Continental Concerns

Continental Concerns

With annual events like Wimbledon and the Tour de France being joined by the Summer Olympics and the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the summer of 2021 was always going to be a busy one for those of us brave (or stupid) enough to fall in love with multiple sports. However, the COVID-19 pandemic then mad this summer even busier, with the postponement of Euro 2020 to this summer.

And what a tournament it ended up being. Unfancied Hungary caused plenty of scares in their group of death that saw them face France, Germany and Portugal. Defending champions Portugal went through as one of the best 3ʳᵈ-placed finishers in the pools and found themselves eliminated in the Round of 16. Denmark overcame the loss of their star player Christian Eriksen, who collapsed before halftime in their opening game, and recovered from losing their first 2 games to go all the way to the semifinals, while becoming everyone’s second team. Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to score at 5 European Championships, and in 11 consecutive major tournaments, while breaking Michel Platini’s record for European Championship goals and Miroslav Klose’s record for goals scored in tournament finals for World Cups and European Championships combined. England defeated Germany in the knockouts of a major tournament for the first time since 1966. And after 51 matches and 142 goals, 2 saves from player of the tournament Gianluigi Donnarumma in a penalty shootout saw Italy declared European Champions, with England the heartbroken runners-up at Wembley.

There was a lot to look back on during this tournament, too much to put into adequate words, so I will be focusing on what really stood out for me over a series of 2 posts. I recently posted my thoughts focusing on England, today I will be looking at the wider tournament.


Heading towards trouble

One of the moments that stood out to me most during the tournament came just before the hour mark in the Group F match between France and Germany. France rightback Benjamin Pavard and Germany’s Robin Gosens both challenged for the ball in the France box, which resulted in the French defender going down with a knock to his head.

To anyone watching, it looked nasty, as Pavard just dropped to the ground without bracing himself, resulting in his head hitting the ground hard. You didn’t have to be a medical professional to know that he was knocked out. And so it was a massive shock when, after the quickest of tests and a squirt of cold water, the French medics sent him back on to continue the game!

Anyone who frequently reads my Premier League articles will have seen just how disgusted I have been by the way the Premier League and the clubs competing in it treat head injuries, well apparently the French Football Federation and UEFA are no better. When UEFA announced that they were investigating the incident, I finally thought that some degree of justice may be done, but that hope was quashed as they announced that following their investigation they were “satisfied the actions taken by the [French] medical team were in line with the concussion protocol” and that “According to reports we received from the team doctor, it seems a loss of consciousness did not occur.” Well that’s awkward, as Pavard even stated in an interview that he was “a little knocked out for 10 to 15 seconds – after that it was better”.

Head injuries are not a joke, they are deadly serious. Rugby and the NFL have been working hard to improve their act over recent years regarding head injuries—hell, even pro wrestling has improved the way they treat wrestler’s heads—but football seems determined to stick their head in the sand. I only hope that they get their act together before we are left with a tragic accident…

The best and the worst of us

Of course, we almost had a tragic moment during the pool stages, as Denmark’s star midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch just before halftime in his team’s opening match against Finland. The 29-year-old required CPR and defibrillation on the pitch before being rushed to hospital, and the match was understandably abandoned, before eventually being completed later in the day, once it had been announced that Eriksen was stable.

This was a shocking incident and horrible to watch, and a stark reminder as to the fragility of human life that this fit athlete in his peak years was suffering a cardiac arrest. It was a reminder that their are things much more important than football, and while you hope it will never happen, it brought out the best in some people. From the medics who acted without hesitation to save his life, to the officials who immediately stopped the game and called for the medics, realising that this was out of the ordinary. From the Finland fans who began chanting his name as everyone remained in the stadium waiting for news, to Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjær, who acted as true leaders on the pitch, organising their teammates to create a human screen to give their comrade privacy as he was treated on the pitch, while also helping to calm and look after Eriksen’s partner.

Unfortunately, this incident also showed the worst in some people. With the game not even 50% completed, UEFA officials gave the Danes the choice of completing the match later that evening or the following day at noon, or face the game going against them as a 3-0 loss. This led t a team that was clearly not in the right headspace returning to the pitch and suffering a 0-1 upset loss, with Kasper Schmeichel failing to make a save that you know he would have made on any other occasion.

