It ended with the European Champions playing seven, winning one, drawing six in regulation time. If that doesn’t sum up a tournament that has struggled to set the pulses racing at any point since it kicked off a month ago, I don’t know what does. In the end Portugal prevailed, and this after Cristiano Ronaldo limped off midway through the first half of the final.
By Dave Bowler
In doing so, the irony is that the man who would be the star did his country two great services. First, by taking five minutes, an aborted comeback and a demand for a stretcher to finally get off the field, a strong start to the game by the French was disrupted and from there, they struggled to recapture the same rhythm or intensity.
Second, and as we have long had cause to suspect, while Ronaldo might be a magician, Portugal are actually a more cohesive team without him demanding and dictating on the pitch. With each player given greater responsibility in his absence, they grew into their jobs and gave a composed, organised and generally more rounded display, relying on themselves to win the game rather than waiting for Cristiano to do it for them. Recovering from a very nervy start, they gradually turned the tables on a home side that themselves started to find the occasion increasingly imposing as the minutes ticked by.
On the night, the men that got France to the final, Pogba and Griezmann, couldn’t quite find the same spark. Pogba played too deep to have a real impact on the game while Griezmann didn’t get the chance to run into space he’d had in previous games, a victim of his own success, yet still missed probably the chance of the game when he put a header over the bar.
France did have two other great chances in the second half of normal time, Giroud having an effort well saved, then the hapless Gignac scuffing a shot against the post in the last minute – at that point, you started to wonder if it might be Portugal’s night.
Heading into extra-time, Ronaldo came to the touchline from the dressing room, as if they’d just rolled away the stone and he was risen once more. In truth, he played the team man role to the full, urging and cajoling his colleagues to give it one last go, almost taking over from his manager. And in the end, it worked for into the second period of extra-time, Eder clubbed a 20 yard effort just inside the post and from there, Portugal, the most defensively minded team in the latter stages of the competition, were always going to collect their clean sheet and the silver trophy.
Overall, you couldn’t pretend that this has been a vintage tournament. Widening the competition to 24 teams ended up being a something and nothing of an idea, particularly as we spent a fortnight whittling it down to 16. Conceptually, 24 makes little or no sense and it certainly didn’t lift the quality, while the idea of four best third placed sides – including Portugal – going through was a nonsense. Far better to either return to the previous format of 16 or go the whole hog and replicate the World Cup with 32 teams, eight groups of four.
As it was, we had a tournament that spent far too long in neutral, going nowhere. It wasn’t helped by the misfortune that saw the knockout draw become hopelessly lopsided, the top half carrying barely any threat while the bottom half was groaning with the continent’s heavyweights.
In no small part, it was the tournament of the underdogs which can be pleasing for a one-off, but generally means drab games when it repeats and repeats. It would be churlish to dismiss the feats of Northern Ireland, the Republic and especially Iceland but in terms of moments that will stick in the memory banks beyond their boundaries, it boils down to a song about Will Grigg who didn’t even get a game, Roy Keane going all metrosexual and hugging Martin O’Neill and some synchronised clapping. It’s not exactly Mexico 1970 is it?
Wales were underdogs of sorts, although it’s hard to dismiss them as that when they have one of the three or four best players in the world in their team. They overachieved perhaps by beating Belgium – the tournament’s biggest let down – in comprehensive fashion, but sadly, they couldn’t defeat serial bores Portugal in the semi-final.
We saw the end of the reign of Spain, as tiki-taka was finally laid to rest at the feet of an ageing team who no longer had the sparkle to turn possession into anything other than pretty patterns, while the Italians brilliantly disguised their own shortcomings to produce some of the competition’s most enduring moments before going out with the signature image, Zaza’s “My Little Pony” run up and penalty miss against the Germans.
Germany looked ominously good throughout the competition, always doing enough to come through every test without ever raising a sweat. Italy pushed them the closest as the challenge got greater before, in the end, they encountered a host nation that had grown in belief and stature with each fame, the big players coming to the party at the point when it mattered, momentum taking them past the German side in a game when fortune deserted the world champions. Ultimately though, that momentum was not enough.
All told, it’s been an event that has rarely climbed above the adequate, right down to the end. The truth quite simply is that all too often, magic, thrills, excitement, the stuff we pay our money to see, has been stifled by admirable, but ultimately suffocating, organisation. As players get quicker, stronger, faster, that pitch looks smaller and smaller.
Finding space to do anything in is going to be the biggest challenge in this next phase of football’s development.