Euro 2016: a bloated tournament where dour defence eclipsed the fairytales | Barney Ronay

While Iceland and Wales brought us unexpected joy and passion, the group stages had precious few memorable games and the knockout rounds were increasingly dominated by fearful, defensive football

And, breathe out. After 51 matches, 108 goals, 1,367 shots, 45,868 passes and enough combined railway-station baguette consumption to cover, laid end-to-end, three-quarters of the way to the moon, Euro 2016 is finally over.

It was an oddly fitting end, too. Ten minutes after the final whistle in Paris, with the home crowd already filtering out and Portugal’s players capering on the turf, there was a wonderfully overblown firework display inside the Stade de France, clearly designed with a French victory in mind. There were sparks and rockets, a plume of crackling gold around the stadium’s floating halo roof, the pyrotechnic equivalent of barging in sightly late with a jeroboam of Moët & Chandon under one arm at a hushed and sombre dinner party just as the host has announced he has been made redundant and his wife’s moved to California.

Glitter, noise, well-meaning pizzazz: in fairness, it was in its own way a very France 2016 kind of firework display, albeit re-cast here as a spectacular commemoration of André Silva’s 42 tournament tackles, Pepe’s supreme interception stats and the resilience of the mooching William Carvalho.

This was not one of the great tournaments. There were sparks, and some engrossing moments and heartening stories. At other times, most notably in a capital city still catching its breath, this tournament felt like a duty discharged a little wearily by a nation that has been in a state of emergency since the trauma of last November.

Not that everyone will agree. For the Portuguese, and for anyone willing to credit their spirited triumph as the end point of a period of concerted overachievement since the turn of the century, Euro 2016 will live long in the memory. Portugal are deserving champions, if only because all champions are deserving. As cricketers say, have a look: it’s in the book.

The sedate, cautious style might not be to everyone’s taste. But Portugal played to a plan, with every player comfortable on the ball and able to think and move and manage the game around them. They conceded one goal in 420 minutes of knockout football. Relative to size, Portugal sends more professional footballers overseas than France, Europe’s net export kings. This was a system and a galvanising passion receiving its due reward in the hands of Fernando Santos’s doves and serpents.

Welsh wonders: Hal Robson-Kanu celebrates his brilliant goal that put Wales 2-1 in front against Belgium in the memorable quarter-final in Lille.
Welsh wonders: Hal Robson-Kanu celebrates his brilliant goal that put Wales 2-1 in front against Belgium in the memorable quarter-final in Lille. Photograph: BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Elsewhere France 2016 played out as a series of fine moments, pegged out around quite a lot of waiting for something to happen. We’ll always have Paris and Cristiano Ronaldo’s tears, not to mention his hilarious turn on the touchline as an auxiliary Tony Pulis-style manager. We’ll always have Wales in Lille and Iceland in Saint-Étienne.

Beyond this there was the more technical fascination of Spain’s defenestration by Italy, end of a supreme eight-year champion era. Plus Germany’s unravelling in Marseille, where Joachim Löw tasted the bitter, salty tang of defeat, hands soiled by a third semi-final defeat in four, perhaps a tipping point in his own part in the world champions’ hot-housed 10-year renaissance.

These Euros will be remembered by some as the tournament of the underdogs, the mice that roared (usually within a suffocating defensive structure). Iceland were inspiring, their attitude and sporting culture a lesson to others at a time when the benefits of small nation-dom and relative wealth of resources may start to become key factors. Wales were often portrayed incorrectly as a one-man team. They are of course a two-man team as Aaron Ramsey’s absence in the semi-final showed. This is of course a joke: the most distinctive feature of Wales at these championships was their utterly bonded sense of collectivism.

But there is another side to this. Some will say the playing field has been levelled by a dwindling of interest and intensity elsewhere. International football is in a state of managed decline as the big money club game continues to drain the vim out of every other competition. Many of the star players in France looked tired, or rather a little down on the compelling levels of mid-summer commitment we might have seen in the past. Pedro quickly clarified after seeming to say that turning up in France to play a minor role for Spain was “not worth” it for a man of his status. No doubt he didn’t quite mean that. But there is a trace of something here.

The tournament didn’t help itself. The 24-team structure was a failure. Addition is not always increase. There were too many lukewarm matches, too many teams for whom qualification was not reward for some rare seam of talent. The need simply to avoid defeat to reach the knockout stages spawned some turgid, dead-bat football.

