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
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’
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.