Midnight in Paris – Part 6

Wednesday 6th July

Portugal 2 – 0 Wales

Semi-Final, Lyon

Ronaldo 50’, Nani 53’

 

Looking back from a vantage point of several days, the final looming large and the rest of the tournament receding into the distance, the semi-finals stand out as two very different matches.

The good thing about lesser teams going deep into tournaments is that it creates a talking point, a reference for those who might not even care much for football. Even your mum, for example, might know that Wales had beaten Belgium who are quite good, aren’t they and were nearly in the final. The bad thing about lesser teams going deep into tournaments is that you get Portugal Vs Wales in the semi-finals.

It still rankles, as it did with my 16 year old self, that South Korea got to the 2002 World Cup semis. Yes, there was a great narrative, heart-warming scenes, moments that transcend football, but their quarter-final with Spain and their semi against the Germans were absolutely awful spectacles. Because the further a little team goes the more likely they are to freeze, stunned, in the middle of a dauntingly wide pitch, cavernous stands towering above them, like a sleepwalker awakening naked in his garden, and think ‘Fuck, I shouldn’t be here.’ Little teams should know their place and exit competitions at a sensible time: Northern Ireland left after the Round of 16 – fine. Iceland after the quarters – cute. Wales in the semis…

It would be different if they had made a game of it but without the suspended Ramsey they offer little and Portugal do enough. After a tight, tactical, cagey… (dull…) first half, Ronaldo explodes a header beyond Hennessey – seriously, he gets on my tits as much as the next sane person but what a header! – and then hits a shot that Nani diverts in. By the end it probably should have been three, or four. I can’t remember a good Welsh chance in the entire game, and it’s not because I fell asleep or anything.

Oh, and I reserve the right to lump Portugal in to the ‘lesser teams’ category – it could have been Belgium, or Croatia, for God’s sake, but the Portuguese have done just enough. People have called them ugly and dull, and they have been at times, but there does come a point where just being ugly and dull stop being enough. They have scored in, and have at least tried to win, all their knockout games (unlike some teams), although this is their first win in 90 minutes all tournament. I grudgingly admire them, and would ordinarily be supporting them in the final against a much sexier opponent, but the thought of CR7 getting his greasy mitts on the trophy, winking to the camera then posing in his Calvins for a dressing room winners shot is more than I can stomach.

 

Thursday 7th July

Germany 0 – 2 France

Semi-Final, Marseille

Griezmann pen. 45+2’, 72’

 

Luckily, though, France should have way too much for them in the final. I drag myself out of bed on a school night for the final time until Russia 2018, and can feel my body and mind protesting against yet another of these unnatural awakenings. I am relieved that I haven’t yet started waking up at 3am unbidden on football-free nights, a sign that my body hasn’t yet accepted this as the norm. It must only be a matter of time, though.

This game is everything that the first semi is not: fast-paced, high-skilled, dramatic… a game that feels like a semi-final, between two teams who know that this is their natural stage. It’s also a very odd game in that Germany dominate for long periods, especially in the first half, like few other teams have done all tournament, but France end the match looking like worthy winners.

Chances fall for Can and Muller and more, but they are without their one true goal-scorer Gomez. And as the first half trips over into injury time, and Germany think OK we should be ahead but let’s not panic just yet a French corner is headed by Evra onto Schweinsteiger’s hand. Penalty – the second conceded by Germany in two games, both for handball. Griezmann scores.

The second follows lovely trickery from Pogba, which allows him to cross. Neuer flaps (there’s something quite enjoyable about a Neuer mistake – he looks like a school bully) and Griezmann pokes home. Six for the tournament.

Germany then chuck everything at France: they hit the post and force a superb close range save from Lloris, but can’t find the goal to drag them back into the game and turn what is a very good match into a classic. For all their reputation as a resilient, come-back team (Never write off the Germans, eh?) when was the last time they actually performed a comeback from two goals down in a tournament? The 1986 final?