But the absolute worst were the broadcasters, who clearly wanted to immortalise this moment on film. It is generally expected that a serious injury like a leg break will not be replayed on a broadcast, while in the final of this very same competition, cameras quickly cut away from the pitch as a streaker (just topless, not even fully nude) invaded the pitch, and yet those of us who were watching the Denmark game on BBC were forced to watch 10 minutes of the camera trying to get the best view it could of Eriksen undergoing CPR, only cutting away to show his partner’s visible distress.

The BBC eventually apologised, using the excuse that they were getting the images from an outside broadcaster: UEFA themselves. This is certainly true, as I got confirmation from a friend in Sweden that they were also forced to watch these horrific images for 10 minutes, and that in itself is truly shocking that nobody in the booth had the decency to order a cut to a wide image of the stadium. But the BBC can’t get out of it that easy, as they could have chosen to cut the feed at any point, but chose to go along with it for 10 minutes before cutting back to the studio. I completely understand that even the pundits would need a moment to take in what they have seen and be ready to go onscreen, but it’s impossible for me to imagine that they could not have cut to a commercial break for a couple of minutes to give them time.

On the plus side, Denmark recovered from this harrowing start to the tournament, and if anything it appeared to give them a focus, going all the way to the semifinal, while 21-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard did a fantastic job filling Eriksen’s boots. Hopefully, broadcasters and tournament organisers will also react positively off the back of this incident, just in case anything similar happens again in the future.

Failed experiment

While the major tournaments are usually hosted by just 1 country, Euro 2020 was unique in that it had 11 host nations each providing a stadium. While this was a romantic idea, I can’t help feel that it was a failure and should not be tried again.

Of course, one thing that certainly didn’t help things was the timely arrival of a global pandemic, which heavily limited travel and stadium capacities. But the big issue really was how some teams were able to get such an advantage. Take England for example, who were able to play all 3 of their group games at Wembley, stayed in London for their match against Germany, took a short trip to Rome for their quarterfinal, before returning to Wembley for the semifinal and final. In contrast, semifinal opponents Denmark (another host nation) played their 3 group games at home, before travelling to Amsterdam, then a pointless trip to Baku to face the Czech Republic and then on to Wembley for their eventual loss. And then there’s Belgium, who had to play in Russia, then Denmark, then Russia, before trips to Spain and Germany in the knockouts. How is it fair that some teams are able to spend almost the whole tournament at one venue, while others are travelling the length and breadth of the continent after every match?

Personally, I feel that the tournament needs to remain as just 1 host nation, or a collection of a couple of smaller nations who border each other. That way, even if one team is travelling twice as much as another, the distances are still relatively small, while the whole country can then benefit economically from the influx of fans during the tournament.

feat football Euro 2020 logo

England’s Euros

England’s Euros

With annual events like Wimbledon and the Tour de France being joined by the Summer Olympics and the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the summer of 2021 was always going to be a busy one for those of us brave (or stupid) enough to fall in love with multiple sports. However, the COVID-19 pandemic then mad this summer even busier, with the postponement of Euro 2020 to this summer.

And what a tournament it ended up being. Unfancied Hungary caused plenty of scares in their group of death that saw them face France, Germany and Portugal. Defending champions Portugal went through as one of the best 3ʳᵈ-placed finishers in the pools and found themselves eliminated in the Round of 16. Denmark overcame the loss of their star player Christian Eriksen, who collapsed before halftime in their opening game, and recovered from losing their first 2 games to go all the way to the semifinals, while becoming everyone’s second team. Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to score at 5 European Championships, and in 11 consecutive major tournaments, while breaking Michel Platini’s record for European Championship goals and Miroslav Klose’s record for goals scored in tournament finals for World Cups and European Championships combined. England defeated Germany in the knockouts of a major tournament for the first time since 1966. And after 51 matches and 142 goals, 2 saves from player of the tournament Gianluigi Donnarumma in a penalty shootout saw Italy declared European Champions, with England the heartbroken runners-up at Wembley.

There was a lot to look back on during this tournament, too much to put into adequate words, so I will be focusing on what really stood out for me over a series of 2 posts. Today, I will be putting the focus on England (for obvious reasons). Keep an eye out for my second article later this week, which will look at some wider thoughts for the tournament.


Redemption

Sometimes when you look back on a team’s campaign, it can be summed up in a word. For me, watching England on their run to the final, the word was clear: Redemption.

