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…

Midnight in Paris – Part 4

Saturday 25th June

Switzerland 1 (4) – (5) 1 Poland (a.e.t)

Round of 16, St. Etienne

Shaqiri 82’

Blaszczykowski 39’

 

After a football free break of two days, we arrive at 9pm on Saturday, to a pitch awash with sun, and the prospect of knockout fun! Though, to be honest, I approach Switzerland Vs Poland with no little amount of trepidation, having seen more than enough of the two sides in the group stages…

It starts off slowly – if ever there was a game in need of a goal it’s this one – but Poland have the better chances. Their forward Milik has to be the most frustrating player at this tournament, sending shot after shot after shot high or wide in every game so far. Today he shoots over an empty goal (the keeper isolated following a bad back pass) with 25 seconds played.

Luckily, though, we get the goal we need before half-time. Blaszczykowski slotting home after a counter, and hopefully that’s his last meaningful involvement in this tournament as typing his name’s a right pain in the arse. Poland then decide that’s enough and have no meaningful attempts at goal post-53 minutes.

The Swiss punish them with the goal of the tournament, the goal of any tournament: a bicycle kick from the edge of the area. It needs no description other than that, does it? There’s no way a bicycle kick from the edge of the area could be anything but amazing. Shaqiri performs the acrobatics, the ball clips in off the post, and we have extra time.

And by this point I take back everything I ever said about Switzerland being boring – they are the only team trying to win it. Derdiyok has two great chances but Poland hold on and, as is so often the case, the team that should have won it loses on penalties. Xhaka the only man to miss – but at least he does so in some style: well, well wide.

Not awful, in the end, but surely just a mildly diverting amuse-bouche ahead of two bombastic ties…

 

Saturday 25th June

Wales 1 0 Northern Ireland

Round of 16, Paris

McAuley o.g. 75’

 

Hmmm, or not.

The problems with this format are thrust out into the open for all to see: Northern Ireland simply shouldn’t be in the knockout stages of an international tournament. They arrive here because they lost by as few goals as possible, and they now carry on where they left off against Germany. That’s not to say that they are completely negative; just incredibly limited.

Wales, meanwhile, appear to struggle in their new role as favourites and look unrecognisable from the team that dismantled Russia last week. It’s a struggle, especially as the clock ticks past one a.m.

Thankfully, I am spared the extra half hour by one moment of quality from Gareth Bale (he really is carrying them through this tournament) as he beats his man, swings in a devilish cross and forces the own goal from McAuley. Phew.

So, that was a write-off. But up next is the team of the tournament, who just beat Spain in thrilling fashion, and a team coming off the back of a crazy 3-3 draw. Now we’re talking!

 

Saturday 25th June

Croatia 0 1 Portugal (a.e.t)

Round of 16, Lens

Quaresma 117’

 

Oh, sweet Jesus.

I don’t watch it live (…”I will be forever grateful that I didn’t get up to watch the match that morning. I don’t know what made me stay in bed, sometimes fate is just on your side”…) and when I try to watch it ‘on-demand’ the game is nowhere to be seen. I don’t pause to think that my TV might be trying to tell me something.

So, I naively track it down (on ITV; the sacrifices one makes…), and settle down to what should be match-up of the tournament so far. I can see from the length of the programme and the position of the advertising breaks (quite the amateur detective) that the match has gone to extra time but not penalties. 2-2 and a 120th minute winner?

Kick-off… Nothing immediately happens, and then nothing continues to happen. Towards the end of the first half, with still nothing whatsoever having happened, I start to skip ahead. Half time. Second half. Still nothing. I start skipping again. Every time I press play I see one of two things: a wildly over hit pass or a player being tripped. Skip skip skip. Last ten minutes. Skip skip skip. Full time. Extra time. Nope, nothing to see here. Skip skip skip.

It’s abysmal.

Modern football has reached the point where players are so drilled, so well-trained, so tactically programmed that, if they were so-minded, two managers could put their teams out to play a never endingly goalless game. Two managers could ask themselves the question: what’s the bare minimum effort, ambition, drive… whatever required to play something resembling a football match? And they know that footballers will never deviate from the game plan because, well, why would they? That’s what happens here, in Lens, on this infamous night: two sick Victor Frankensteins perform their twisted experiment in front of the whole world. How else can you explain what happened to these previously attacking, entertaining sides? The players spend 120 minutes in a daze of short passes, over hit long balls and clips round the ankle. Portugal only win because Subasic in the Croatia goal short-circuits (he’ll never be seen again, mark my words) and fails to hold a Ronaldo shot. The first shot on target. After 117 minutes. Quaresma nods the rebound in. Suddenly Croatia wake up, their manager’s spell broken, and actually try to score. But it’s too little and way, way too late. Modric, Srna and co. fall to the ground, distraught, but it’s hard to have any sympathy for them at all. Come back Poland and Switzerland, all is forgiven. At least there can’t be a worst match at the tournament. The depths have been plumbed; the nadir reached. The only way is up… baby. Or am I being far too naive?

 

Sunday 26th June

France 2 – 1 Republic of Ireland

Round of 16, Lyon

Griezmann 57’, 61’

Brady pen. 2’, Duffy s/o 66’

 

Despite the temptation, after last night’s debacle, to divorce myself from football and run away with a fresher, sprightlier sport – rugby maybe – I tune in at 9pm in true Pavlovian fashion. (As an aside, can there be a greater insult to a game of football than the statement: I’d rather be watching rugby? No, I didn’t think so).

And, in a sign from the footballing Gods that says ‘everything’s going to be alright’, Ireland win a penalty within barely 60 seconds of kicking off. Brady slots home off the post, and provides the starting pistol for a superb game of football.

And I don’t mean ‘superb’ in the way a starving man will find any meal ‘superb’, it really was a good game, tussling directly with Hungary-Portugal (Portugal… shudder) for game of the tournament.

You always knew France were going to win, but it didn’t make the match any less interesting. Plenty of people watched Titanic, after all. And Ireland do have chances to extend their lead but, after a nervy first half at the end of which they are booed off, Les Bleus come out revitalised for the second and both Griezmann’s goals are well-taken. After Duffy is sent off for a last-man trip it could have finished 4 or 5-1.

And that’s the last of the 9pm kick-offs! The tournament is reaching the business end and my resolve is going to be tested like never before. The quarters and semis are all 3am-ers…

 

Sunday 26th June

Germany 3 – 0 Slovakia

Round of 16, Lille

Boateng 8’, Ozil m/p 13’, Gomez 43’, Draxler 63’

 

It turns out that France-Ireland is the last of the 2nd Round games that I see in full, as my carefree life of wall-to-wall football finally catches up with me. After feeling perfectly alert – refreshed almost – after an un-taxing weekend, my eyelids droop as soon as the action in Lille gets underway.

