Sunday, July 31, 2016

Summer Rewind 2016: The Euros - tournament of fairytales

Three weeks ago, the Euro 2016 football tournament ended with some very surprising champions - Portugal. We certainly didn't see that one coming - in my own view there have been many better Portugal national teams than this one.  But congratulations to Portugal anyway - and its yet another example of this particular tournament producing a fairytale ending.  

Every match was televised live either on BBC or ITV and you couldn't move for coverage of this year's event which was expanded to 24 teams for the first time.  it's hard to imagine a time when it was all very different.  Time for some reminiscing.....

Once upon a time, the Euros - or the European Football Championships as they were known back then - didn't always have the high profile which they have now.  The first one I really remember watching was in 1980.  It's hard to believe it now, but in those days, many people didn't own televisions but rented them from a  store like Radio Rentals or D.E.R.  When our rented colour TV broke down in the summer of 1980, we were supplied with a replacement TV with a much larger screen, which I remember watching (very limited) highlights of the tournament on.  Back in those days, you didn't seem to get live coverage of matches (apart from semi-finals/final) unless any of the home nations were playing.  

I don't really remember much about Euro 1984: TV coverage in the UK was virtually non-existent with no home nations present.  I do have very vivid memories of watching the final though.  Mum and I were on holiday at my aunt and uncle's home in Dumfries that week, and we watched the final on TV in one of the pubs in the town.  It was a very memorable match won of course by the great French team.

Things were starting to change by the time of Euro 1988.  There was more TV interest thanks to the presence of England and the Republic of Ireland.  1988 was a summer I will always fondly remember for various reasons: I had a very enjoyable summer job during that long hot summer, and the Netherlands were on fire in that tournament.  That goal in the final by Marco van Basten remains one of the greatest goals ever scored in world football. 

Euro 1992, held in Sweden, was a very unusual experience for us in Scotland as our national team qualified for the first time.  Which was a great achievement as with so few teams, it was always a lot tougher to qualify for. But it was the same old story as we never progressed beyond the group stage. (Neither did England).  Scotland never qualified for another European Championship.  Maybe some day, we live in hope.  

But what about the fairytale?  Well, that appropriately belonged to the land of Hans Christian Andersen.  Denmark had been invited to compete at extremely short notice in place of what was then Yugoslavia, who had been expelled from the tournament due to the civil wars which were raging there.  The 'Danish Dynamite' team had impressed in the 1986 World Cup but never even qualified for Italia 90, so expectations were not so high.  But during Euro 1992, they beat France, then the Netherlands, and then went on to win the whole thing by beating none other than world champions Germany in the final.  

4 years on, to Euro 1996, the famous "football's coming home" tournament held in England. Expanded to 16 teams, there was a lot more TV coverage than previously.  Scotland and England were drawn in the same group. You can guess the rest....anyway we had the emergence of a great Portuguese team, and a very strong team from the Czech Republic.  The Czechs came very close to their own fairytale result, but lost to Germany in the final.  Germany had ended England's dream in the semi-final.  Which of course went to penalties.  Remember that famous comment by Gary Lineker: "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win". 

Strangely enough I can't remember much about Euro 2000 which was the first jointly-staged tournament, taking place in both the Netherlands and Belgium - apart from Italy sinking into their old defensive ways, and then current world champions France beating the Italians in the final.  Looking at the tournament stats there were a lot of goals and high-scoring matches, which is always a good thing.  

Euro 2004 rolled round and it was once again time for the fairytale ending.  Greece - a country which hardly ever qualified for the Euros or the World Cup - beat hosts Portugal in the opening match and then beat holders France and then the Czech Republic on the way to the final.  The last match of the tournament was a rematch of the first: Portugal v Greece.  And yet again, Greece beat Portugal, this time to win the trophy.  Portugal had beaten England, on what else but a penalty shootout, on their way to the final.  I found Greece to be a rather dull team if I remember, but it was still a great achievement for them to win and have their moment of glory.  2004 was a big year for Greece, as Athens also staged the Olympics.  Little did we know that just a few years later, everything in that country was about to come crashing down, thanks to the debt crisis.  

Euro 2008 was another shared effort between Austria and Switzerland.  None of the UK's home nations even qualified.  I was particularly impressed with Turkey's spirited never-say-die performances during that tournament and they made it all the way to the semi finals before being beaten by Germany who lost to Spain in the final.  I was happy to see Spain win with their exciting attacking football, although was disappointed that the exciting high-scoring Dutch team never progressed beyond the quarter-finals. Spain were at their height and would follow this up with a World Cup win 2 years later.