How many times have we looked at past England teams and seen a bunch of overpaid prima donnas who seem out of touch with the public? Well that has been one thing Gareth Southgate has been keen to dispel in his time with the team, and as such we find ourselves cheering on players that we love for more than just their football. Nowhere was this more obvious than Tyrone Mings’ dignified response to Priti Patel calling the team’s anti-racism stand (taking the knee at the start of every game) as “gesture politics” and supporting those who booed them, or Marcus Rashford, who even managed to unite both sides of Manchester in their love for him over the last year as he campaigned for free meals for deprived schoolchildren during lockdown.

football Everton Ashley Williams Jordan PickfordBut it goes even further than that. Just look at the starting line-up. This time last year, it would have been laughable to suggest that Luke Shaw would be starting for England. The Manchester United left back had always shows flashes of quality, only for serious injuries to then leave him out of the game for months, while former manager José Mourinho was vocal of his criticism of the player. Flash forward to now and he was arguably England’s player of the tournament, with his impressive performances seeing him finish with 3 assists and the opening goal of the final. Sticking with the defence and John Stones looked to be just the latest in a long line of expensive flops at the back for Manchester City, but never gave up and became a key part of their title-winning season and was a key member of an England defence that allowed just 2 goals in 7 games. Similarly, Kyle Walker has had his ups and downs over the last couple of seasons, but was ever-reliable in an England shirt, whether at rightback or playing as part of a 3-man defence. And let’s not forget Jordan Pickford, who I have repeatedly made clear that I had no faith in as he appeared unable to play a match for Everton without getting a case of the yips… well he was largely cool and composed throughout the tournament on his way to winning the Golden Glove with 5 clean sheets and 2 saves in the final shootout.

And it was even redemption for Gareth Southgate. Go back to Euro 96, and England found themselves in a penalty shootout at Wembley against Germany hoping to end 30 years of hurt and get back to a the final of a major tournament. All of the initial 5 spot kick takers for each team found the back of the net, and when Andreas Möller scored his penalty, it was Gareth Southgate who stepped up and—with the weight of a nation on his shoulders—saw his shot saved by Andreas Köpke. Now, 25 years later, he has backed up his tea’s run to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup with an appearance in their first major final since 1966, which also saw them defeat Germany in the knockouts for the first time since they won the World Cup.

They may not have won on the night, but they should still be counted as winners.

Foundations

While England’s run to the final is something to be proud of, there must also be some realism. England’s pool should always have resulted in 3 wins, and after defeating Germany, the team was left with a favourable route to the final. Yes they kept 5 clean sheets, but they shouldn’t have found themselves overly threatened.

Looking back over the tournament, it is clear that Gareth Southgate was taking a very safe approach. Despite having some of the most exciting young players in Europe in Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham, it was the experience and reliability of Raheem Sterling, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips that got the minutes, while the direct attacking of Jack Grealish—which clearly improved the team up front—was limited to cameo appearances.

Nothing highlights this more than the final itself. Shaw’s early goal should have been perfect for England. The Italians would have to attack and that would leave space at the back for a goal. However by the middle of the first half, England were already starting to sit back too much, defending the lead they had rather than looking to build on it, and it let the Azzurri grow into the game, and become dominant in the second half, by which point the England team was barely getting the ball in the Italian half. Harry Kane didn’t even manage a touch in the Italian box other than his penalty, but while he can put in a great delivery, he did not have the players around him to take advantage of this and fill the space in the box. Rather than going out and trying to win the game, Southgate sent the team out to not lose, and in doing so, they came up short when it mattered.

football england ben white jadon sancho jude bellingham mason mount marcus rashford harry kane bukayo saka phil foden jack grealishThe good news though is that this is a young team. Only 3 of the squad are in their 30s (Trippier is 30, Henderson and Walker 31), so they should still be pushing for the World Cup next season, while the median age of the squad is 25. This squad should grow together over the next couple of years, with young superstars like Sancho, Foden, Saka, Bellingham and Mount only set to improve. Add to that the potential for Dean Henderson to come back and push Jordan Pickford to remain at the top of his game, and the return of Trent Alexander-Arnold. The success we have seen from England over the last 2 tournaments does not have to be the peak, but just the foundation for a run of strong tournaments.

But for this to happen, Southgate also needs to start taking more risks, picking players who can go out to win a game, and rewarding form players like Foden and Sancho rather than the tried and tested players—Raheem Sterling may have scored in some crucial moments, but these moments often masked poor performances. Meanwhile a decision must be made about how to best utilise Harry Kane: by forcing him to stay in the box as a 9, or by giving him the freedom to drop deeper and selecting players who will make the attacking runs beyond him like Son Heung-Min does at Spurs.