Sleep, as I’ve written before, is an elusive beast. The more you want it the more it slips between your fingers; but when you could really do without it, sleep slaps you on the back of the head and drags you off. Lack of sleep is also hard to quantify – it’s not just a case of ‘miss two hours one night, catch up on two hours the next’. You can go days, weeks (17 days and counting) with reduced sleep and not feel terrible. And then all of a sudden it hits you on a languid Sunday evening. I remember travelling around Vietnam 7 or 8 years ago, on bumpy night-buses driven by what may have been escaped convicts. After 3 weeks of this I was, while not feeling terribly exhausted, slowly losing my mental capabilities. One evening I was walking in Ho Chi Minh City, through a grid-style block of streets that was incredibly easy to navigate, the sort of grid that lab rats negotiate on a daily basis, to the hostel in which we had stayed for the past four days, and I got hopelessly lost. I went around and around for ages trying to find the entrance only to find that I had never been more than twenty feet away from the hostel door the whole time. Yet, if you’d have asked me I’d never have said I felt tired.

Anyway, this meditation on sleep is in lieu of anything much to say about this match. From the highlights Germany look very impressive – after Northern Ireland and now this they seem to be clicking – while we are all better off without Slovakia. Ozil’s penalty miss, fact fans, is Germany’s first at a Euros since 1976 (including shootouts!)

 

Sunday 26th June

Hungary 0 – 4 Belgium

Round of 16, Toulouse

Alderweireld 10’, Batshuayi 78’, Hazard 79’, Carrasco 90+1

 

From the highlights Belgium look mighty impressive, although in the 70 or so minutes between the first and second goals Hungary appear to have given it a real go. They really have re-established themselves on the international stage during these past two weeks and, as when Uruguay re-joined the international elite at the turn of the decade, it just feels right.

But eventually Belgium wear them down to register the biggest victory of the tournament so far. Hazard runs the show and scores a superb solo jinker. It’s a statement much like Germany put out in the previous game, or as Spain did against Turkey. Contenders!

 

Monday 27th June

Italy 2 – 0 Spain

Round of 16, St. Denis

Chiellini 33’, Pelle 90+1

 

The last hurrah. The final whistle peeps, and ushers in a changing of ways. Spain are no longer the dominant force in world football; and we are now in the dead zone of non-stop 3am kick-offs. And I myself am also playing football this very evening – albeit in the slightly less high stakes arena of Victoria Park pitch number 3. Though I leave early to ensure that I am fed, showered and generally not too shattered to sit up watching this ‘Match of the Tournament So Far’. I do have previous in missing huge Italian matches in the European Championships due to my own footballing commitments, actually: I missed their classic Euro 2000 semi-final with Holland because of a keenly-contested encounter on the grass outside my house (if my memory serves, I scored a sublime diving header…).

Anyway, this is a good send-off for the midnight kick-offs: a compelling, absorbing match that threatens to be utterly thrilling at times. Despite my eyelids growing heavy a few times in the opening half an hour, I manage to see it through to its 2am conclusion. I feel a strange sense of achievement.

Although Italy have now comfortable dispatched both Spain and Belgium, both by two goals to nil, I still can’t see them as favourites. France lurk, Belgium have resurged, Germany await… Perhaps if they can see off the Germans in the quarters then we’ll have to take them seriously.

Here Spain are disposed of very clinically and, in the end, pretty easily. At first it did seem that the World Cup was an anomaly, that Spain were still Spain and they were going to pass their way to a third consecutive triumph. Against Turkey and the Czechs they turned on the old tiki-taka and started to purr. But in some ways it was like a Rolling Stones tour: they pleased the crowds but didn’t really prove to be relevant at the top of the charts (the charts, in this tortured metaphor, being the later stages of an international tournament). Croatia and Italy have found them out and dispatched them by playing solidly, and robustly, but with plenty of pace and vigour in attack. Spain can caress the ball around like no other but, as the saying goes, they don’t like it up ‘em.

 

Monday 27th June

England 1 – 2 Iceland

Round of 16, Nice

Rooney pen. 4’

Sigurdsson 6’, Sigthorsson 18’

 

Oh stop now, you’re spoiling us.

After a group stage rich in pickings for those of us who enjoy the England football team’s travails, from last-minute Russian equalisers, to free kicks from 97 yards out, and blank scoresheets against dire Slovakians, this is gold.

I, of course, miss the 3am kick off. I head online over breakfast, more for confirmation than anything else: England set up quarter final with France. But no. England dumped out by heroic Iceland. Ignominious end to Euro 2016. Hodgson resigns.

I save the highlights for after work, and watch the glorious first twenty minutes or so in real-time. Sterling chopped down. Rooney into corner. 4 minutes gone. Routine. Iceland throw in. Oh, it’s long. And oh… it’s being flicked on… And it’s in. Apparently everyone saw the replica goal they scored against Austria apart from Kyle Walker and co. But the best is yet to come because in their next attack, Joe ‘I’ve had nothing to do all tournament’ Hart fails to keep out the weakest trickler you have ever seen.

Then I watch Match of the Day for the rest of the highlights. The scene opens on a dimly lit studio, flags at half-mast, Lineker wearing the sort of expression usually saved for North Korean news anchors announcing the death of the President. Shearer is puce – laying into the team and the worst performance he has ever seen from any team ever! And in truth they never really looked likely to get back into the game despite having 70 minutes plus to do so.

And with that, the Round of 16, which started with such a whimper, ends in high drama. Can the quarter finals continue the theme?

Midnight in Paris – Part 3

Sunday 19th June

Romania 0 – 1 Albania – Gp A, Lyon

Sadiku 43’

 

Switzerland 0 – 0 France – Gp A, Lille

 

To embellish upon something I wrote earlier, if watching a goalless draw in full twelve hours after it has taken place is foolish, then what is getting up at 3am to do the same? At least it’s live, and there’s no way I could have known.

I hadn’t planned to get up until the last minute; but I should never have started blogging this. I now feel a commitment to seeing this through, and to watching as much of this bloody tournament as I can for the benefit of my reader(s). But, truth be told, I haven’t felt anywhere near as awful as I did when dragging myself up at 3am during the last World Cup. Nor have I really felt the effects later in the day; at least no effects that a strong coffee can’t fix. Maybe I’m somehow healthier than two years ago? Or maybe I’m getting old. Old people get up early, you see, thus making the most of the short time they have left.

At least there are two games on at the same time, as is always the way with the final round of matches. If one game is dull you can just turn over. If both games are dull then… No, that’s unfair. Albania provide a compelling narrative: their first goal and first win in an international tournament. From what I see they do have a go (but the problem with simultaneous kick-offs is the conviction that something better is always happening in the other game, and the constant flicking between the two), while Romania have a go back, but both teams are limited by being, well, a bit shit.

Meanwhile France and Switzerland play out a mutually convenient draw – although to be fair to the hosts they do try to score, hitting woodwork at least three times. France finish first, the Swiss second (is anyone actually looking forward to their second round game?) and Albania are left to sweat in third.

One final benefit of getting up at silly o’clocks is that I can go for a post-game, pre-work swim. In the pool before seven, and it’s already full of old people. Maybe they just don’t sleep at all.

