposition was forced to come at them, scored four in all three. In their three other games, against Serbia, Ghana and Spain, they didn’t score early and struggled. Löw, understandably, felt there was a need to become more proactive, to take on Spain, who were clearly the best side in the world at the time, at their own game. The results were never wholly impressive, though. For the past six years, it has felt as through Germany could be very good going forward, or they could be very good defensively, but they were incapable of blending both into the same performance – something that explains such oddities as the 4-4 draw against Sweden having been 4-0 up and a 3-2 defeat against England having been 2-0 up. That almost cost them against Greece at the last Euros, it did cost them against a Mario Balotelli-inspired Italy in the semi-final, and it threatened to undo them against Ghana and Algeria at the last World Cup. In the end, Löw went back to basics, abandoning his use of Philipp Lahm in midfield and his experiments with a false nine to bring back the 35-year-old Klose for the quarter-final. The result was two dogged victories – 1-0 against France and 1-0 after extra-time against Argentina, the nature of which was rather disguised by the 7-1 semi-final victory against a hysterically self-destructive Brazil.
Löw has only lost three qualifiers in his ten years as Germany manager, but two of those came in the qualifying series for this tournament. The general feeling was that the defeats to Poland and Ireland were largely the result of a lack of hunger after winning the World Cup and that everything would fall into place in a tournament environment. The group stage, though, proved just as simple as qualifying. There were some anxious moments in the opener against Ukraine, particularly for Benedikt Höwedes at right-back, but in the end Germany’s 2-0 win was comfortable enough. Far more of a concern was the ease with which Poland, looking a far smarter tactical unit under Adam Nawałka than they have for years, contained them in the second game, a goalless draw that Poland would have won had Arkadiusz Milik been in anything like the goalscoring form he has exhibited in recent seasons for Ajax. A 1-0 win over an acquiescent Northern Ireland was notable largely for the return to the starting line-up of Mario Gómez.
The striker had been written off as too profligate after the last Euros and, despite finishing as top-scorer as Beşiktaş won the Turkish league last season, his return seemed indicative of the dearth of strikers in the German game. There weren’t even any others in the squad, suggesting perhaps that the great overhaul of the academy system has created a wealth of technically gifted midfielders but few centre-forwards (or, indeed, full-backs).
This seemed briefly to be the World Cup redux, with Germany clicking during the tournament by reintroducing an orthodox centre-forward and solving their problems at right-back, in this case by promoting the Bayern 21 year old Joshua Kimmich. The pair followed up fine performances against Northern Ireland with similarly effective displays in the casual demolition of Slovakia, whose game-plan of absorb and counter was undermined within eight minutes by Jerome Boateng’s volley. Özil missed a penalty but Germany’s 3-0 win was so comprehensive there was even the opportunity to give Lukas Podolski a run-out in the final minutes.
For the quarter-final, Löw changed shape, going with a back three to match Italy – as he had done in a friendly in March when Germany won 4-1. As is the way of such things, because Germany went through, it was widely hailed as a success, although it could equally be argued that it played into Italy’s hands, negating Germany’s advantage of quality and making the battle attritional. Gómez seemed again to have made the difference, his smart ball inside the full-back setting up the opener for Özil, but having taken a 65th-minute lead, Germany were surprisingly pinned back, Italy equalising through a Bonucci penalty after a mysterious handball by Boateng, needlessly raising both arms as he jumped for a header.
Perhaps if Italy had pressed on then they might have found a winner against a team clearly rattled by the loss of Gómez and then Sami Khedira to injury. As it was, though, they seemed content to play for penalties, at which they were atrocious. Germany missed more times from the spot in that shoot-out than they had in the whole of their international tournament history put together, but Italy couldn’t take advantage. Simone Zaza, having been brought on specifically to take a penalty, missed the target after a strange curved stuttering run-up, and then Pellè dragged his shot wide after signalling he would dink it down the middle. And so, as Bonucci and Matteo Darmian also missed, Germany got the better of Italy for the first time in a major championship. It proved a Pyrrhic victory.
After losing to Italy in the group stage, Belgium had rallied, thumping Ireland and edging by a Sweden side who had come into the tournament billed as Zlatan plus 10 others but turned out not even to be that. It wasn’t until the fourth minute of their third group game that Sweden managed a shot on target from one of their own players as opposed to Ciaran Clark, who directed two efforts at his own goal in the 1-1 draw with Ireland, drawing a brilliant save from Darren Randolph before cancelling out Wes Hoolahan’s opener. Those two victories eased some of the pressure on the Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, but they didn’t fully convince, and neither did a 4-0 win over Hungary in the last 16. Although Eden Hazard played extremely well in that game – perhaps as well as he ever has done for Belgium – Hungary were hamstrung by an injury in the warm-up to László Kleinheisler. That would have been damaging enough for any side, but for Hungary, who were meticulous in their individual planning for each game, it was devastating.
