With France mourning yet more dead from yet another atrocity — committed on the most hallowed day on the French calendar — the patriotism and passion exhibited by the host country of Euro 2016 has been replaced by numbness and fear.
It is but small consolation in the wake of the Bastille Day slaughter in Nice that the month-long football tournament was free of terrorist incidents.
The only violence at Euro 2016 involved English and Russian thugs. And given they were largely fighting one another, that did not really matter that much.
It is somewhat ironic that the supposed supporters of those countries were causing havoc outside the stadiums while their teams were doing the exact opposite inside. Is there some connection between the two phenomena we don’t know about? Both sides were short on commitment and equally deficient in inspiration. In a word, feeble.
But enough of that. The story of Euro 2016 was one of upsets. The underdogs not only barked. They had bite. And plenty of it.
The gap between Europe’s elite and the continent’s supposedly second and third-rate football nations closed in quite dramatic fashion.
The shock results had a perverse effect, however. How did Portugal — officially ranked in the world’s top ten — become European champions despite finishing third in their four-team group? And did they really deserve to get their hands on the trophy?
Had the tournament finals not been extended from 16 nations to 24 for Euro 2016, Portugal would have been on the plane home even earlier than England.
Portugal was seeded into one of the easier groups from which to qualify for the knock-out stage. The drew all three of their group games against Iceland, Hungary and Austria — all teams which Cristiano Ronaldo’s team should have whipped.
Then the complex formula used to work out which third-placed countries in the six groups would go on to the knock-out stages resulted in Portugal ending up on what was by far the easiest side of draw. The other side included the football giants of France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Only one of those teams could make the final.
The surprise success of Wales also worked in Portugal’s favour. The Welsh produced one of the most crucial of the shock results in defeating a star-studded Belgium. The Belgians had shown in their previous game just how good they could be, with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard running rampant in the 4-0 victory over Hungary.
Knocking out Belgium saw Wales make it through to the semi-finals. And a showdown with Portugal, the latter having just squeezed past Poland after a penalty shoot-out.
Without Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, who was suspended for having picked up too many yellow cards, the Welsh lacked midfield inspiration and basically ran out of steam. Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, who would be on most people’s list as one of the candidates for the best player in Euro 2016, could not do it all on his own.
Because Wales and Portugal fought out the first semi-final, the latter got an extra 24 hours to recover before the final.
However, Portugal’s good fortune ran out 25 minutes into the final against France — and in the worst possible way,,with an injured Ronaldo stretchered off.
What difference that made was hard to tell.
After that interruption, it suddenly became anyone’s game with both sides creating numerous chances and hitting the woodwork several times before Eder, one of Portugal’s substitutes, settled the matter in extra time.
As the final whistle, Portugal’s horrors during the group stage were ancient history. But enough of that. It is time to hand out a few awards.
BEST TEAM: France. If only by virtue of defeating Germany 2-0 in the semi-finals. The current holders of the World Cup were not at their absolute best. The German team looks to be in transition. But getting the better of any German line-up is the toughest task in football.The French team was stacked with high-quality players who rose to the occasion, though not necessarily all at the same time, and that was a factor in their defeat in the final.
UNLUCKIEST TEAM: Italy. The national team was knocked out of the tournament by Germany following an extraordinary penalty shoot-out which was nerve jangling in the extreme. It took 18 shots from the penalty spot before the Germans prevailed by six successful spot-kicks to Italy’s five. Seven players muffed their shots.
BEST PLAYER: France’s Antoine Griezmann. He was the tournament’s top scorer. He was everywhere and involved in everything. His toe-poke of the ball past desperate German defenders to seal a place in the final was pure magic.
WORST PLAYER: England’s goal-keeper Joe Hart. There will be some other, lesser known players who deserve such approbrium. And unlike other positions, a goal-keeper’s mistakes are there for all to see. But Hart had looked off-form during the last Premier League season and confirmed his vulnerability with three very costly blunders in three of England’s four games.
BEST GOAL: Switzerland’s Xerdan Shaqiri’s spectacular bicycle-kick against Belgium is most commentators’ favourite. However, it was a speculative effort which came off. The one that sticks in the mind was Italy’s second goal, also against Belgium. Graziano Pelle got on the end of a waist-high cross and with both feet off the ground executed a perfect volley which thundered into net .He would have been embarrassed if he had missed or miskicked the ball. He didn’t.
BEST SAVE: During the final, Portugal’s goalkeeper Rui Patricio somehow got his hand to a French header bound for the top corner of his goal and flicked the ball over the bar with little more than his fingers.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS: Spain. Never looked like retaining their title. Or even getting close to doing so. And Belgium. An enigma. They were the pick of many experts making pre-tournament predictions, given they were second only to Argentina in FIFA’s world rankings. They were dissected into tiny pieces by Italy during the group stage. They lived up to expecrtatons — and much more — with a stunning second-half demolition of Hungary. They briefly looked like doing the same against Wales. But Wales had the one thing that Belgium lacked — superb teamwork, total commitment to winning the ball, 100 per cent proof team spirit and, as the tournament progressed, soaring self-confidence that they could make things very tough for any supposedly superior side. And , of course, Bale’s lethat left foot. His energy, drive and ability to alter the course of a match with a flash of brilliance made it possible for a squad full of players which were hardly household namesJust a pity that Ramsey picked up those yellow cards.
BIGGEST EMBARRASSMENT: Not just England’s players. Premier League teams teams may seem full of players from every nation other than England. But that is no excuse. All European leagues are dominated by foreign players these days. So why do England teams fail so often fail to progress beyond the early stages of international competitions? Why do so many players produce such sub par performances when they pull on an English shirt? Fear of failure is a viscous circle which only results in more failure and thus even more fear. But it is the coach’s job to deal with that. The Football Association needs to be accountable for what happened in France, especially given the the team”s equally abysmal showing at the last World Cup in Brazil. Somerhing is rotten somewhere. England needs to examine why the likes of Germany, Italy and France consistently make the quarter-final stages in the World Cup and the the just completed competition restricted to European nations. And with just two years until the next World Cup in Russia, changes must happen quickly. If there is anyone doubting a shakeup is needed should ponder the following facts. France’s 5-2 thrashing of Iceland put England’s defeat by the football minnow into truly awful perspective. France was 4-0 up at half-time. The game was over. England was 1-2 down against Iceland at half-time.The game was over.
BEST HEADLINE:: “Cod Save Us”. British tabloid The Sun harks back to the 1970s, last time England buckled to Icelandic — the “Cod Wars” of the 1970s when the two couturiers were in bitter dispute over fishing rights in the North Atlantic.
BEST QUOTE: “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” — England’s now former boss Roy Hodgson questioning why should front for a press conference, given he had already quit the job. Hodgson was right. He seemed to have no idea of what he was doing.from the moment he arrived in France, if not before.