So, how has Euro 2016 been for you? If you’re Irish, I would imagine you’re feeling mildly proud. If you’re Welsh, you’re probably dancing in the street with excitement. If you’re English, you’re almost certainly squirming with embarrassment. And if you’re Scottish, well, you must be mildly proud of your fellow Celts but also dancing in the street at the sight of the English squirming with embarrassment.
However, casting aside our partisan leanings as the quarter-finals approach, it’s an opportune time to take a very personal look back at the first three weeks of Europe’s latest footballing extravangaza. The good, the bad and the ugly. Oh, and of course, if we must, that England exit.
QUALITY AND ENTERTAINMENT
I’m hoping the best is yet to come. And with blockbusters such as Germany v Italy on the horizon, followed by the winners probably facing France and then the prospect of a France v Belgium final, it is entirely conceivable.
My view is that, in terms of entertainment, it hasn’t been the brighest major tournament I’ve sat through. Yes, it’s had its moments of rich drama, not least the extraordinary amount of late goals (no fewer than 23 in the last ten minutes, of 90 scored in total). And as well as late goals, there have been some great goals, not least Dimitri Payet’s winner for France in the opening match, Luka Modric’s volley-from-the-sky against Turkey, Cristiano Ronaldo’s deft flick against Hungary, Xherdan Shaqiri’s bicycling acrobatics against Poland and Eden Hazard’s solo slalom against Hungary. But I can count the number of enthralling matches on one hand, and they have primarily involved just two sides, Italy and Hungary.
Maybe the reason is that well-drilled, defensive organisation is now second nature to most international sides, however small they are perceived to be. So-called minnows have proved they are capable of stifling so-called giants for long periods. It is a quality to be admired, but it fails to get the juices flowing when you’re relaxing in front of the telly after a tough day at work.
With third place and a tally of only three points offering a possible route to the last 16, the new format of the tournament has also had a damaging impact on the entertainment factor, encouraging unfancied countries to manufacture results via a safety-first approach.
I’m all for more teams gracing the finals, but if it’s not to be 16, then 32 is a far better number than 24, allowing eight groups of four to each yield a top two without any safety net. We shouldn’t be making it easier for lesser teams to survive, but encouraging them to progress and prosper the hard way, as Wales and Iceland have done.
As the digital revolution romps uncontrollably through our lives, the fact that every Euro 2016 match has been shown live on free-to-air terrestrial TV is a treat we should give massive thanks for, rather than take for granted.
By and large, the coverage has been polished, with ITV shading the BBC, as they did at the last World Cup. I would have much preferred the assured journalistic professionalism of Mark Chapman to the smarmy sarcasm of Gary Lineker as the Beeb’s anchor. The quality of the musings of the pundits on the two channels has varied wildly, however.
Bouquets go to the likes of Rio Ferdinand, whose views reflect accurately the modern game, while Martin Keown, not afraid to sharpen both his views and his vocabulary, is improving immeasurably as a co-commentator. The charming and eloquent Gianluca Vialli is a master of his trade, while Slaven Bilic has been an edgy but fascinating addition to the ITV team.
Brickbats are reserved for the likes of Alan Shearer, who has always sent me into apoplectic fits of rage with his insistence that football matches can only be won with “passion, hunger and desire”, while Danny Murphy has become as dull as ditchwater and Ian Wright’s unbridled enthusiasm just cannot hide his lack of nous. As for Thierry Henry, I would love to invite an alien from space to come and listen to him and then tell me which profession he reckoned the Frenchman had spent most of his career in. Did Henry really play 254 times for Arsenal and win 123 international caps?
BEST AND WORST
Notwithstanding their 3-3 draw against Portugal, the match I enjoyed most was, curiously, Hungary’s last-16 tie against Belgium. OK, they ended up getting thumped 4-0, but the outcome was in the balance until the 80th minute and the Hungarians deserved lofty praise for not being afraid to mix it toe to toe with one of the most gifted teams in the tournament.