That meant Belgium went into their quarter-final against Wales having won each of their previous three games and scored eight goals without reply, a record good enough for Wilmots to turn on his many critics in the Belgian press. His confidence, though, was misplaced as Wales produced a fine performance to come from behind and win 3-1. After Ashley Williams had headed an equaliser, confidence pulsed through them, resulting in Hal Robson-Kanu’s mesmerising goal ten minutes into the second half. As he received the ball with his back to goal on the edge of the box, the obvious thing to do seemed to be to push the ball out to his right. Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Meunier evidently both thought he would do that but as the ball came to Robson-Kanu there was a fractional stumble. In that moment, a new path opened up and he Cruyff-turned the other way, leaving Fellaini and Meunier wrong-footed as Jason Denayer, mystifyingly, hurtled past him. It would have been easy amid the adrenalin of the turn to snatch at the shot, but Robson-Kanu finished calmly – just his fourth goal in thirty-four internationals, but perhaps now the most famous in Welsh history. As though to highlight that it was a night on which organised and motivated journeymen shone against far brighter but scattered stars, the substitute Sam Vokes then headed a superb third. Wilmots resigned a few days later having failed utterly to get the best out of Belgium’s golden generation.
After the chastening defeat to Belgium, Ireland rallied against Italy in their third group match. It’s true the Italians didn’t seem overly bothered about the game having already qualified, but it was still a high-class Irish performance that produced one of the tournament’s great moments. Hoolahan looked to have spurned Ireland’s great chance when he shot straight at Savatore Sirigu with six minutes remaining but, a minute later, he crossed from the right and, as Sirigu advanced uncertainly, Robbie Brady got there first to head into an empty net. It was a strangely old-fashioned kind of goal – one of a number in the championship, as though goalkeepers have begun once again to be lured from their lines – and a hugely satisfying one from an aesthetic point of view: the goal was manifest even before Brady got to the ball, and he then didn’t have to break stride to run away in celebration.
Briefly, against France in Lyon, Ireland threatened to sustain the euphoria as a simple long ball in the first minute lead to chaos in the hosts’ box and a penalty, which Brady tucked away. But 88 minutes proved too long to hold out. A tactical change from Didier Deschamps at half-time, switching from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 to get Antoine Griezmann close to Olivier Giroud tipped the momentum of the game significantly France’s way and two Griezmann strikes in quick succession followed by the dismissal of Shane Duffy for a professional foul ended Ireland’s hopes.
About three and a half hours before France’s quarter-final against Iceland, police carried out a controlled explosion on a car parked perhaps 300 yards from the media entrance. It turned out it had just been left in a restricted area, but the incident did highlight the sense of anxiety around the tournament. It’s difficult to know how good the policing was, the fact there was no major terrorist incident set against the early hooligan trouble, the number of flares that were smuggled into stadiums and the regularity with which fans were able to invade the pitch. There were also an irritating number of bewildering moments of non-communication. Perhaps the CRS did have good reason to close off the one street from the Métro station to the Stade de France media centre a few hours before the Ireland v Sweden game but it might have been a good idea if the two officers on duty, next to a huge sign pointing to the media centre, had been able to suggest an alternative route. As it was, they stood blankly aggressive. I was one of a number of journalists directed in via a staff entrance which meant we avoided security altogether and when that was closed off, a mass of several dozen baffled journalists built up before a Uefa official eventually persuaded the CRS to let through those with accreditation.
For the final time, the tournament heard the Iceland fans performing the thunderclap – something that, given less able repetition and corporate appropriation has already made it an irritation, it’s important to remember was initially impressive and charming – but the team was gone within 20 minutes. The high line that had delivered England their early penalty was exposed again and by half-time France were 4-0 up. Having given the tournament so much, Iceland didn’t deserve humiliation and they at least rallied in the second half, going out 5-2 and causing sufficient problems to make France, who had conceded three times in each of their first three friendlies of the year, wonder again about the solidity of their defending.
Portugal, meanwhile, were grinding their way unobtrusively through. The concession of three goals against Hungary had evidently spooked Fernando Santos, who modified his approach, focusing even more on not conceding. He fielded William Carvalho in front of the back four, with three tacklers in front of him, leaving Ronaldo and Nani to forage for scraps up front. In the last-16 game against Croatia, Ronaldo was still in peevish mode, repeatedly berating his teammates. Given he and Nani both have more than 100 caps and they spent two seasons together at Manchester United, press-box maths suggested Ronaldo has spent at least three hours of his life waving his arms in irritation at Nani.
Nonetheless, it was Nani’s superb pass for Ronaldo that brought the winner after 117 minutes of largely uninspiring football against a disappointing Croatia. Perhaps Portugal were a little fortunate, given Croatia’s domination of the ball, and that they hit the post in the 116th minute, but the first shot on target was the Ronaldo effort that Danijel Subašić parried for Ricardo Quaresma to knock in.
