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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