So France get there and have proved during this knockout round that, while their defence has been a little eccentric, their attack has been the best in the tournament by far. Good enough, with Griezmann, Giroud, Payet, Pogba et al, to ensure that it is they who are beaming from ear to ear, dancing on the pitch with the trophy on Sunday night, and definitely not posing with it in their underwear.

 

Sunday 10th July

Portugal 1 – 0 France (a.e.t.)

Final, St. Denis

Eder 109’

 

Truly, I didn’t put all that crap about France being way too good and not wanting to see Ronaldo in his pants as some sort of set-up for this punchline. I genuinely wrote those bits before the final!

There is a piece of wisdom about international tournaments: they get the final they deserve. And many people are suggesting that this is very much the final that Euro 2016 deserved. Tame, uninspired, cautious… And that was just France. Stuff happened intermittently, but in between the stuff there were long stretches of nowt.

But the purpose of this blog is not to cast opinions on the merits or otherwise of this tournament. It’s about my journey through 4 weeks and 2 days of middle of the night matches and what happened as I lay on my couch, sometimes accompanied by a cat or two, and by the men noisily unpacking crates of fruit for the market outside. And so, after a late evening vet’s trip (said cats…) and only two hours sleep due to watching the Wimbledon final, I feel strangely refreshed. Crazily refreshed. I wrote at the start of the tournament that the last World Cup nearly killed me but this… This has been a dawdle. I don’t feel the effects at all. Am I fitter or, as I suspected before, am I now an old, up with the lark type of early middle aged man?

I’m sure anyone with at least a passing interest knows by now what happened in this final. To summarise: Ronaldo’s maybe injured, Ronaldo plays on, Ronaldo’s definitely injured, stretcher and applause, do it for me lads do it for me, France have some chances, lots of moths, Gignac hits the post in the last minute, extra time, Guerrero free-kick off the bar for Portugal, Ronaldo relieved (that’s my job – how dare you!), Swansea reject Eder holds off Koscielny and lashes in from 25 yards, Ronaldo very confused, am I happy?, jealous?, I don’t know, France looked stunned, France lose.

It’s probably the least entertaining international tournament final in my memory. I mean, they’re never the best games but this is a prosaic mix of caution from Portugal and what one can only imagine is stage-fright from France. But it has to be watched – the whole tournament had to be watched – because that’s the stage I’ve reached in my football-watching career: I might actually hate football by now but just not realise it. It’s too late. I’ll be getting up early or going to bed late or bunking off school or sneaking live streams at work or, who knows, just watching matches at a normal time if I ever move back to Europe or they ever hold a World Cup in China… for the rest of my life.

But, to employ a football cliché, at the end of the day… No matter that it was a bit of a let-down – the final and the tournament as a whole – it’s still an international football tournament. It’s still the Euros. If you go on holiday and find a poo in your hotel bed it’s a disappointment but, hey, you’re still on holiday. It beats work. And the games couldn’t have been all bad.

Trust me, watching at 3am puts things into sharp perspective.

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Midnight in Paris – Part 5

Thursday 30th June

Poland 1(3)(5)1 Portugal (a.e.t)

Quarter-Final, Marseille

Lewandowski 2’

Renato Sanches 33’

 

Another two day break, another chance to actually sleep whole nights at a time. It’s one game a day from now on – no chopping and choosing what nugget I’ll have to miss due to the need for slumber. But I require an assurance from the footballing Gods: that I won’t regret getting up at 3am – that it will be worth my while.

And, lo, with less than 120 seconds having passed, Lewandowski sweeps a brisk cut-back into the net and the first half rollicks by at a fine pace. Chances come and go, play ebbs and flows, Sanches, Portugal’s new wunderkind, equalises from the edge of the area. Ronaldo doesn’t celebrate with him because he’s probably a bit jealous… We have ourselves a quarter final!

But come half time it is clearly all a bit much for the coaches, who gather their charges together and reprimand them for being so cavalier and so darn entertaining. Remember Portugal’s Fernando Santos was the evil brains behind their diabolical 2nd round tie with Croatia, while Poland’s results so far read like the Enigma code: 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 1-1. From minute 45 onwards it’s slim-pickings. Very slim-pickings.