 

Monday 20th June

Russia 0 – 3 Wales – Gp B, Toulouse

Ramsey 11’, Taylor 20’, Bale 67’

 

Slovakia 0 – 0 England – Gp B, St. Etienne

 

Going through it all again: the 2:50am alarm, the goalless draw (3 in 5 games now…) At least there’s Wales putting Russia to the sword and deservedly topping their group. They look genuinely good, compared to decently competitive in their first two group games, though Russia are so bad they provide no real measure. Neither they nor their ‘fans’ will be missed.

England meanwhile huff and puff but can’t unlock the Slovakian door. They qualify in second, but cue lots of nervous introspection from the press. Or, if not nervous introspection then finger pointing at Hodgson, who ‘rang the changes.’ No such soul-searching from the England players: “It’ll click and we’ll give someone a thrashing,” says Gary Cahill. “I’ve had nothing to do in the Group Stages,” says Joe Hart, despite conceding two goals, one of which was Gareth Bale’s free-kick from roughly 97 yards out. Sitting smugly atop my ‘Top Ten Things About Watching England Fail’ list rests one simple word: Schadenfreude. And how fitting it’s German, given the punishment their teams have dished out on England over the decades.

Slovakia finish third but are already definitely through, and they celebrate the most grinding of grinding-outs like they’ve got their hands on the trophy. They’ve shown flashes – well, Hamsik, their one star player has – but, again, can anyone truly be looking forward to one more Slovakia match?

 

Tuesday 21st June

Northern Ireland 0 – 1 Germany – Gp C, Paris

Gomez 30’

 

Ukraine 0 – 1 Poland – Gp C, Marseille

Blaszczykowski 54’

 

The midnight kick-offs are back, briefly, so once again I do my sleeping in split shifts.

Germany’s win over Norniron must be the most convincing 1-0 win in the history of the game. Seriously. It should have been ten. They had twice as many chances as they had in that 7-1 semi-final in Brazil and appeared to take great pleasure in missing them in as many ways as possible. McGovern, the Northern Irish keeper, also played the match of his life, as the saying goes, and the fact that he has just been released from his contract at Hamilton Academicals shows that the Scottish domestic league must be stronger than I ever would have expected.

Meanwhile, whenever I flick over to Poland vs Ukraine nothing appears to be happening, yet the highlights later show it to be a game of vibrancy and incident (although that is, I suppose, the job of a highlights package). Blaszczykowski (whose name sounds to me like that of a grizzled NYPD officer) curls a nice goal from the edge of the area.

So, two goals from two matches that should have produced at least ten, and Northern Ireland are left to sweat…

 

Tuesday 21st June

Croatia 2 – 1 Spain – Gp D, Bordeaux

Kalinic 45’, Perisic 87’

Morata 7’, Ramos m/p 71’

 

Czech Republic 0 – 2 Turkey – Gp D, Lens

Yilmaz 10’, Tufaz 65’

 

But not for long. This set of results sees them through. Huzzah for the Ulster boys! It’s the fact that the Czech’s lose to Turkey that does it – the Turks suddenly coming to life after two games of atrophy. Except it’s probably too little too late.

Meanwhile, the Croatia-Spain game is a new contender for game of the tournament (from an admittedly narrow pool of contenders) but I miss it due to the need for sleep. The sooner someone finds a cure for sleep the better! Usually I love sleep, and am very good at it, but every two years since moving to Hong Kong, around about June-time, it’s proven quite the hindrance.

Both sides could have settled for a point that would have seen them glide into the knockouts but Croatia have impressed thus far and don’t let off here. Perisic, Modric and Rakitic are looking a very enticing proposition and I’m calling it right here that I think they’ll make the final! This win puts them in the ‘easy’ half of the knockout draw (with duffers like Wales, Switzerland and Poland), although they do get away with their keeper Subasic saving Ramos’s penalty by charging it down, Light Brigade style, on the edge of his six-yard box. Spain drop to second and a tie with Italy, which seems very unfair on the Italians who not only qualified after their second game but have already won their group!

 

Wednesday 22nd June

Hungary 3 – 3 Portugal – Gp F, Lyon

Gera 19’, Dzsudzsak 47’, 55’

Nani 42’, Ronaldo 50’, 62’

 

Iceland 2 – 1 Austria – Gp F, St. Denis

Bodvarsson 18’, Traustason 90+4’

Dragovic m/p 37’, Schopf 60’

 

See what happens when teams have something to play for! Goals and incident galore! The 24 team format is shown up by the fact that too many teams knew they’d have multiple chances to get the points they required over three games and so took it very easy. Suddenly it all comes down to the final 90 minutes and they spring into action like they’ve just realised where they are.

Hungary appear to be trolling C. Ronaldo and Portugal by scoring not one but two heavily deflected goals, both minutes after the Portuguese had equalised. After the third goal Ronaldo throws a delightful little feet-stamping, fist-clenching tantrum, but he does go on to rescue his team, to become the first player ever to score in 4 Euros, and to cement his position as a legend of the game.

Austria too finally wake up and spurn several good chances to get the win that would have taken them through, only for Iceland to shoot off up the other end and score what is literally the textbook definition of a ‘breakaway goal’ with the last kick of the game. Austria have been rubbish, considering that many people in the know had them down as potential trouble-makers. They won’t be missed.

I remember at some point around ten years ago, Scotland drew with Iceland in a qualifier (World Cup or Euro I don’t know, as by now they all blend into a never-ending slideshow of miserable underachievement) and there was general outrage as to how far Scotland had slumped in order to draw with such minnows. Ah, I remember now that it was during the Bertie Vogts days, and can narrow it down to within a year around 2002-2003. Anyway, if someone had told us that before Scotland could reach the finals of another tournament Iceland would do so AND they would reach the knockout stages of said tournament – something that Scotland have never, ever done – oh how we would have chuckled.

 

Wednesday 22nd June

Italy 0 – 1 Republic of Ireland – Gp E, Lille

Brady 85’

 

Sweden 0 – 1 Belgium – Gp E, Nice

Nainggolan 84’

 

Ireland need to beat Italy to go through and they only bloody well go and do it! To be fair, Italy know that they’re through and that Spain lie tightly curled in wait, so they rest pretty much everyone. Ireland leave it late but get there in the end through Brady’s valiant header.

Belgium do what they need to do against one of the rubbishest teams of the tournament but I don’t see either game and have little else to add here. I even fall asleep when trying to watch the highlights of these games. Twice. Which either shows just how sleep deprived I’ve become or just how unmemorable these two matches were.

I now make that 68 group stage goals, of which 19 have come with ten minutes or less to play. But the average number of goals is as low as it’s ever have been at a European Championships. Various commentators claim that it’ll open up in the knockout stages, but it’s their job to present a desirable product (except Mark Lawrenson, who for years has taken an almost erotic level of pleasure in pointing out just how terrible one match of football can be) and we all know it won’t happen.

We have, though, been saved so far by the fact that the goals have been of an above average quality and that so many of them have come late on – there have only been two games that were over long before the final whistle. And the success of various minnows, as well as the established order (because, let’s face it, as much as we pretend otherwise, we don’t want to see an Ireland Vs Switzerland final, do we?) means that Euro 2016 can’t be written off as a flop just yet. Which means my late nights and early rises haven’t been completely in vain, and I now have two nights in which to catch up on two weeks of sleep.