Euro 2012 was staged in Poland and Ukraine and there was a lot of controversy prior to that tournament due to a controversial Panorama documentary about racism and hooliganism at football matches within both countries, and also some concern about whether the countries were ready to host. The tournament went ahead without much controversy.  England went out on penalties in the quarter-finals (to Italy, not Germany this time) and Spain continued their dominance of the world's major football tournaments. They were so strong in all areas of their team and had an effortless win against Italy 4-0 in the final. It certainly wasn't a tournament for the underdogs.  

So finally to Euro 2016.  Expanded to 24 teams, with blanket TV coverage, it managed to deliver some surprises and some noteworthy stories.  

For example, there was a very interesting fixture on the first weekend.  Albania v Switzerland may not have made the headlines but I was particularly fascinated by the story of the two Xhaka brothers playing on opposite national teams, whilst a large chunk of the Swiss national team was made up of players of Albania/Kosovo origin.  The camaraderie in the tunnel before the match was very surreal, wasn't it!  Switzerland was the strongest side on the day.  

The early stages of the tournament was marked by incidents of hooliganism in Marseille involving the fans of the England and Russian national teams.  (One of my work colleagues was due to visit Marseille on holiday during that time but all trains into the city were diverted due to the hooligan incidents so he and his friends had to make alternative plans!)

I was also on holiday with faithful travelling companion during Euro 2016.  And it couldn't have been a better time to be in Wales.  Just like the Scotland national team, Wales have spent one major tournament after another on the sidelines, so it was great to see them finally make it to the Euros. And unlike Scotland, who had to watch the Euros from the sidelines for the 24th year in a row. Wales arrived at this tournament with little expectation - and in that great tradition of the Euros, they went on to provide the fairytale element along with another debutant nation: Iceland.

Two draws and a win had taken the Icelandic team out of the group stage to the round of 16, where they would meet England.  The English media commentators were very quick to fast-forward to the next round, thinking that beating Iceland would just be a formality before England would meet France.  But they hadn't reckoned on the fighting spirit of the Icelandic team.  And they had the mythical "HU!" chant, which captured everyone's imagination.  Yet again the fairytale aspect of the Euros came to the fore.  Iceland eliminated England and made it to the quarter-finals, but were eventually overwhelmed by a strong performance by the French team.

Wales, meanwhile, went on to face Belgium in the quarter-finals.  A prior social engagement meant that we weren't able to catch the game live, but caught this incredible result on delayed transmission. And what an incredible, heroic result it was for the Welsh team.  This really was the stuff of fairytales - a 3-1 win against a team of talented, highly-paid superstars from Belgium.  Yet what impressed me about Wales, throughout this tournament, was their humility and genuine enjoyment at being there. Despite having a Real Madrid player in the line-up (Gareth Bale), the team had no airs and graces and brought a refreshing attitude to Euro 2016.

Having defeated Belgium in heroic style, they faced Portugal in the semi-final.  As I said in my introduction, there have been many better Portuguese national teams who have competed in the Euros and the World Cup, but who have been very unlucky in the past.  Up to and including the semi-final, Portugal could best be described as a one-man team: the uber-arrogant Cristiano Ronaldo and his merry men.  Ronaldo has been known to spit his dummy out of the pram from time to time, but his comments after Portugal's group game against Iceland were unpleasant and unprofessional.  

Considering they boast one of the world's best-known strikers, Portugal had make it this far with very few goals and playing very dull football in comparison with their predecessors of the Figo era.  Sadly for Wales though, they couldn't repeat their performance from the quarter-final, and they absolutely missed Aaron Ramsey.  But Wales (pictured above) said "Diolch" (thank you) to the fans and went home with their heads held high.  They were welcomed in Cardiff with an open-top bus parade and a party in the local stadium.  Wales may not have won Euro 2016, but they were winners.

In the final, much was expected from the host nation after their 2-0 victory over Germany in the other semi-final.  It was almost a foregone conclusion, and when an injured Ronaldo exited at an early stage in the final, it looked like France's name was on the trophy.  Like many other finals, it was a bit of a damp squib.  0-0 after 90 minutes, the ball never found the net until extra time.  The goal came from Portugal, not France.  Portugal had written their chapter in the Euros fairytale.

Ronaldo made sure that he would play a very significant part in the final stages of the match, yelling his team-mates on to victory, playing the part of the national team manager.  I wouldn't be too surprised if we were looking at the future manager of the national team, of course it could be argued that he's doing that already!

It won't be long until qualification starts for the next big international tournament: World Cup 2018.

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