And so the dust settles on another international tournament. How will it be remembered? Not for scintillating football, a glut of goals and captivating entertainment. Will it be remembered at all? Probably not by many.
The Portuguese will look back fondly on the time they finally etched their names onto a major international trophy for the first time. Credit to them for showing the spirit and determination to finish the tournament as the only unbeaten team, especially having lost their talisman so early in the final.
Iceland too will recount the time they first graced an international tournament and enriched it with their counter attacking football and fervent support, whose “thunder clap” was probably the most memorable thing about this tournament.
The Welsh went above and beyond expectations and their 3-1 demolition of Belgium will be remembered in those parts for years to come, as well as topping their group ahead of their most illustrious neighbours, England.
In England it will be remembered with infamy – once again the team fell woefully short of expectations with the final nail in the coffin coming against a country of 300,000 in what will go down as the country’s most humbling defeat to date.
Elsewhere, Albania will have been happy to have joined the party and put their name on the footballing map. Hungary likewise, after years in the wilderness.
The tournament was enlarged to incorporate an additional 8 teams and that gave those countries a wonderful opportunity to experience a major international football tournament. The memorable stories of Euro 2016 largely revolve around those countries.
Those teams were supposed to be eliminated by the end of the round of 16, and then the real tournament would begin – class and experience would prevail, the heavyweights would clash and the proper entertainment would begin. We would recount the epic battles of the major footballing nations at the business end of the tournament and look back sentimentally on the “lesser” teams that graced the earlier stages of the competition with great enthusiasm and gusto.
But the entertainment never came. Unfortunately, we soon came to realise that there wasn’t actually one decent team in this competition. Every team was flawed in one way or another and every game turned into a turgid, defensive war of attrition.
Current champions Spain were a shadow of their former selves; out in the last 16 after being knocked out in the group stages of the World Cup two years ago. Italy’s media proclaimed their squad their “worst in 50 years” but they outfought and out-thought Spain. Italy eventually succumbed on penalties to Germany, when spirit and organisation weren’t quite enough to mask their lack of quality. Germany themselves arguably played the most attractive football (along with Croatia) but lacked a focal point up front, particularly when an injury to Mario Gomez prematurely ended his tournament. In truth, Gomez was never a world beater anyway. Germany’s chances ebbed away with Thomas Muller’s form. France were dominated by Germany for large swathes of the semi-final but deserved their win thanks to the greater quality and incision they showed in the final third.
But where was that incision in the final? Les Bleus looked jaded, overawed and ill-equipped to attend what was meant to be their coronation. A trophy for every tournament played on home soil. Portugal hadn’t read the script. They bestowed the same demons on France that were inflicted on them by lowly Greece 12 years ago – the ignominy of losing a final as heavy favourites on home soil. France performed in fits and bursts throughout the tournament – finishing as top scorers, principally thanks to the way they ruthlessly dispatched Iceland, but toiling their way past Romania, Albania and Ireland en route. The deficiencies that had threatened to derail their campaign in the earlier stages were resurfacing and this time there was no match winning contribution from the bench. They were no longer able to rely on a moment of individual brilliance to paper over the cracks.
Instead it was a Portuguese substitute who became the unlikely hero – Swansea flop, Eder. Signed for £5 million last summer. 15 appearances, no goals. Quite a downgrade from Cristiano Ronaldo but this, in many ways, summed up this tournament. The big guns failed to turn up and it was left for the minnows to shine.
A relatively ordinary and workmanlike Portuguese team, who only won one of their seven matches in 90 minutes, managed to prevail as champions.
This was not a tournament for the purists and not one that will be fondly remembered; not by many anyway.