Feature

It wasn’t the best Euros, but we’ll never forget it

Unforgettable moments combined with some forgettable football defined EURO 2016, writes Sebastian Hassett.

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And just like that, the Euros are over. The party will rage on across Portugal for the days and weeks ahead, while there will be a similar, lingering glow in Wales and Iceland, with the odd warm feeling in a few other nations.

 

For the rest, especially the big guns, the summer break will be tinged with regret. Probably for the fans more than the players, who will be aching to kick up their heels. Some of those stars looked very tired indeed. 

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International tournament football is terrible mistress. It promises so much, so frequently lets us down, but, unfailingly, has us wanting more. I'm already hungering for the Olympics in August and the Confederations Cup next year, let alone the World Cup. 

How will we look back on EURO 2016? Not as a classic, that much we know. The quality of football, in summation, was frustrating. 

Frustrating because there were moments of pure skill and brilliance, yet no team or player was capable of carrying it the whole way. 



Antoine Griezmann will be widely considered to be the player of the tournament - he is for mine - yet he was dropped in the group stages and then went missing in the final. What he did in the knockout stages was undoubtedly magnificent but the bookends were questionable at best.



No team really stamped themselves as world-power in the making, like, say, France, Chile and Colombia did at the 2014 World Cup, with Germany peerless to the end. 

Maybe the best claim I can make is for Italy, although this squad again leaned heavily on defensive veterans and a coach I shall venerate later.



Instead, our gifts came in the slew of upsets and the unexpected - and this will be defining memory of the tournament. 

Did expanding to 24 teams work? Yes, if you’re a lover of the underdog. No, if you’re a football purist.



Apologies to both Northern Ireland and Ireland fans, but I’m still struggling to work out how both sides ended up in the knockout stages. Both played a style of football from a bygone era.

Yet what colour and life they brought to every city - and what fun and energy they carried to every terrace. That’s what a major tournament is all about, and they epitomised a spirit of goodwill that occasionally goes lacking with so much on the line.

Iceland? Well, they’re now forever going to be synonymous for these championships.

The unexpected sea of blue that arrived at every game. Their surprisingly good early performances. The genuinely thrilling win over Austria. Then that granddaddy of them all: the victory over England. And what about the Viking Clap? So good everybody else wanted a piece of it.

 

Yet Wales went a step further. And maybe even two steps further had they retained Aaron Ramsey in the semi-final. 

Amidst all the doom and gloom of the English game, the Welsh came, saw and so very nearly conquered; their tiny nation emboldened not only by the heroics of Ramsey but a cast of unlikely heroes: Joe Allen, Joe Ledley, Hal Robson-Kanu, Wayne Hennessey and Ashley Williams. And, of course, Gareth Bale, his status in the game only enhanced by his leadership.

A forgotten story in all of this is Hungary, a truly great football nation that lost their way, then found it in time to book their passage to France.  

And what a contribution they made, way beyond Gabor Kiraly’s grey tracksuit pants. Their inventive, exciting style took everyone by surprise until they ran into Belgium.



Croatia looked a dark horse to go all the way after they topped their group, playing the kind of football everyone wants to see their nation playing: skillful yet desperate, passionate yet deft. They can and will improve. Similar sentiments are worth spreading to Poland, regardless of Robert Lewandowski's form. 

Italy, too, looked a potential winner. Shrugging of expectations of doom, the Azzurri were fantastic and desperately unlucky to meet the world champions in the quarter-final after defeating the European champions in the round of 16. 

Antonio Conte leaves France with his reputation enhanced more than any other manager out there. Chelsea have landed a coach who will joust and duel every step of the way with Pep and Jose. 

They were the feel good stories. But the list of disappointments was long. 

Belgium were the worst, for they could and should have gone all the way to the final, only to choke yet again. England did what England does, choking spectacularly, except this time with added indignity. 

A nondescript German side didn’t make a splash and found themselves wanting in a semi-final they failed to close out. France did almost everything right, right up until the 35 minute-mark of the first half of the decider. Then they forgot their lines. 

Spain, sadly, appear done, at least until the next generation are ready, which may be some time away. Both Sweden and Zlatan never materialised. 

In the end, there was only one left. Winning just one game of seven in normal time, including none in the group stages, Portugal won because they were the last man standing. Heaven knows how the players will be feeling physically - three games went to extra time, meaning they played the equivalent of eight matches in four weeks.

They'll be savaged in some quarters for their style - ultra-defensive, rugged, blunt - but they also did what they had to do. Mentally unbreakable, they played as a team, right to the end, even with their star man gesticulating wildly - helplessly, like the rest of us - from the dugout.

But Cristiano Ronaldo would hoist the trophy, and I'm so glad he did. Great players deserve these great moments, and, delightfully, he basked in the moment as though he himself had struck the winner.

 

In many ways, it was a fitting end. It wasn't pretty, but it was hell of a story. And we enjoyed every minute of it. 


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6 min read
Published 12 July 2016 at 10:39am
By Sebastian Hassett