Poland, having survived a second-half collapse against Switzerland and a brilliant overhead equaliser from Xherdan Shaqiri to win their last-16 tie on penalties, at least scored against Portugal – the only team in the knockout stages to do so, but Robert Lewandowski’s second-minute goal was cancelled out by Renato Sanches just after the half-hour and Jakub Błaszczykowski’s miss in the shoot-out proved decisive.
That brought Wales in the semi-final but again Portugal’s luck was in: this was a Wales without the suspended Aaron Ramsey, who had had an excellent tournament, and Ben Davies. William Carvalho also missed out, but he was simply replaced by Danilo Pereira. Portugal again were solid rather than spectacular but won thanks to two goals in three minutes just after half-time, the first a powerful header from Ronaldo – spring like Michael Jordan, neck muscles like Joe Jordan as Matt Dickinson put it in the Times, the second a mishit Ronaldo shot that was turned in by Nani with Sanches, who stepped over the ball, seemingly offside. This is modern Ronaldo, the penalty-box drifter, a player who completed just three dribbles in the whole championship but let off 44 shots.
And then, at last, 27 days after it began, the tournament had a game of genuine drama and high quality, a mini-epic played out in a ferocious atmosphere amid the steep stands of the new Vélodrome. France, after a raucous Marseillaise, were inspired and attacked with fury from the off. For 10 to 15 minutes Germany waited: no international side, perhaps, is less likely to be fazed by an opening surge from an opponent. This was Belo Horizonte again: wait for the emotion to drain and then pick off opponents on the come down. Except France were not as fragile as Brazil had been and this was not the same Germany; without Gómez their attack lacked focus and without Khedira, their midfield lacked authority.
Germany prodded and probed but lacked incisiveness and then, just before half-time, came another needlessly raised arm in the box, Bastian Schweinsteiger conceding a penalty for handball as he challenged Patrice Évra. Griezmann had missed a penalty in the Champions League final a month earlier, but here he was decisive and France, slightly surprisingly, went in at half-time with the lead.
The second-half pattern was similar, with France pinned back but looking relatively unflustered. Samuel Umtiti and Laurent Koscielny won header after header. With 19 minutes to go, Deschamps switched from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, bringing on N’Golo Kanté for Payet. Pogba, liberated from a pure defensive role, charged forwards and caught Shkodran Mustafi, who had come on for the injured Boateng, in possession. The defender pursued him to the French left flank, where Pogba, having isolated his prey, toyed with it, wagging a foot three times before finally crossing. Manuel Neuer came and got to the ball before Giroud, but only patted it down to Griezmann who jabbed the ball through the goalkeeper’s attempts to recover. Kimmich hit the post with a curler and then forced Hugo Lloris into a remarkable reaction save in the final seconds but in truth France were comfortable enough. Löw, for the fifth time in six attempts, had failed in a semi-final.
The first sign that something was amiss was a sooty film over the desks in the media area at the Stade de France. Then Mark Clattenburg and his refereeing team were attacked by moths as they performed their pre-game checks. A photograph of Pierlugi Collina, surrounded by moths, circulated on social media. There were moths everywhere. Players warming up were assailed by them. There had been thousands of moths at Nelspruit during the African Cup of Nations in 2013, but they had fluttered around the lights: these were coming up from the pitch, where, it turned out, they’d settled the previous night after the lights had been left on as a security measure. Once word got around that thousands of moths were swarming in a concentrated area, there came another invasion, this time of birds looking for an easy dinner. For a time, the sky above the stadium was dark with swallows.
The game itself was a largely drab conclusion to a largely drab tournament, at least in terms of the football. But there was Ronaldo’s narrative being played out. Caught by a clumsy challenge from Payet in the eighth minute, he struggled on until the 25th, when he finally accepted he was too badly injured to continue. As he sunk to the pitch for the final time, knee already heavily strapped, a moth alighted briefly on his eye, as though nature felt the need to wipe away the hero’s tears. When Portugal finally fulfilled that vow he had made 12 years earlier, he was off the pitch, stalking the technical area, a blur of encouragement and nervousness.
Once again, France had begun with a great surge and once again when it blew out – perhaps derailed partly by the lengthy stoppages for Ronaldo to have treatment – they struggled to impose themselves. Pogba seemed restricted by his defensive brief while the decision to bring on André-Pierre Gignac rather than Anthony Martial to replace Giroud, when José Fonte and Pepé had been so commanding in the air, was mystifying. But most of all there was a general sense from France of a lack of anybody taking responsibility: when a defence needed breaking down there was nobody to step up and work out a way of doing it. By the time extra-time came, it was as though they were reconciled to penalties. It was then that Portugal, “quiet as doves, wise as serpents,” as Fernando Santos put it, struck. With 107 minutes gone, Raphaël Guerreiro smacked a free-kick against the bar. A minute later, Éder, on as a substitute, drifted in from the left past four half-challenges, and smashed in a winner from 30 yards. Lloris may have been partially unsighted, but the shot wasn’t in the corner; around half the French side bore culpability for the goal.