A (short) treatise on modern football: the pressure on footballers and managers is such, and is so engrained in their skulls, that they refuse to take anything that could be deemed as a risk and could therefore get them into trouble. ‘Trouble’ in this case means being criticised on social media and then in the press and then getting sacked, or dropped from the team. You can actually see the left-back thinking as he passes the halfway line: I could go on a run here try an incisive pass create something and be the hero but actually no I’ll turn and pass square to the centre back. And the ‘fan’ on twitter proclaiming that this the worst match ever and that the coach is a tactical luddite encourages others to do the same, and the theme trends, and is picked up on by proper media and pundits and is the reason why teams play so defensively in the first place. It’s all very Catch 22, yet comes to me crystal clear at dawn on a Friday morning, as this game meanders towards the penalty kicks that have been inevitable since minute 46.

Ronaldo takes his kick first, clearly worried that if he goes last the shootout might already be won and his moment of waxed-chest thumping snatched from him, to set Portugal on their way. Blaszczykowski misses and that’s the last time I’ll need to type his stupid name. Portugal just about deserve it for showing more attacking edge (relatively speaking) but this is definitely the default quarter final – you know, the one that opens up because a fancied team finished second in their group and another team just didn’t turn up and they need a couple teams because, well, you need eight to make up the quarter finals. In short: I really don’t think that this tussle will have given us our 2016 champion.

 

Friday 1st July

Wales 3 – 1 Belgium

Quarter-Final, Lille

Williams 30’, Robson-Kanu 55’, Vokes 85’

Nainggolan 13’

 

As Sam Vokes rises to head gloriously past Thibaut Courtois, and settle Wales’s place in the SEMI-FINALS!, I reach above my head to turn on the Jacuzzi chair in which I’m sitting, and reflect.

Perhaps I should elaborate. Despite fully investing in World Cups and European Championships when they are on, I no longer count them down on a calendar, memorise the group schedule months in advance, simulate the tournament on FIFA or create handmade wallcharts, as I was wont to in my formative years. I do, though the fact that I’ve blogged in-depth on every match played so far may hamper these claims, have a life.

Months before, when Euro 2016 was still just an abstract concept, I booked a night in Shenzhen – the part of China just across the border from Hong Kong. It was a long weekend and I’d never been. Except it later dawned that I’d miss Quarter Final 2 (at first glance probably England Vs Italy). As the tournament progressed the dilemma crystallised, though my skills of prediction proved abysmal, and I toyed with various solutions. Should I bring my laptop and try to stream it over the hotel wifi? (Luckily I didn’t – the wifi was terrible) Should I get up at 3am and trawl the streets of Shenzhen for a bar? Should I avoid the score until getting home the following evening?

I chose the latter, and woke up on Saturday morning oblivious to the shock that had rocked European football. And I made it through breakfast and a wander around some shops, to just past 12pm when, I entered the pool in the Queen Spa (Shenzhen’s number one spa on TripAdvisor). And there it was spread across three TVs: Wales 2 – Belgium 1 with twenty minutes to go.

I graciously admitted defeat, settled into said Jacuzzi chair, and awaited the Belgian equalizer that appeared inevitable at that point, as they were throwing all sorts of balls into the box. But with five to play, Ramsey broke away and crossed for Vokes, Burnley’s main hit-man, to leap like the proverbial salmon and nod home. Wales in the semis, and who would bet against them beating Portugal too? I wouldn’t.

Upon closer inspection (AKA the highlights when I got home) it appears to have been a stonker of a game, the initiative being wrestled from one side to the other, Nainggolan lashing in a shot from 25 yards, Williams powering in a header, Robson-Kanu (who doesn’t currently have a club!) executing a Cruyff turn to dumbfound three defenders and finish very coolly… Of all the Quarter-Finals to miss…

 

Saturday 2nd July

Germany 1(6)(5)1 Italy (a.e.t)

Quarter-Final, Bordeaux

Ozil 65’

Bonucci pen. 78’

 

Back to more familiar viewing habits: the 2:55 alarm. The heavyweights. The superpowers of European football. This should have been the final, no?

