Euro2016 was bold, innovative, largely disappointing and possibly most memorable for the craze surrounding Hungarian goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly’s trackies; certainly in Hungary, where I watched a good part of the tournament, Kiraly’s trackies have become a must have fashion item.
The 15th edition of UEFA’s flagship international tournament was also the biggest in its history, with the Finals expanded from the usual 16 qualifiers to 24 – and yet Scotland still failed to make it. The new format consisted of six groups of four teams with the top two qualifying for the round of 16 along with the four best third placed nations. Meaning that winning one group game would almost certainly guarantee qualification to the knockout stages. In the case of eventual tournament winners, qualification from the group was achieved with three draws and no wins.
The move to expand the tournament was a bold move by UEFA. It allowed more nations, smaller nations, an opportunity to compete on the biggest stage of European international football. Some like Hungary, Wales, and Iceland grasped this chance with both hands and secured knockout places via the traditional means – finishing 1st or 2nd in their respective groups – whereas others like Albania fought valiantly but ultimately came up short. In the end however, the smaller nations all acquitted themselves well and made life difficult for the big boys, in fact none of the smaller nations – many of whose presence at the tournament had been scorned pre-tournament – finished bottom of their group. The bold move to expand the tournament and share the spotlight with more nations appeared to have galvanised the small and less fancied, helping to make Euro2016 quite a unique tournament.
However, while the inclusion of more nations in the Finals could be viewed as a success given how far Wales and Iceland progressed, the solution of 3rd placed nations qualifying to give us a round of 16 did not, in my opinion, work. The fear of many regarding this solution was that nations like Hungary, Wales, and Northern Ireland would qualify for the Round of 16 through the back door by finishing a poor third in the group. Instead, Wales and Hungary topped their groups while the likes of Portugal and Slovakia had to rely on the ‘joker card’ qualification route.
The third place qualification system did not fail because it allowed smaller nations to qualify – they, on the whole, qualified through merit – but it failed because it led to defensive and boring football matches. One win pretty much guaranteed third place and a good chance of qualification. Ultimately the group stage was more about avoiding defeat than winning matches. There’s nothing wrong with this approach in theory, keeping a clean sheet is statistically more advantageous than scoring one goal in every game therefore the art of defending should be respected and practised. However, as a neutral and a spectator, I want to be entertained when watching football and as far as I’m concerned, a system that overly rewards and encourages defensive play will not lead to entertaining football; intriguing and debate provoking, yes. But entertaining and exciting, no.
That the tournament as a whole produced a mere 2.1 goals per game, down from 2.4 in the previous two iterations of the tournament suggests that negative play won out overall.
Furthermore, that a side who finished 3rd in the group stage can go on and win the tournament kind of devalues the competition; at least when the general perception is that only the top two go is strong enough to win overall, but my more traditional mindset on this matter still finds it hard to compute that they were even in the knockouts (although I understand the logistics of it all).
Having said that, I am in no way attempting to take Portugal’s achievement away from them as they played a good tournament. They were not the flashy Portugal of old where Luis Figo, Rui Costa & co would dazzle with their slick skills and fluent attacking play, and neither were they solely a vehicle for Cristiano Ronaldo as the final showed. Portugal were a team. They were well organised and difficult to break down, and they played to their strengths. They played a good tournament by not trying to be the Portugal of old but by doing enough to get through each stage, and isn’t that what tournament play is all about? Doesn’t that also make Portugal the best team at Euro2016?
On a side note: Cristiano Ronaldo must surely have won over a lot of his detractors last night. Often maligned as being arrogant and self-centred, Ronaldo proved his team skills last night by coaching and encouraging his team mates from the sidelines and on the pitch before Extra-Time. Ronaldo is a leader and a true great in his sport, to reach this level you must have a degree of single-mindedness but when it all comes down to it, all he wants is the best for his team. The emotion on his face when the final whistle went and when lifting the trophy may be the lasting legacy of the Euro2016. That and Gabor Kiraly’s trackies.