England have the chance to become one of the best in the world over the next couple of years, but the way they react to this tournament is crucial.

The Fandom Menace

Sadly, while the performances of the England players left much for us to be proud of, the same cannot be said of the so-called fans.

England fans already (deservedly) don’t have the best of reputations, but they have gone out of their way to show the worst of themselves during this tournament:

  • Booing the players while they take a knee as a message against racism
  • Booing the opposition’s national anthem
  • Use of a laser pointer during England’s semi-final against Denmark, including shining it in Kasper Schmeichel’s eyes during Harry Kane’s penalty
  • Trashing much of London before and after the final
  • Breaking into Wembley without a ticket for the final
  • Racist abuse of Saka, Sancho and Rashford online following their failure to score their penalties in the final

Of course this behaviour is being widely vilified, but what will change? All that will be done is that many people will try to distance these so-called fans from the England national team, while the FA are paying a fine for the fan issues revolving around the Denmark game. But that’s clearly not enough, as otherwise this would have been sorted long ago.

It’s time for the governing bodies—FIFA and UEFA—to start taking real action relating to fan behaviour. Too many serious cases of misbehaviour in a space of time, and the governing body should ban that nation from the next major tournament. Only with such a punishment will individual associations start putting in the real work to deal with the c***s who are only their to cause harm and upset. 

Can I see this happening? Sadly, no. The governing bodies will continue to pay lip service towards supporting inclusivity and decrying poor behaviour, but they would never be brave enough to throw a top team out of a major tournament.

To all those out there causing trouble and spreading hate: You have no place here. Be better, or f*ck off!

feat football Euro 2020 logo

England’s Magic Victories

England’s Magic Victories

For sports fans, Sunday 14th July is a day that will live long in the memory. Lewis Hamilton won a 6th British GP in a race that saw Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen praised for some of the best racing in years. The Scottish Open reached its end. The Tour de France continued towards its first rest day. England’s men’s and women’s rugby 7s team won their respective tournaments to qualify Team GB for the Olympics. New Zealand’s beat England to win the Women’s Rugby Super Series title and remain #1 in the world. Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in the longest Wimbledon men’s final and England won the Cricket World Cup against New Zealand.

That win for Eoin Morgan’s men – by virtue of number of boundaries in the match, after the teams could not be separated over 50 overs and a super over – gave cricket one of its greatest finishes of all time and made England the only nation to have won the Men’s World Cups in cricket, football and rugby. While that stat may not be too surprising given the number of countries that play all 3 of these sports to an elite level, what makes this incredible is that all 3 of these victories have come following some form of extra time.

England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup victory saw them concede a late equaliser from Wolfgang Weber to make the scores 2-2 at the 90-minute mark, but 2 goals from Geoff Hurst in extra time – including one in the final seconds of the game – saw Bobby Moore lift the trophy as the nation celebrated a 4-2 victory.

The RWC2003 final saw defending champions and hosts Australia bring the scores level in the final moments, as Elton Flatly kicked a penalty to level the scores at 14-14. Extra time saw Flatley and Jonny Wilkinson trade a penalty each, before a Wilkinson drop goal won the game with just 26 seconds left on the clock.

Sunday’s final at Lord’s saw England hold New Zealand to a reachable total of 241, before struggling themselves with the bat. Requiring 15 runs from the last over, luck was on England’s side and they tied things up with the final ball, taking things to a super over. England got 15 runs from their over, but things got off to a bad start in New Zealand’s over as Jofra Archer started with a wide and was hit for 6 a few balls later. He tightened things up on the final balls though, leaving New Zealand needing 2 runs from the final ball to win. Martin Guptil got the first run to pull things level, but was unable to get back down the wicket quick enough and was run out, leaving the scores level and seeing England win through the tie-breaker of most boundaries in the match.

With all these matches, they have their moments that will be remembered for how differently they could have gone. Hurst’s first goal in extra time was an early case for goal-line technology, as the ball hit the crossbar, bounced off the ground and was cleared away, only for the assistant referee to decree that the ball had crossed the line. Ben Kay agonisingly dropped Matt Dawson’s popped pass with the try line at his mercy, while Wilkinson’s successful drop goal came with his weaker right foot after having missed 2 drop goal attempts earlier in the match. At Lord’s England’s saviour Ben Stokes was almost caught out in the penultimate over, only for Trent Boult to step backwards onto the boundary to turn the ball into a 6, while the next over saw an even luckier moment as a fielder’s throw deflected off his bat and reached the boundary to total 6 runs off that ball – though in hindsight it should have actually been 5 runs.

