#FlashbackFriday - Euro 2016: 

After fifty eight years in the wilderness, Wales reach the Semis and Swansea reject suceeds where Eusebio, Futre, Figo and Deco all failed 

In May 2010, France were awarded the right to host the Euro 2016 finals, chosen by UEFA ahead of bids made by Italy, Turkey and a joint Celtic bid by Scotland, Wales and Eire.  It would be the third time in which France would host the Euros, as well as hosting their third major international tournament in thirty two years.  This time, the tournament would extend by eight sides and introduce another round of games within the knock-out phases.  The tournament would run along the same lines as the World Cup did between 1986 and 1994 with four third place sides from the group phase proceeding to a round of sixteen teams.

 

The hosts France would be drawn in Group A alongside Albania, Romania and Switzerland.  The tournament kicked off on June 10th with France meeting Romania in the Stade De France.  The French took the lead twelve minutes into the second half with a headed goal from Olivier Giroud of Arsenal, before Bogdan Stancu equalised from the penalty spot eight minutes later.  However, a superb last minute twenty five yard shot from West Ham’s Dimitri Payet found the back of the Romanian net, meaning that France would kick off the tournament with a 2-1 win.  Twenty four hours later, the Swiss would also pick up three points with a 1-0 win over Albania in Lens.

Five days on, in Paris’s former National stadium of the Parc De Princes, Romania played out a 1-1 draw with Switzerland.  Later that day in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, goals for Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann and another for Dimitri Payet gave the French a 2-0 win over Albania. 

In the final round of fixtures, Albania picked up a 1-0 win over Romania in Lyon.  It wouldn’t be enough to prevent their elimination however, as a 0-0 draw between Switzerland and France meant that both would proceed to the second round.

In Group B meanwhile, Wales in their first major tournament since 1958 would be drawn against fellow Britishers England, as well as Slovakia and Russia.  The Welsh anthem for the tournament would be ‘Stronger Together’, sung by Welsh rock legends the Manic Street Preachers. 

Group B fixtures kicked off with Wales meeting Slovakia in Bordeaux for their first game at a major finals since a seventeen year old Pele would score his first international goal. After ten minutes, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale gave the Welsh the lead with a superb free kick.  Slovakia pulled level on the hour with a goal from Ondrej Duda.  The Welsh however secured all three points with a goal from Hal Robson-Kanu – a player without a club after the expiry of his contract with English second tier side Reading – which gave the Welsh a 2-1 win. 

Later that same evening, England would kick off their fixtures, meeting Russia in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome. 

The proceeding days had been dogged by incidents of hooliganism between the England fans with the Russians, as well as local youths in Marseille.  England dominated the game, however failed to break the deadlock until the seventy third minute when Eric Dier of Spurs scored with a free-kick.  Russia though would equalise in the second minute of injury time with the match ending in a 1-1 draw.  Moments after the final whistle however saw a violent charge by the Russian fans at the England followers.  Further post-match skirmishes between the fans meant that the merits of England’s performances would be relegated in newsworthiness.  UEFA also went as far as dishing out a warning to Russia and England that any further trouble from their fans would see them expelled from the tournament altogether. 

Four days later, Russia would head to Villeneuve-D'Ascq in the far North of France to meet Slovakia.  The latter however would dish a 1-2 beating to the Russians. 

Twenty four hours later in nearby Lens would be the ‘British Derby’ between England and Wales.  Taking place on a Thursday afternoon at 2PM, most of Great Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall would shut down to view the match.  Three minutes before half time, the Welsh would take the lead with England keeper Joe Hart failing to hold a Gareth Bale free kick, which found its way into the net.  It had been viewed by many observers as a lacklustre first half for England. 

 

In the second half however, Jamie Vardy, who had been leading the line all season for surprise Premiership champions Leicester City, finally entered the fray after England boss Roy Hodgson failed to utilise his services the previous Saturday against the Russians.  It did the trick as eleven minutes into the second half, as Jamie Vardy equalised.  England went on to steal all three points with a last minute goal for another centre forward substitute – Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge - to give England a 2-1 win. 

Outside of football, one thing that would kill off national euphoria at the result almost instantly was a horrific event back in England which took place just minutes before the game kicked off.  As campaigning for the EU referendum consumed the nation’s non-footballing time, Labour MP for the Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen and Remain campaigner Jo Cox would be murdered in the street after holding a surgery in her constituency.  The alleged assailant, who was later convicted of her murder – Thomas Mair - was reported to have shouted either ‘Britain First’ or ‘Put Britain First’ (the former being the name of a far right wing organisation in the UK) after shooting and stabbing the forty one year old mother of two.  Four hours later, her death was announced to a stunned nation. 