The win should have sent confidence rocketing in the Belgium camp, and I will be astonished if they don’t make the final, where they will meet one of the three behemoths of the European landscape. All have already impressed in their own way. Hosts France have the deepest, most naturally talented squad. World champions Germany have that seemingly indestructible tournament know-how. And, to the delight of Chelsea fans, Italy must have the best manager given the way Antonio Conte has managed to mould and shape a group glaringly lacking in individual star quality.
Chelsea supporters will also be relieved to see the return to his best of Hazard who has been an obvious contender for the best player on view in the opening stages of the tournament. Arsenal fans must be pleased too after the performances of their new signing, Granit Xhaka, in Switzerland’s midfield. Xhaka looks a ready-made successor to the injury-ravaged Jack Wilshere at the Emirates.
I am persistently impressed by Antoine Griezmann, especially considering he is being asked to play a very different role to that he has mastered at Atletico Madrid. It is a tragedy that as talented a midfield duo as Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric have gone home. I still struggle to locate many better defenders in Europe than Giorgio Chiellini, who must be a manager’s dream, and I still recoil in disbelief that Jerome Boateng failed to cut any ice at Manchester City.
As for the worst of Euro 2016 so far, match-wise, the clash beteeen Wales and Northern Ireland took the biscuit. Bereft of adventure and animation, it was a deathly reminder of one of those old Home Championship games that used to take place at the end of every season at places such as Windsor Park, Belfast or Ninian Park, Cardiff. The most abject team, however, were Austria. Heralded as dark horses in the run-up to the tournament, they were as lamentable collectively as their supposed star player, David Alaba, was individually.
The whys and wherefores of England’s exit have been discussed in millions of critiques since the Iceland defeat on Monday night. Suffice to say, I agree with most of the accusations of tactical, technical and, most of all, mental ineptitude.
As someone who didn’t think we would get out the group, I was partially immunised against the horror that unfolded. But I was still surprised at how badly we failed to build on an excellent opening display against Russia. And I was still surprised at how ineffective most of the players were. To my eye, only Eric Dier, the admirable Danny Rose and the Liverpool duo of Nathaniel Clyne and the criminally under-used Adam Lallana enhanced their reputations.
However, I am a great believer in the over-riding influence and importance to a team of the manager and, above all, I was surprised that Roy Hodgson had such a shocker. After finding a winning formula when England beat Germany in Berlin just 12 weeks ago, Hodgson chopped and changed his side, his system, his formation with such reckless abandon it was impossible to accept this was the same man who has been such a steady, if dour, hand on the tiller throughout a long career in the game. It was as if he felt he had a point to prove to his critics and his employers.
Maybe Hodgson lacked help from the boss of those employers and his two trusted lieutenants. The FA’s chief executive Martin Glenn freely admits he is “not a football man”. An anomaly akin to Frankel being ridden by a 48-stone wrestler. Ray Lewington might be a good, honest football man, but he is also a failed manager. While Gary Neville is a reactive TV pundit, not a proactive coach, as was underlined at Valencia where his limitations were viciously exposed and his self-confidence must have been blown to bits.
But whatever the input of Glenn, Lewington and Neville, the boss himself must take responsibility for a woeful mess that created the utterly laughable scenarios of players being rested before the team had even qualified from Group B and of the tournament ending against Iceland with four centre-forwards on the pitch at the same time.
Just one other thing too. And this has nothing to do Hodgson, or his players, but is more a cry from the heart to the nation as a whole. Can we please, please, please, shed this superiority complex and sense of entitlement that we seem to carry around with us in the sporting arena? This arrogant notion that we should be better than everyone else. It permeates every preview, every review, every piece of analysis and assessment, every press report, every media broadcast.
It is the reason why England players are so unrealistically over-rated. It is the reason why we are told the Premier League is the best in the world when it palpably isn’t. It is the reason we take such ridiculously inflated hopes into every tournament, which are then followed by such ridiculously hysterical inquests. It is the reason why we patronise, rather than respect, nations such as Iceland. It is the reason some of our supporters smash up bars in Marseilles and sing songs about German bombers and the IRA. And yes, it is the reason why many voted Brexit.
There is nothing wrong with displaying patriotism and pride in your country. Even flagrantly. But there is a fine line, not to be crossed, between patriotism and pride and the kind of bigotry and misguided self-importance that warps all perspective and distorts all expectation.