Midnight in Paris – Part 2

Wednesday 15th June

Russia 1 – 2 Slovakia – Gp B, Lille

Glushakov 80’

Weiss 32’, Hamsik 45’

 

It’s now Wednesday, and three nights of sleep deprivation have me worrying about how much further I can go in this tournament. Much like Russia, who are poor again. Not as poor as against England, but still poor. Slovakia are quite good, again, as they were against Wales, but they don’t have to be that good. Because Russia are, as I said, poor. Maybe that’s why their fans are behaving like such massive twats – if they didn’t, would anyone notice that Russia were actually taking part?

Dreams of a sunbathed mid-afternoon kick-off are dashed by pictures of a closed roof in Lille – the tournament organisers having gone all Wimbledon and shut the roof because it’s ‘forecast to rain’. For God’s sake.

Both Slovakia’s goals are good, Weiss talking out two Russians with a feint before curling in and Hamsik absolutely belting the ball in off the post before half time. Two goals in the first half? Maybe the tournament is opening up!

Russia pull an undeserved goal back with their only good move – a one two, clipped cross and cushioned header. But they don’t really threaten an equaliser. Oh, and there’s more dicking about with plastic chairs in city centres, what with England and Wales playing down the road tomorrow, but in the stadium there’s calm. Apparently UEFA will chuck Russia out if there’s any more trouble – but that’s not really going to happen, is it?

 

Wednesday 15th June

Romania 1 – 1 Switzerland – Gp A, Paris

Stancu pen. 18’

Mehmedi 57’

 

I don’t make it to the end. I just can’t do it. From around the hour mark the eyelids started to droop and I do the old ‘I’ll just lie down here on the sofa but won’t sleep oh no I won’t fall sleep’ routine.

Watching football matches far beyond midnight on a regular basis has shown me just how mysterious the act of sleeping is. One minute you’re awake; the next you’re not. One minute I’m watching football; the next I’m not. But you never notice your eyelids closing – it’s never a conscious decision. Well, obviously sleeping’s never a conscious decision, but you know what I mean.

Turns out falling asleep after an hour was the best thing to do here. The first half is an entertaining romp with chances for both sides – Stancu becoming tournament top scorer with two penalties. Switzerland’s equaliser is a well taken half volley across goal. After the match I read reports of it being a limited, and dull, game so I guess it must have petered out badly towards the end, when I was already snugly snoring.

 

Wednesday 15th June

France 2 – 0 Albania – Gp A, Marseille

Griezmann 90’, Payet 90+6’

 

As the score line suggests, France left it very late and didn’t really impress against another resilient but limited Albania performance. I didn’t miss much through this being the 3am kick-off, it seems. But, still, France are the first team through to the knockouts. Albania cling on, just about.

One of the weird things about a 24 team tournament, and everyone complaining about the ‘new’ format seems to have forgotten that 3 World Cups were held in this way, including the ‘classic’ 1986 and 1994 editions (as well as the stinky Italia ’90), is that 3rd place finishers are left hanging on somewhat. Say Albania beat Romania in their final game to finish 3rd on 3 points. That’s not great, yet may be enough for them to sneak through as one of the four best 3rd place teams. But they’ll have to wait for three days until the other groups have wrapped things up. What will they do for those three days? Train even though they might be eliminated at any second? Lie around the hotel pool so much that they are out of shape when an unexpected second round game comes along?

 

Thursday 16th June

England 2 – 1 Wales – Gp B, Lens

Vardy 56’, Sturridge 90+1’

Bale 42’

 

The big one. At least in the British press. The fact that it’s stuck away on a Thursday afternoon suggests it wasn’t high on the Euro 2016 fixture compiler’s list of priority matches (how I’d love to have that job – official fixture compiler…)

Upon kick-off it’s easy to see why. There’s a lot of commitment and energy, ‘tracking back’ and ‘getting in amongst it’: things that British coaches love to see from their lads, but not bags of quality. Add the four sided stadium and the rowdy atmosphere (more chair chucking ahead of kick-off) and it feels like a lower mid-table Premier League clash. Although the weather isn’t particularly redolent of a British league game. Yes, lo and behold – a pitch bathed in Northern French sun.

When Gareth Bale gets involved he is clearly the best player on the pitch and he puts Wales in front with a free kick from a long, long way out. Within the subsection ‘Top Ten Things About Watching England Fail’ that I mentioned earlier, one of my other favourite categories is… drum roll… ‘When England Keepers Cock It Up in Major Tournaments’. Joe Hart joins this list (see also David Seaman in 2002 and Rob Green in 2010) by softly palming Bale’s free-kick into the bottom corner.

But England do look better and Hodgson really goes for it by bringing on TWO strikers at half time. The two strikers that go on and score both goals. After Vardy stabs in his equaliser it seems inevitable that England will win, but Wales weather the storm and by the time Sturridge does win it they appear very unlucky.

For what it’s worth, I think Sturridge is an even more dislikeable character than Vardy. Yes Vardy has the criminal past and the casual racism to go against him. But Sturridge has the fact that he’s clearly a pampered wuss who would pull out of a match with a stubbed toe, the fact that he does that stupid dance after every goal AND the fact that he believes God to be on his side, avidly following his career over the fates of 6.5 billion other souls. “I am grateful to God for allowing me to score,” he says post-match. The thought that God, were he to even exist, would give two hoots about professional athletes, let alone an overrated and permanently injured Liverpool striker, is ridiculous. What about all the Welsh people praying for their team to win, Daniel? Does God love you more than them? Does he really?

 

Thursday 16th June

Ukraine 0 – 2 Northern Ireland – Gp C, Lyon

McCauley 49’, McGinn 90+6′

 

It’s now Thursday, the fifth day in a row in which I’ve stayed up late to watch these bloody championships. Except, this time I have to accept defeat. I can’t even see the first five minutes out without slumping forward, head heavier than your grandad after his post-Christmas dinner port.

I awake from the sofa at half time and drag myself off to bed. Trying to watch the second half would be ridiculous. My mind is a bizarre mix and match of images from the game, or at least what I think is the game, and I drift off – properly, in my bed – convinced that Northern Ireland were 1-0 up at half time.

Except they weren’t. They didn’t score until the 49th minute – a great looping header from Gareth McCauley. So, I begin to wonder, am I some sort of psychic? A footballing Nostradamus who, if asleep in front of a game during the first half, can predict what will happen in the second? Something to explore later on in the tournament, perhaps.

From what I can later tell, this match was a little different from the norm: Northern Ireland scored, for a start, which wasn’t looking remotely likely after their opening performance. There was also a hailstorm (in southern France, in June…) that caused a delay of several minutes. A delay that led to lots of injury time and Niall McGinn tapping in the latest ever goal in a European Championship. And apparently now Ukraine are the first team to be eliminated from the competition. Which seems strange to me as there are three points and a 3rd place spot left up for grabs but I think it’s got something to do with Northern Ireland being the only team that they can catch but because they’ve lost to Northern Ireland then they can’t actually catch them. Maths and logic were never my strongest points.