Plus there was the oddly febrile atmosphere on the fringes in the opening two weeks. Some isolated moments of violence framed this impression. The false perspective of social media magnified the details. Still, it felt at times there was a wider contagion in the air as Russian nationalism expressed itself on the streets of Marseille. There were scuffles in Paris and Nice and Lille, and England exited the tournament a baffled isolationist group three days after the wrench of the Brexit vote.

This is not an entirely fanciful connection. It was Henri Delaunay’s enthusiasm for the post-war European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, precursor of the EU, that helped lead to the creation for these championships, with the idea of a similar force for integration in football. Sport often barges its way into the foreground of other things, a cloth-eared passer-by at moments of greater tension. Travelling around football’s glossily-trailed “Le Rendez-Vous” this summer it was hard to avoid the feeling that things also fall apart.

There were various trends on the pitch. Possession football continued its journey from winning style to outmoded combine harvester. Spain, Germany, Switzerland, England, Belgium, Hungary, Russia and Ukraine were all in the top 10 for pass completion rates. Between them they won 11 matches out of 33. Four of the quarter-finalists were among the 10 teams with the lowest percentage of possession overall. Want to win? Stay away from that ball.

Although this is perhaps not the best control group given the caution and occasional mediocrity on show. More than half the teams managed less than a goal a game. Nobody played genuinely captivating football. Nobody unveiled anything new. Even in Brazil two years ago there was Chile’s outstanding counter-attack, muscular little men with tattoos and mohawks storming forward in packs, and Holland’s glorious second-half long-ball destruction of Spain.

Thou shall not pass: Portugal’s central defensive duo of Pepe, left, and José Fonte oversaw just one goal conceded in their four knockout games, three of which went to extra time.
Thou shall not pass: Portugal’s central defensive duo of Pepe, left, and José Fonte oversaw just one goal conceded in their four knockout games, three of which went to extra time. Photograph: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

The most notable leitmotifs were the smothering blanket defence of the late group stages and Iceland’s clean, crisp use of some old direct football tropes. Other trends looked like trends but were simply a chimera.

It seemed amazing there were only three red cards, a reflection of some soft-pedalled refereeing and also of the smothering nature of much of the football. But then there were just three at Euro 2012 as well. It felt like there were lots of headed goals. But the percentage was roughly the same as last time. Much was made of the rush of late goals, and there was a glut in those cagey group games. But only 6% more came in the final 14 minutes than at the last Euros.

Perhaps the best part of the general absence of starriness was the emergence of some late-twenties talent, the odd unfulfilled middle-ranker. Dimitri Payet’s bloom continued in the group stages, Nani looked like the most sprightly, excitingly raw 103-cap veteran you’re ever likely to come across. From Croatia’s Ivan Perisic to the inked and leathery middle-aged Justin Bieber of European football, Ricardo Quaresma, old hands were a theme.

And then there was England. We can at least cling to one thing: Ray Lewington did get to see Paris. Beyond that it was both a traumatic and oddly familiar exit on a wild night in Nice for a nation that hasn’t won a Euros knockout game in 20 years.

Iceland were fitting executioners, a place that seemed to shrink in the buildup to the game, some tiny elf-ridden pile of magma where the people eat gorse and live in caves, but which in reality has the most progressive, salutary development structure in Europe. In the end England lost the way they always lose, in a state of top down bafflement, players unable to cope with or adapt to the fumblings of their own manager.

No doubt, like all tournaments, Euro 2016 will acquire new levels of intrigue as it shrinks into the memory. There was something epic about its various narratives, from the unexpected success stories to the absorbing spectacle of Ronaldo’s triumph, oddly enough in the same week that Lionel Messi was given a prison sentence – Cristiano, wake up! Plus there was the mildly haunting absence throughout of these Euros’ founding spectre, Michel Platini, who was missing here courtesy of a bad case of a four-year ban from all football activities.

Platini will be present in what happens next. The Euros fracture from here, that 32-year golden era of concentrated summer football tossed to the winds as the tournament becomes a revenue-raking exercise based in every country willing to dig into its pockets.

Baku awaits in 2020, as does a final in London. Before then France 2016 will begin to dissolve into a series of snapshots: the loveliness of French cities; the unrealised fear of something deadly, for which much thanks to France’s stretched and exhausted security forces. And above all of a sport in yet another period of fevered, cyclical change.


Barney Ronay in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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