Éder later revealed that when he’d gone on, Ronaldo had told him he would score the winner. It was Ronaldo who lifted the trophy, Ronaldo who took the central role in the celebrations. Given what he has done for Portuguese football, playing in four of the semi-finals they’ve reached, he perhaps shouldn’t be begrudged. But it felt like some kind of morality tale that in order for him to fulfil his vow, it was necessary first for him to become part of the team to such an extent that he wasn’t even on the pitch when victory was secured.
In a tournament in which there was no outstanding team, it was perhaps fitting that Euro 2016 was won by Portugal who have, after all, reached the quarter-final of every European Championship since 1996 and have suffered some pretty rotten luck along the way. And it was fitting too for Ronaldo to complete his international journey – although given he is only 31 and Portugal have an extremely promising midfield quartet, all of them 24 or under, there is the possibility of further glory either at the World Cup or the next Euros.
But whatever the sense that the tournament had the ‘right’ winner, there could be no pretence that this Portugal are in the class of Spain in 2012 or 2008, or France in 2000. They were a good enough team who played pragmatically enough to take advantage of a generally disappointing tournament.
The danger for a journalist of any experience is a lapse into seen-it-all-before cynicism – and there’s no doubt that as you get older, and the tournaments get longer, the workload, the late nights and early mornings, the travel, the sandwiches grabbed in Uefa buffets, the sheer relentlessness of it all, take an increasing toll. But imagine you were compiling a list of the 50 most memorable Euros games of all time: how many from this tournament would you even add to the shortlist? The France-Germany semi-final, for sure. And after that, perhaps Wales’s win over Belgium and Hungary’s draw with Portugal. But the truth is there are better games, in terms of quality and in terms of drama, every couple of weeks in the Premier League. Euro 2012 wasn’t brilliant, but it had the see-sawing 3-2 group games between Portugal and Denmark and England and Sweden as well as Italy’s Mario Balotelli-inspired win over Germany and a final in which Spain asserted its supremacy with an emphatic 4-0 victory. Euro 2008 had Turkey’s remarkable wins over the Czech Republic and Croatia, Croatia’s victory over Germany, the Netherlands’s demolitions of Italy and France, Russia’s stunning victories over Sweden and, particularly, the Netherlands, Germany’s 3-2 quarter-final success against Portugal and a string of exceptional Spain performances.
The quality here was too diluted, too many sides set out merely to pack men deep. After the radical possession of Barcelona and Spain, which made the sight of one team having 70% of the ball seem normal, teams have become less afraid of not having the ball. The Euros was a tournament of radical non-possession: as a rough gauge of that, 49% of games in this tournament featured one side having 60% possession or more as opposed to 37% of games in last season’s Premier League. Half of games, in other words, were essentially attack against defence. That’s not necessarily a problem – Germany had 66.8% possession against France – and if the reactive side has a clear idea of how to attack, as France did in Marseille, a disparity in possession can still produce stirring football. But when a team essentially sets itself up as a punchbag, the results are rarely worth watching. Factor in the relative ease of drilling a defence compared with an attack and the result was a huge number of sides looking at a defensive block without the slightest idea how to break it down. The result was a severe dearth of goals: this Euros yielded just 2.12 goals per game as opposed to 2.70 goals per game in the Premier League last season or 2.78 in the Champions League. Goals may be over-rated, but they should still be rated a little.
And that in turn perhaps raises fears for the very future of the international game. If quality of football matters at all, then people will turn off and stop going – although the comments of many about the England national team suggests that a lot of people tune in to major tournaments who don’t watch much other football. The fun of supporting your country perhaps still has a value.
But if the return of hooliganism and the rise of nationalism that provided the backdrop to this tournament continue then the holiday feel that tournaments at their best engender will be hard to sustain – and, frankly, that would have been hard enough to sustain anyway in Russia and in the multi-venue Euros of 2020. Vast distances, chaotic logistics, the threat of violence, poor football… none of it is particularly enticing.
Before the terror attacks in Paris last November, a lot of (European) journalists jokingly referred to Euro 2016 as the “last great tournament”, as a month of good food and wine in a country whose size and transport and tourist infrastructure made the prospect of travelling around it fun rather than gruelling. It may be we were more right than we realised, that the poor quality of football, the bloated nature of modern tournaments, and the sheer difficulty of the next World Cup and the next Euros means this was the beginning of the end for the international game, in its present guise at least.