 

Thursday 16th June

Germany 0 – 0 Poland – Gp C, St. Denis

 

Another 3am kick-off and I feel once again that I dodged a bullet not having to watch this. The first nil-niller and, while I’m not against the odd goalless game, from the highlights it’s clear to see that not much went on. Both teams look good for the knockout stages so let’s move on. The weekend approaches and two days of unadulterated football viewing.

 

Friday 17th June

Italy 1 – 0 Sweden – Gp E, Toulouse

Eder 88’

 

Hot on the heels of the first, it looks like we are going to get our second nil-niller. But then Eder dances past three Swedish defenders all lined up along the 18 yard line and thumps the ball into the bottom corner. A brilliant goal the game didn’t deserve: apparently it had the lowest number of attempts at goal in a Euros match since records began (i.e. 1980). Upon the final whistle, Italy are already through, and have already won the group.

It truly was a slog. The worst game of the tournament so far (that I’ve watched, that is, though I doubt any of the games I haven’t seen were worse than this) as Italy seem to settle for a draw and Sweden are just pretty rubbish. Ibrahimovic in particular, for all his grandiose statements, has offered nothing in either game he’s played.

Toulouse, though, apropos of nothing, takes the prize for my favourite stadium of the tournament. It’s the smallest of the ten host stadiums but the little arches that run around between the stands and the roof give it a character lacking in the faceless bowls of Nice, or Lyon, or Lille. It hasn’t changed since it was used in the 1998 World Cup, my aforementioned footballing alma mater, where I can remember those arches forming the backdrop to classics such as Cameroon Vs Austria and Romania Vs England. It also allows a lot of sunlight to reach the pitch and, yes oh yes, today’s game was at least partly redeemed by being played in a glorious shade of Languedoc yellow. Apparently the Stade Municipal de Toulouse was slated for expansion and redevelopment ahead of this tournament but the local government decided not to – the stadium was lovely as it is – and well done them for making the right choice!

 

Friday 17th June

Czech Republic 2 – 2 Croatia – Gp D, St. Etienne

Skoda 75’, Necid pen. 89’

Perisic 37’, Rakitic 59’

 

What with tomorrow being Saturday, I don’t even attempt to stay up for the midnight kick-off. But I’m glad I decided to watch in full the following morning, because it’s an interesting one.

Croatia pick up where they left off against Turkey, creating lots of chances and looking like one of the best teams in the tournament. Seriously, I can’t think of any team having played better over their opening match and a half. By the hour mark they’re 2-0 up and safe: two cute finishes from midfielders – a precise shot across goal and a little chip. This tournament may not have been awash with goals; but the ones that do come are usually lovely.

The Czechs pick up where they left off against Spain: running around a lot while looking very limited. But then Croatia take of Modric (player of the tournament so far?) and the Czechs bring on Skoda (a nice little runner…) and the game starts to change. Skoda heads in. Surely nothing but a consolation?

Suddenly, though, there are flares on the pitch. Lots of them, thrown from the Croatian end. One explodes near a steward. The players leave the pitch. There are what commentators would describe as ‘disturbing scenes that the game could do without’. Rakitic, Srna and others go to the crowd, who are now fighting each other, to appeal for calm. Eventually the game resumes, but Croatia look rattled and almost instantly give away a penalty for handball. The spot kick is rattled in to give the Czechs an undeserved point.

The pedant in me is concerned by the timing of the penalty, too. Some sources put it as 89 minutes, having paused the clock for the long flare-related stoppage. But some sources put it down as 90+4, having let the clock run on throughout. What to do? I’ll just have to count to ten and not let it keep me awake. Either way it’s another very late goal: of the 39 scored so far, 12 have come in the 87th minute or later.

 

Friday 17th June

Spain 3 – 0 Turkey – Gp D, Nice

Morata 34’, 48’, Nolito 37’

 

Spain see that Croatia performance and raise it, by producing a performance that is simply peak Spain. They run Turkey ragged and kill them off with three well-constructed goals either side of halftime. They could have won by five or six, if they’d wanted to, but you feel that Spain see winning by five or six as vulgar.

You do wonder what happened in Brazil, at the last World Cup. They’ve been the best team in the world for almost ten years, cruising through Euros and qualifiers and whatever else the footballing world threw at them, but completely bollixed up in 2014. I suppose any team can lose two games in a week, especially to Holland and then Chile. But to lose those two games and crash out of the competition that you won at such a canter four years earlier, in that fashion, just seems weirder and weirder the more time moves on. If they play like this from now on then very few, if any of the teams in this tournament, will be able to stop them.

Turkey look as awful as Spain look awesome. I doubt they’ll be troubling the knockout stages. Their fans do make a mark by letting of flares, though, joining the Russians and the Croatians in this regard. Without wanting to sound like a paranoid housewife – if they can smuggle flares in that easily then what else can they bring in? Apparently they’re hiding them up their bums, though, a search that is probably well beyond the pay-grade of a minimum wage security guard.

 

Saturday 18th June

Belgium 3 – 0 Republic of Ireland – Gp E, Bordeaux

Lukaku 48’, 70’, Witzel 61’

 

Belgium see that Spain performance and… Well, not quite. But they do look much better than in their first game. A twenty minute blitz does for the Irish and, if they can keep this up in their last group game then we may have to consider them as contenders.

Somehow, despite this being a Saturday 9pm kick-off, a not particularly strenuous Saturday either, I doze off. I did go out for dinner though, and drank some wine which may explain my lethargy. Betrayed by alcohol! Since the previous Sunday I hadn’t touched a drop – taking my preparation for a metaphorical marathon (of football!) very literally.

Anyway, I seriously hope that this group doesn’t provide one of the four runners up, as I don’t fancy watching this Irish or that Swedish team any more than I have to. But it does look as if the games are opening up a little more now. In the past three matches we’ve had our first 4 goal game and two teams scoring 3! A bonanza!

 

Saturday 18th June

Iceland 1 – 1 Hungary – Gp F, Marseille

Sigurdsson pen. 40′

Saevarsson o.g. 88′

 

And, having dosed through the 9pm kick-off, I’m wide awake for the midnight performance. And a gloriously scrappy one it is. Two very limited teams that make the most of what God gave ‘em. Iceland and Hungary have been really fun to watch over their two matches, which is more than you can say for many of the supposedly more capable teams in the tournament.

Kiraly, the Hungarian keeper and oldest player ever at a Euros, fumbles a corner and fouls an attacker: Sigurdsson sweeps home the penalty. Hungarian pressure mounts and mounts as the second half rattles towards its climax and, just in time, a devilish ball into the box is prodded into his own net by sorry Saevarsson. Iceland denied a famous first win, but there’s something very admirable about this Hungarian team –motivated perhaps by their glorious history.

One of my many favourite aspects of international tournaments – how many favourites can one person have? – is seeking out the most ‘budget’ fixture. The game that, if this weren’t a World Cup or European Championship, you wouldn’t even consider allowing to darken your TV set. I had this one earmarked as such from the get-go, closely followed by tomorrow’s Albania-Romania clash. Budget fixtures from previous international tournaments, in my lifetime, include South Africa Vs Saudi Arabia in ’98, China Vs Costa Rica in 2002 and, perhaps my favourite of all, Angola Vs Iran from 2006. Note that none of these had come in the European Champs until this year – the earlier 16 team format streamlined to allow only the creamiest cream to rise to the top.

