After France’s victory last night over everybody’s new second team, Iceland, we are down to the final 4 teams in Euro 2016. Portugal take on Wales tomorrow night for a chance to take on either Germany or the French for a place in Sunday night’s final.
With that in mind, I decided it was time to have a look back at this year’s tournament and give my thoughts on what has, on the whole, been a good tournament. Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I have not been watching religiously this year. A number of matches were missed due to work and other commitments, and I’ve fallen asleep on the sofa during a fair few of the later kickoffs (unfortunately not the England v Iceland game). So don’t consider this a comprehensive review of the tournament, rather the ramblings of a casual observer.
As with all big tournaments, the actions of the fans go a long way to determining how successful the event will be. In the early days of this tournament, it looked like Euro 2016 would be remembered more for the antics of hooligans from a number of countries than for the actual football. In total, 8 of the 24 countries involved in this year’s tournament were charged by UEFA due to the behaviour of their fans, which included throwing flares and other objects onto the pitch and also violence, most notably from the Russian and English ‘fans’. In my opinion, the idiots involved in these events were likely not fans on the whole, as I can see no reason why anyone would want to tarnish the image of a sport they love. Attending a tournament like this can be a once in a lifetime opportunity for many people, and I feel sorry for anyone who had their experience ruined by the antics of these hooligans.
Thankfully, as the tournament has progressed, the behaviour of the fans has improved and we have seen much more positivity in the media surrounding the fans’ performance. The fans of a number of countries, such as the Irish, have also come in from praise for both the atmosphere they helped create at matches and their general performances in public. As a rugby fan, the performance of the fans is something that I am very proud of in my sport, so I hope this will be the last time we hereof crowd trouble in football.
Even more years of hurt
Being a fan of the England national football team is a hard and often thankless job. Every 2 years we have to build ourselves up from a tournament disappointment, have a strong qualifying campaign and friendly performances build up our hopes to a point where we think “This could be our year”… then watch a series of poor performances culminating in an early exit even more demoralising than the one before. I saw a tweet last night that Iceland could concede 5 or 6 goals against France and still come out with more pride than England did in this tournament, and I think it would be a struggle to find someone who would disagree with the sentiment.
The Premier League is arguably one of the best leagues in the world, if only the same could be said about the national team. The team is made up of a bunch of overpaid and over-hyped players who believe they deserve the win purely because they are England. Unfortunately nowhere near enough of them show enough pride in the shirt they are wearing. As good as Iceland were, not a single player or coach in the England team came out looking good.
Their shortcomings were heightened when you compare with the achievements of the Welsh in this same tournament. Wales arguably have fewer players at ‘top’ teams and playing regularly in top competitions, however they came in with a clear game-plan and a fairly settled starting XI and have actually looked like a team. As a result, they are pushing for a place in the final, whereas the England players are back at home with their Ferraris and diamond-encrusted bathrooms.
Bigger is better
This year’s tournament saw an expansion in the number of teams qualifying for the finals from 16 to 24. This has been a massive success! A number of these teams have come out and taken their chance to entertain at a major tournament, and as a result have been involved in some of the best matches over the last few months.
Hungary had already guaranteed themselves a place in the knockout stages by the time they faced Portugal, but still chose to push for the win, resulting in an exciting 3-3 draw and what was surely an emotional roller coaster for Portuguese fans. And just when they thought they could celebrate, Iceland got a late winner to push them down to 3rd in the group.
By contrast, a number of ‘better’ teams have struggled throughout the tournament. France’s campaign could have been very different had it not been for a couple of very late goals in group games, whilst Portugal and Croatia took over 100 minutes to register a shot on target in their last 16 match (or so I heard, I was soon snoring on the sofa).
Probably the 2 biggest success stories have been those of tournament debutantes Iceland and Wales. Both have shown that pride in the jersey and a willingness to play as a team can take you a long way in a tournament. Unfortunately Iceland came up against a French team in fine form in their quarter-final, but the Welsh will certainly feel that they have a every chance of beating Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal tomorrow night, and good luck to them!
Where’s the incentive?
As great as it has been seeing an expanded tournament, I think it would be a good idea for organisers to look at how the groups are arranged and how teams qualify for the knockouts. In this tournament, the top 2 teams in this group qualified, and then the top 4 of the 6 third placed finishers also qualified. Now I personally had 2 problems with this qualifying format:
My first problem is that by letting 3 out of 4 teams in a group have a chance of qualifying, it meant that 3 draws would likely be enough to see a team through, as was the case with Portugal. These major tournaments should be encouraging positive play to the point that even 4 or 5 points may not be enough to guarantee a place in the knockouts.
My other issue with this format is that this then means teams are not just competing with the other 3 teams in their group, but also with teams in other groups. As is the nature of these tournaments, as much as the organisers try to balance the groups, there will always be some groups that are stronger than others. The Republic of Ireland qualified 3rd from a group containing Italy, Belgium and Sweden. By contrast, Group A was made up of Hungary, Iceland, Portugal and Austria. With all due respect to those teams, that seems like a group which the Irish could have comfortably qualified from, possibly even won.
I don’t have the answer on how to improve this moving forward, but i think someone needs to have a look at the options available to see if this can be improved moving forwards.
Giving yellow card suspensions the red card
It’s generally accepted that totting up 2 yellow cards in a tournament will lead to a 1-match ban, I have no problem with that. My issue here comes from the fact that, unlike most major tournaments, the slate is not wiped clean after the group stages, but instead after the quarter-finals. As a result, we are seeing a number of influential players missing the chance to appear in a semi-final, an opportunity they may never get again. Wales will be without Ben Davies and star midfielder Aaron Ramsey against Portugal, who will themselves be missing William Carvalho. In the other semi, the Germans must take on a dangerous French attack without Mats Hummels. Going into the quarter-finals, there were as many as 45 players one booking away from missing a possible semi-final, so it could be seen as a surprise that only 4 players fell foul of the 2nd yellow at this stage in the competition.
I can see the logic here, to wipe the slate when they do means that it would require a red card in the semis for a player to miss the final. However I feel that it would be a better option to make it 3 yellows before a suspension and wipe the slate before the semis, or to go back to wiping the slate clean after the group stages. In an age where referees are only to happy to brandish the yellow, it is far too easy to accumulate 2 yellows over 5 matches, especially when there is the possibility of 2 of those games going to extra time.
As I stated earlier, it’s the fans who make the tournament a success, unfortunately they have paid significant money to watch the best players in Europe, which they are now being denied. To me, that’s just not right.
So what next?
So there are my thoughts on what has come so far in the tournament. Now it’s time for the all-important predictions for the rest of the tournament:
Portugal 2-1 Wales As much as I want Wales to win, I think that the loss of Davies and especially Ramsey will be the deciding factor here. Wouldn’t be surprised to see another Bale free kick find the back of the net.
Germany 0-1 France France look like they may have clicked going forward, whereas the Germans have struggled to reach the level we expect of them. Hummels’ suspension, as well as injuries to Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez, will give the French an advantage in front of their home supporters.
Portugal 0-2 France Portugal ave benefited from being on the weaker side of the knockouts and I expect this to show when they come up against better opposition. Spurred on by their home fans, this game should be easier for France than their semi final.