I’m tempted to direct the reader back to my influential ‘Treatise on Modern Football’ from the Poland-Portugal game but… no. This was more a case of too much mutual respect than a case of two teams not going for it. They both set out with identical formations and neutralised one another. Italy perhaps more understandably so given their current limitations due to suspensions and injuries.

The game bubbled to life in the second half: Florenzi karate-kicking a shot off the line, Ozil prodding home, Buffon saving superbly from his own defender Chiellini, Boateng stupidly raising both hands in the box and Bonucci coolly converting… It did seem strange that Bonucci was taking the penalty but, afraid of outing myself as a footballing dunce, I didn’t want to write it as such before checking that he hasn’t been Juventus’s go to spot-kicker for years. But I checked – and he hasn’t (this was his first ever penalty) and I’m still a football expert.

Alas, for the 4th time this tournament, extra-time was a dud. It used to be the best bit: teams scrabbling to avoid a replay, or penalties in more recent years, growing tired and making mistakes. But now most teams see it as chore to tick off before the inevitable shootout. I’d tie this in with the aversion to risk taking that’s now prevalent in football: missing a penalty is almost a noble way to go, a lottery. Rather a miss from 12 yards than giving the ball away with a minute to go. Maybe this will be Euro 2016’s legacy: the death of extra time? Maybe they’ll remove it altogether and go straight to penalties, as they did in the Copa America. It definitely needs spiced up… Reduce teams to 7-a-side? Use three balls at one time? Introduce something called Golden Goal, where the first team to score… Oh, wait.

Ironically, after a dull extra half hour the shootout is brilliant. Italy miss four (Zaza the pick – practically cha-cha-ing up to the ball before blasting miles over) while Germany only miss three (Germany missing any at all is a huge shock – the first time that’s happened since 1976). They see it through and, wait for it, beat Italy in a tournament match for the first time, wait for it even more… ever! The sun crests the apartments opposite, and I slump back off to bed.

 

Sunday 3rd July

France 5 2 Iceland

Quarter-Final, St. Denis

Giroud 12’, 59’, Pogba 19’, Payet 42’, Griezmann 45’

Sigthorsson 56’, Bjarnason 84’

 

The timing of the quarter-finals worked out pretty well. Thanks to weekends and public holidays, this is the only one that means getting up at a headache-inducing time on a school night/morning.

And at least it’s fun and frolics at the Stade de France. This game breezes by like a pressure-free last day of the season encounter, rather than a pressure-cooker quarter final for the host nation against an almighty looking banana skin.

The early goals help: 4-0 up by half-time. The quality of the strikes ascending through to a glorious chip by Griezmann after Giroud’s dummy had played him through. He’s now leading scorer. Iceland gamely keep going but they’ve been rumbled.

And so we have our semi-finalists. I’m going to tentatively deem the quarters a success. OK, Poland-Portugal and Italy-Germany got quite tense and tactical but the other two were ding-dongers. And all eight teams scored at least once, which is a very rare thing indeed at a major tournament. If the semis can hit even greater heights – and they look finely poised to do so with the dark horses trading off and the heavyweights clashing together – then this bloated, slightly saggy in the middle tournament may yet be redeemed! Just three more early starts… Just three…

North of the Border


As Hong Kong stretches north on grassy plains, and the high-rises thin out into sparse clumps, the length of time between stops increases as your train rumbles along the century old Kowloon-Canton railway. You come upon a thin strip of water – a murky line that marks one world from the next – and beyond that… A city rises before your very eyes. Shenzhen. Belligerently eying the green and the hills… the space… on the southern side of the river. Once beyond the border the buildings are different: Older? Cheaper? Grand but bland. Unmistakably Chinese. And there’s the Commercial City, built on a butt of land that juts cheekily into Hong Kong – five storeys of ‘Copy watch, Sir?’, ‘Come look’, ‘What you like?’, ‘Genuine copy’ with people squatting beside carry-out rice bowls and kids clustered in stairwells playing trumps and dice, rather than locked away in cram schools. It’s another world, for sure.