 

Saturday 18th June

Portugal 0 – 0 Austria – Gp F, Paris

Ronaldo m/p 78

 

And so the second round of games draws to an end. ‘Draws’… get it? The initial glut of fixtures is over, replaced in the schedules with simultaneous kick-offs to see each group out, sparsely spread out over 4 days. And there are no 9pm kick offs. At least I might get some sleep.

Anyway, if a game is going to be 0-0 then the least it can do is look like it’s trying not to be. And this one does try. At least Portugal try. Well, Ronaldo tries. And fails. And it’s quite funny. Days after bemoaning Iceland’s presence in the tournament, Ron’s Portugal find themselves stuck behind the Reykjavik Rousers (potentially not their real nickname) with one game left to play. And after several attempts from a variety of ranges, CR7 thumps a spot kick off the post. But that’s not all. With five minutes left he heads in. Redemption, his perfect little face contorted in relief and just the tiniest shade of self-love. But it’s offside. Like I said, if Carlsberg did 0-0s…

No matter how watchable the match is, I do feel like a bit of a fool for sitting through a goalless 90 minutes that was played twelve hours earlier. But I’ve invested in this tournament and there’s no turning back now! It’s also hard not to be very frustrated with this lacklustre Austria side: the pre-tournament hipsters’ choice (proving yet again that hipsters are not to be trusted). Aside from the teams that everyone knew would be crap anyway, Austria are the crappest.

And note that I include the missed penalty in my scoreline above – a throwback to late ‘90s teletext. I’ve never seen it done like that since but, if anything, missed penalties are the backbone of a good football match. Even better when it’s Cristiano Ronaldo that’s missing them.

Midnight in Paris – Part 1

Now for something a little different: Part Une of my Euro 2016 diary. Not that I’m in France. Nope, I’m in Hong Kong, watching alone in the small hours. Here’s the view from my darkened sofa…

Friday 10th June

France 2 – 1 Romania – Gp A, St. Denis

Giroud 57’, Payet 89’

Stancu pen. 65’

 

After turning 30, you begin to wonder if a month of severely disrupted sleep patterns is worth it for a football tournament. This morning I got up at 2:45; tonight I’ll go to sleep at 2am. It’s a weekend, so the impact will be minimal, but soon the school nights will come along and with them the headaches and the sweats and the feeling my age. Can I handle it? Indications are not positive: last week I woke up with a headache after enjoying 1 and a half beers.

But this is relatively painless. I get up without fuss or the snooze button, watch the game and go back to bed. If only it were always that simple. Two years ago, during the World Cup, the fatigue hit four days in, the first weeknight (unsurprisingly), and I dozed off during a 4-0 German stroll against Portugal. Actually, if the last World Cup taught me anything, it’s that dull games = strong temptation to lie down on the sofa and let the eyelids droop. The Brazil-Germany semi kept me entranced while the Argentina-Holland semi held me semi-sedated, despite both games kicking off at the same time.

At first I tune in to find a repeat of some Copa America tie, and worry that something’s happened – the match called off and the cameras averted amid another terror attack. But I quickly realise that it’s 3 in the morning and I’ve simply turned on the wrong channel. I flick over to see a pitch covered in huge strands of fabric being pulled this way and that, and lots of dancing people dressed like they have just had a blindfold dress-up game in a kids’ TV show dressing room. Standard opening ceremony fare.

Romania hold a little spot in my footballing heart as a relic from my early days as a fan: their appearances at France ’98 and Euro 2000 as they descended from their mid-90s peak era. Now I only know their keeper, Tatarasanu, who plays for Fiorentina, thanks to a failed attempt on my part on FIFA to restore La Viola to the pinnacle of the Italian game. There are quite a few other teams that have an air of intrigue around them this time around too: the Albanians and Iceland because I’ve never really seen them play, the Hungarians with the faded glamour of an old movie star that didn’t quite make the transition to the talkies, even Northern Ireland and Wales because it simply feels weird to see them at an international tournament.

And the unknowns of Romania acquit themselves well in the opening ten minutes, forcing a superb point blank save from Lloris and heading over. Then the game settles down into more predictable opening game fare – the favourites probing without creating a slew of chances while the underdogs defend deep. The first half ends and the second half starts with the game in a holding pattern; but never quite dull enough for me to question why I got up to watch it. Then Tatarasanu, who I’m starting to feel an affinity for as the only Romanian I know, completely misses a cross and Giroud, who has missed several decent chances like only he can, heads in.

France look very nervous for the majority of the game. Pogba and Griezmann are fairly quite while the defence is shaky, especially Evra in giving away the penalty for Romania to equalise. For me, there’s just something about Evra that winds me up. It takes particular skill for someone to be on the receiving end of racial abuse and still come across as completely unsympathetic, but he managed it. So it’s enjoyable to see him trip Stanciu and allow Stancu (minus the ‘i’) to score from the spot.

The best player on the pitch by a mile is Dimitri Payet, dancing around tackles and passing with accuracy, and it is he who curls home a beauty when all hope looks lost. He then gets substituted and bursts into tears – you wouldn’t see one of our British lads doing that!

And France win, without really impressing. But then again they are only the 3rd host team ever, since the Euros became a big thing in 1984, to win their opening match. And what with only 8 teams leaving the competition in the group stages it means that they are basically into the next round. Albania await. And with that, I returned to bed.

 

Saturday 11th June

Albania 0 – 1 Switzerland – Gp A, Lens

Cana s/o 36

Schar 5’

 

International tournaments can distort your sense of what is an appropriate way to live your life. For example, I was supposed to be having dinner with friends tonight, thereby missing out on the intrigue of this match in order to socialise and have normal human contact; but they cancelled. I had seriously thought about cancelling but knew I’d feel grubby if I made up some lie about the flu. It was all I could do to stop myself from responding with an oh that’s awful get better soon but on the bright side at least I can watch Albania-Switzerland every cloud eh…

I’ve already backed out of football matches (playing, not watching) because of the Euros, and I have two potential dinners/activities/things that will generally detach me from my TV screen this week that I may have to hope get cancelled or I may have to cancel myself. Euros are but once every 4 years, after all,  while dinner is every night. Though there is the danger that a month of cancelling dates will see me cast out as a social pariah, unable to return to the world of casual kick-abouts and dinners that I so easily cast aside.

I used the word ‘intrigue’ to describe this match and I stand by that because, well: Albania. I’ve never been there, never seen them play, am unable to name any players… Though I’m shocked to hear that all their squad play in a foreign league. And they turn out to be a decent team: heavy in the tackle and with a slight tendency for lumping the ball up top. The problem is that Switzerland score early, a carbon-copy of Giroud’s flappy keeper goal last night, and they have to chase the game. Then the problem is magnified when their captain Cana slips and hooks the ball away from an attacker with his hand, despite elaborately flopping around in an attempt to disguise that he’d done so. Second yellow.

