Thursday 30th June
Poland 1(3)–(5)1 Portugal (a.e.t)
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
Williams 30’, Robson-Kanu 55’, Vokes 85’
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)
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…