It’s safe to say England have had their fair share of luck, with the Rugby World Cup just months away, hopefully they haven’t used it all up at the weekend. Perhaps that will be England’s first victory in regular time. I’m not sure our hearts can take another close finish!

Final thoughts on Euro 2016

Before the semi-finals of Euro 2016, I did an article about my thoughts on the tournament up to that point. Now that the tournament is over, I wanted to quickly revisit this by adding a few more thoughts. some of these may be an expansion on my original 6 thoughts, but some will be entirely new.

Deserving Champions?

First of all, congratulations to Portugal on winning the European Championship. They may not have been playing pretty football (more on that below) but hey have now done something that the golden generation of Pauleta, Luis Figo and Rui Costa never managed, winning the country’s first ever major international tournament. What makes this even more impressive is that they have done so by beating the host nation, who were clear favourites, having lost their star player – and captain no less – within the first half hour.

That said, many people have questioned whether they deserved to be in the final in the first place. Throughout the tournament, they only won a single game within 90 minutes (the semi-final against Wales) and finished their group with 3 draws, qualifying 3rd behind Hungary and Iceland.

I made it clear in my last article that I didn’t agree with the way the tournament was set up to allow many of the 3rd placed teams to qualify as it didn’t encourage positive play and going for the win. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say Portugal don’t deserve to be champions – by the rules of the tournament they did what was necessary and won fair and square – I hope that this encourages UEFA to review the format ahead of Euro 2020.

Be positive

This may be a historic tournament for a number of teams (1st appearance in a major tournament for a number of teams, 1st major tournament victory for Portugal) but for many, it’s not a tournament that will live long in the memory. Over the course of 51 matches, there were just 108 goals (2.12 per match). Euro 2012 averaged 2.45 per match (76 from 31 games), Euro 2008 managed 2.48 per match (77 from 31) and even Euro 2004 – when defensively minded Greece won the tournament – managed 77 goals from 31 matches. 22 matches were goalless at halfway and not many of those were particularly thrilling.

20 goals (18.5%) were scored from the 85th minute onward, clearly the teams were capable of playing attractive attacking football, but it seems that many of them chose to sit back and defend. Portugal’s solid, defensive approach is certainly impressive (they are unbeaten in 14 competitive games under Fernando Santos), but it won’t be winning them many fans.

I am firmly of the opinion that this was due to the ability of teams to qualify for the knockouts by being one of the best 3rd place finishers. 3 points gave a good chance of qualification, 4 points (1 win and 1 draw) guaranteed it. Hopefully if this is changed going forward, we will see more goals and much more exciting games in the next tournament.

Stop the hating

Now, unfortunately, it’s time for a little rant.

As much as I agree with having the right to voice your opinion, I did get sick of seeing all the hate going round online during the tournament. I understand that Cristiano Ronaldo is not the most popular of players, but the levels of hate I saw towards him, even after his injury, was ridiculous!

And it wasn’t even all directed at certain teams and players, but even the sport as a whole. I consider myself first and foremost a rugby union fan, but I do love a number of other sports and will willingly watch – and enjoy – even more sports. Though I still try to watch on a regular basis, I will admit that I have been somewhat put off of football in recent years due to the ridiculous wages and the actions of the players on the pitch, such as simulation and attempting to influence the referee (thankfully there has been very little of this in this tournament). However I still don’t feel that there is any need for all the “my sport is amazing, your sport is ****” posts that have been going around during the tournament. Everybody loves a bit of inter-sport banter, but a number of people took this too far. As a fan, you are representing your sport as much, if not more, than the players. I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen a fair few rugby fans moaning about everyone talking about football and it being all over the TV. I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate football fans acting like that when the 6 Nations or the Rugby World Cup comes around.

Treat others how you would want to be treated. If you’re not interested in the tournament, then just change the channel, it’s as simple as that!

Rant over.

 

So what are your thoughts? Do you think I’ve missed anything, or do you think the complete opposite? Let me know, I love to hear other people’s opinions!

6 Thoughts on Euro 2016

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.

Fan Power

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.