Albania aren’t built to chase games but they gamely try, and do create enough chances to score. Switzerland also create enough chances to put the game beyond doubt but can’t: both keepers play well after the early error. The Swiss look unimpressive as they hang on against a limited if spirited side – they’ll probably get out the group but will struggle to go much further.

And so, after an entertaining if slightly basic clash, I go for a power nap ahead of…

 

Saturday 11th June

Wales 2 – 1 Slovakia – Gp B, Bordeaux

Bale 10’, Robson-Kanu 81’

Duda 61’

 

And feel absolutely awful when I wake up. I read somewhere that 45 minutes is the perfect nap time, that you should wake before ‘deep sleep’ begins, but this particular 45 minutes of snooze leaves me groggy and grumpy. Perhaps a more thorough investigation of sleep patterns, circadian rhythms and the like, should be undertaken prior to international tournament marathons like this.

My drowsy mood isn’t helped by the opening shots of the stadium in Bordeaux. You see, one of the big pleasures that I derive from Euros and World Cups is seeing the sun-drenched pitches that come with mid-afternoon kick-offs: bathed in light for kick-off before shadows slowly stretch across the playing surface as the game progresses. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Scotland, but there’s something very exotic and foreign about watching pictures of a wide, sunny bowl of a stadium beamed in from a distant land. Perhaps it’s also because there was something elicit about watching daytime football matches as a kid, when I should have been outside ‘making the most of the weather’. USA ’94 seemed to be played in permanent sunshine (because games were kicking off at 11am to please TV schedulers, I later discovered) while Japan and South Korea, Portugal ’04 and Brazil ’14 supplied me similarly glorious scenes. And, in my mind, so too did France ’98 – my footballing alma mater. Maybe that was held during a good summer, maybe this isn’t a good summer, maybe childhood memories of any sort are bathed in a nostalgic sunshine… But this match, and the preceding match, are played in gloom and cloud. OK, so Lens is so far north it’s almost in Britain but Bordeaux is almost Mediterranean. It’s a weird thing to fixate on, I know, but the gruelling three games a day schedule in these tournaments can turn you a little weird.

Luckily, the game starts and continues at a quick and scrappy pace – neither side has ever played at a Euros and both appear to be making up for lost time. Wales are actually playing at their first international tournament since the 1958 World Cup, which may have been mentioned once or twice since they qualified. Gareth Bale whips in a free-kick on ten minutes and looks as if he is coping with the pressure of carrying the whole team quite well. How strange must it be to train day in, day out with CR7, Benzema, Ramos and other Real Madrid types and then have to play with Hal Robson-Kanu, just released by Reading? Does he not want to throw constant tantrums along the lines of How can I work with these plodders??? (Like we all know Ryan Giggs used to do?) Maybe he does and is tolerated as long as he keeps whipping free-kicks in to the net. The mysteries of football.

Lots of tackles fly in and the quality isn’t great but I have to admit that I doze off for the last ten minutes of the first half, and then in patches during the second, but I do see Slovakia equalise through Duda, less than a minute after he came on, before aforementioned plodder Robson-Kanu scuffs a shot almost apologetically into the net to win. Slovakia still look dangerous, hitting the post from a late header, but Wales hold firm.

I should really want Wales to win, because we’re all from the same island and it’s us against them innit, but I don’t. Not that I hate the fact that they’ve won; not that I’d take any pleasure from them losing. I just can’t get too excited about them, or Northern Ireland. England’s another story (see below). And it’s not because Scotland didn’t qualify. These days I’m not sure I’d even get too excited by a Scotland win in the Euros, what with all the political connotations that have been loaded onto the Saltire-waving and Tam O’ Shanters. But Wales looked decent, as did Slovakia, and I get the feeling that this group should provide one of the best 3rd place finishers.

 

Saturday 11th June

England 1 – 1 Russia – Gp B, Marseille

Dier 73’

Berezutski 90+2’

 

This is the second 3am, dead-zone kick-off and I take advantage of it being a weekend to watch it in a retro ‘Don’t tell me the score!’ kind of fashion. I am wary that I could be sitting through an England win that I could have just foregone, but luckily no such thing transpires.

Pre and post-match the English and Russian fans endear themselves to neutrals around the world with traditional chair throwing contests, bottle tossing demonstrations and displays of sunburned chest thumping. According to the Russian press their brave fans were simply restoring Russian national pride in the face of racist taunting from the English, while the British press played the old ‘small minority of troublemakers’ card, which presumably suggests every other England fan was en route to a pre-match church picnic before being cornered by big nasty Russians. Both sides claim that the police were too quick to teargas but when you are a policeman serving a nation currently on terror red-alert, and more used to a general public for whom binge-drinking consists of languorous hours spent over a bottle of Neuf du Pape, then you have every right to shove a gas canister in the face of a sweaty, Carlsberged man in fake chain-mail at the first whiff of provocation. I know I would.

Running a close second to sun-drenched stadiums in my ‘Top Ten International Tournament Experiences’ is ‘Watching England Fail’, for reasons that I can’t be bothered going into here. Suffice to say it has a lot to do with sweaty, drunken men in fake chain-mail. And Ian Wright. Plus this year I got Russia in our work sweepstake, and can use excuse that to thinly gloss over my debilitating inability to support our nearest cousins.

High up in the subsection ‘Top Ten Things About Watching England Fail’, just behind ‘Gary Lineker’s face immediately following the winning German/Portuguese/Italian (delete as appropriate) penalty’ is ‘Seeing Them Concede a Last Minute Equaliser to a Terrible Russian Team That They Should Have Beaten Convincingly.’

England look good, have chance after chance before Dier curls a free kick beyond Akinfeev, who should have saved it. Russia look very pedestrian, completely lacking in creativity, until a last-gasp ball tossed into the box is headed high and looping and in. And we laughed. Oh how we laughed.

 

Sunday 12th June

Turkey 0 – 1 Croatia – Gp D, Paris

Modric 41’

 

International Tournament Bingo Item #7: mixing up the group games into a weird order. Let’s start Group D before Group C! Why not? Apparently it’s because Turkish and Croatian fans might get up to a little argy bargy, except in the end they don’t. Maybe they just don’t think they can fling barstools as well as the Russians and the English.

This is a game that never quite gets going: competitive in a frustratingly scrappy way. Croatia do look much the better side though – Modric hitting a peach of a volley into the corner – and they also hit the woodwork a couple of times. Turkey offer very little. Next please. Still no sun-drenched stadium for another afternoon kick-off either, further adding to my frustrations…

 

Sunday 12th June

Poland 1 – 0 Northern Ireland – Gp C, Nice

Milik 51’

 

With a frisson of naughtiness, I stay up until 2am on a school night. And when I say ‘school night’, I’m not whimsically referring to my desk in a call-centre; I do actually work in a school. The risks are real – try confronting a class of 8 year olds on 3 hours sleep.

This match is like the previous game magnified and blown up beyond what is comfortable: Northern Ireland make Turkey look positively swashbuckling. They have no shots on target over the whole 90, while in the 1st half they have precisely 0 (zero!) touches of the ball in Poland’s half. I repeat, for the entire 45 minutes no single Northern Irish player makes contact with the ball in the Polish half. Like… what??

It’s so one sided that it makes for entertaining viewing. Poland are pretty fluid and the Northern Irish do at least defend stoutly. While, lo and behold, a portion of the pitch is dappled in Mediterranean sun! Eventually Milik sweeps in from the edge of the area and the game is done and dusted, even with forty minutes still to play.

 

Sunday 12th June

Germany 2 – 0 Ukraine – Gp C, Lille

Mustafi ’19, Schweinsteiger ‘90+2

 

The first one that got away – the 3am kick off on Monday morning… Didn’t miss much, I say, desperately trying to convince myself.

Routine German win? Seems so, though the highlights do show Neuer making several good saves and one spectacular off the line clearance from Boateng. The German’s grind it out in the second half.

Schweinsteiger’s well-taken half volley in injury time does two things. Well, three if you count wrapping up the result. But it brings about lots of head scratching regarding how a man who flopped at Man United can still be any good, as if failing to catch on in the Barclays Premier World’s Best League is a sign not just of inability but of a lack of moral fibre (see also Diego Forlan and Shinji Kagawa). It also stops there being 3 one-nillers in a row which, for reasons of posterity, I am very relieved about. None of the games have been true stinkers but the history books will record a run of 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 and men years from now will think Euro 2016 was a dud. Which it’s not been. Not yet anyway.

 

Monday 13th June

Spain 1 – 0 Czech Republic – Gp D, Toulouse

Pique 87’

 

For this read Poland Vs Northern Ireland. Except that’s not really fair, as the Czechs do at least have a few efforts at goal. Spain press and pass and fanny around, playing in that way that makes sure everyone admires them but nobody loves them.

Midway through the second half I get as frustrated with this game as I have with any match thus far – more out of a desire for it to be good rather than a passion for either team. Then the game starts to get stretched and more watchable, and by the end I wasn’t bothered by the fact that it was goalless and was rooting for the Czechs to grind out a 0-0.

But as soon as I start thinking that, step forward Gerard Pique to nod in a sumptuous Iniesta (he’s very good, isn’t he?) cross. C’est la vie.

 

Monday 13th June

Republic of Ireland 1 – 1 Sweden – Gp E, St. Denis

Hoolahan 48’

Clark o.g. 71’

 

I have to admit that, through a combination of fatigue and a not very good first half, I dosed off. Through the fog of sleep I saw Ireland edge it slightly and smack a beauty off the bar, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic did a Charleston on the edge of the six yard area. Part, or perhaps all of that, though, may have been a dream.

At half time I ran my head under the tap and told myself that I’d give the game ten minutes to improve or else I was off to bed. And, as if at my very command, Wes Hoolahan volleyed perhaps the second best goal of the tournament thus far back across goal and into the bottom corner inside three minutes.

Sweden then woke up and the game got good! After several minutes of pressing, Ibra sent a low cross in and Clark could do nothing but nod it over his own line for the first o.g. of the tournament. Well worth it in the end but I’d pay for it in the morning.

 

Monday 13th June

Belgium 0 – 2 Italy – Gp E, Lyon

Giaccherini 32’, Pelle 90+2’

 

Biggest, and as it turns out best, game of the tournament so far just had to be one of the dreaded 3am-ers didn’t it?

The highlights tell of a much vaunted Belgium team that just didn’t turn up, and an Italian team that out Italianed themselves. Once the lead had been taken it was all tactical discipline, tactical fouling and tactical substitutions. It’s hard to get a feel for a match as an entity from a ten minute highlight reel. Afterwards everyone raved about the all Juventus defence (plus Buffon) as if they were a newly-discovered Amazonian tribe – the Defenderias, perhaps – and this performance was definitely an homage to cattenacio. Bonnuci also hit a superb ball from the halfway line to play Giacherinni in to score, and Pelle’s goal was from a tricky first time volley.

90+2 is now far and away the most popular time to score at this tournament, it seems – this being the third – without them there would have been seven 1-0 wins out of ten games. There’s still not been a win by more than two goals. The matches are tight and largely entertaining, but there’s a feeling that the tournament is treading water just waiting to ignite.

 

Tuesday 14th June

Austria 0 – 2 Hungary – Gp F, Bordeaux

Dragovic s/o 66’

Szalai 62’, Steiber 87’

 

Tuesday is devoid of a 9pm kick off and I so make the bold decision to split my night’s sleep into two halves. It’s what people used to do apparently, in the 1700s, back when people went to bed at sunset, and bedrooms had nightcaps and chamber pots.

Speaking of the 1700s, the game I wake up at midnight to watch is between two countries who used to be pretty big deals back then. Two countries that used to be much bigger deals in world football than they are now too. Austria, though, are official tournament dark-horses (sponsored by MasterCard, probably) while Hungary are basically here to make up the numbers.

But Hungary only go and bloody win it! They look good, and sharp, and defensively resolute when they have to be. It might have been different had Alaba scored on 28 seconds, rather than rattle the post. And, a couple of minutes after Hungary went ahead, the game hinged on a passage of play where Austria appeared to equalise only for the referee to stop play and send Dragovic off for a two-footer while frantically trying to win the ball.

From then on Hungary saw it out and scored a lovely second when Steiber ran through and scooped the ball over the goal keeper. Hungary are my new favourite team as they went for it, plain and simple, in a way that some teams just haven’t: hint, hint Northern Ireland, Sweden and Turkey…

It’s not that I need 5 goals to consider a game as ‘good’. And I definitely don’t see defensive minded play as ‘anti-football’, or whatever else dickhead Barcelona or Arsenal fans claim whenever their teams fail to beat an underdog. But several sides at these Euros have set up to defend and haven’t had a clue beyond the halfway line. Whereas Hungary, while defending well and with good organisation, made the most of their attacking opportunities. And well done them.

 

Tuesday 14th June

Portugal 1 – 1 Iceland – Gp F, St. Etienne

Nani 31’

Bjarnason 50’

 

The last two to play. Iceland snatch a draw against the run of play. CR7 has a hissy fit and claims Iceland don’t deserve to be there. Every time you think ‘Oh he can’t be as big a bell-end as he looks’ you hear another story to confirm that, yep, he is.

The highlights suggest that Portugal should have won but if you don’t take your chances then, well, you won’t. Iceland’s one goal is spectacularly defended by Portugal, whose defenders leave Bjarnason with half the penalty area in which to hang around before slamming the ball in.

During the last euros I attempted to avoid scores from the night before and watch the late night matches in full after work the following day. And it largely worked, keeping my head down on the MTR, avoiding websites – it helped that I had an old relic of a phone, having just arrived in Hong Kong, that couldn’t access the internet – and swearing people to secrecy. This time around, what with the extra games, I’ve bitten the bullet and decided to forego all the late night matches. One must make sacrifices.

And, with all teams now having played, it’s been an intriguing tournament rather than an explosively entertaining one. Some blame the format, in which only 8 teams go out after the first round, for encouraging a lack of urgency. But I suspect it might make the later rounds of group fixtures more eventful, as more teams will still have something to play for. And yet, as any seasoned tournament watcher will tell you, it’s the knockout stages that make or break a tournament.