Back to the football however and the final round of Group B fixtures took place four days later.  England seemed unable to build momentum on the back of their win over Wales the previous Thursday, playing out a rather uninspired 0-0 draw with Slovakia in Saint Etienne.

In contrast, the Welsh seamlessly shrugged off defeat to England by hammering Russia 3-0 in Toulouse, with goals from Aaron Ramsey, Neil Taylor (bagging his first goal since scoring for Wrexham away at Grays in a fixture in the non-league Blue Square Premier back in 2010) and Gareth Bale scoring for the third game in a row.  England’s failure to win saw them lose the top spot in Group B to Wales, though the English secured their qualification to the last sixteen as runners up, as too did third place Slovakia. 

The third home nation side, Northern Ireland (playing in their first ever European Championship finals) would kick off their tournament against Poland in Nice.  The Ulstermen however would suffer a 0-1 defeat.  Also drawn in Group C would be Germany and Ukraine, who met in Villeneuve-D'Ascq that same day.  The Germans ran out 2-0 winners.

Four days on and Northern Ireland would get themselves off the mark with a 2-0 win over the Ukraine with goals for Gareth McAuley and sealed by a Niall McGinn goal six minutes into injury time.  That same day, Germany and Poland played out a 0-0 draw.

The final round of fixtures in Group C, played out on Summer Solstice night, saw Northern Ireland lose 0-1 to Germany in Paris’s Parc De Princes.  The Ulstermen however would qualify for the last sixteen as one of the best placed third place finishers.  The Germans went on to top the group on goal difference after Poland triumphed with a 1-0 win over Ukraine in Marseille that same evening.

Meanwhile, reigning European Champions Spain would be drawn in Group D alongside Croatia, Czech Republic and Turkey.  The opening fixture of the group would be a 1-0 victory for Croatia over Turkey, sealed with a superb thirty yard volley from Real Madrid’s Luka Modric.  A day later, Spain’s campaign would kick off with a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic in Toulouse with a goal from Barcelona centre back Gerard Pique. 

Four days on and the Czechs would be up against Croatia in Saint Etienne.  By the hour mark, Croatia would find themselves two goals up before Luka Modric would be removed as a pre-caution against a groin injury he’d picked up.  With fourteen minutes left to play, Milan Skoda would pull one back for the Czechs.  The match would then be held up by English referee Mark Clattenburg due to crowd trouble, after fifteen flares would be thrown onto the field of play by the Croatian support.  A Croatian PA announcer pleaded with their fans to: ‘leave the stadium and don’t embarrass our country’, also appeal to the fans to behave themselves would be Croatian captain Darijo Srna.  There was also a threat to abandon the game by UEFA officials.

  

When play resumed Croatia would concede a last minute penalty, thumped into the back of the Croatian net by Tomas Necid, resulting in a 2-2 draw.  Later that same day, Spain would defeat Turkey 3-0 with two goals from Alvaro Morata. 

In the final round of fixtures in Group D, Turkey would manage a 2-0 win over the Czechs in Lens, though both sides would face group phase elimination.  That same evening Croatia would meet Spain in Bordeaux.  Alvaro Morata would give Spain the lead after seven minutes, however Croatia would go on to claim the top spot in Group D with a 2-1 win.

The last side from the British Isles to play their opening fixture would be Eire, who were drawn in Group E alongside Belgium, Italy and Sweden.  Eire would first meet Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden in the Stade De France.  Norwich City’s Wes Hoolahan gave the Irish the lead three minutes into the second half, however an own goal from Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark meant that Eire had to make do with a 1-1 draw.  Italy later that day meanwhile would achieve a 2-0 win over the much fancied Belgium side, a victory sealed by Southampton’s Graziano Pelle three minutes into injury time. 

Four days on, a goal from Eder would secure Italy’s passage to the knock out phase with a 1-0 win over Sweden.  The following day Belgium ran out 3-0 winners over Eire, with two goals for Everton’s Romelu Lakaku.

In the final round of fixtures, Eire would secure their passage to the second phase, as a goal from Robbie Brady of Norwich gave Eire a 1-0 win over Italy, while a 1-0 win for Belgium over Sweden meant that they would secure a runners up spot in Group E.

In Group F, Austria would be drawn with Hungary, Iceland and Portugal.  In the opening game in Bordeaux, Hungary would defeat Austria 2-0.  That same day, Iceland would manage a 1-1 draw with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.

Four days on, Iceland nearly pulled off their first win after taking the lead with a Gylfi Sigurdsson penalty five minutes ahead of half time.  An own goal two minutes from full time though gave Hungary a 1-1 draw.  Portugal however would again fail to secure three points with a 0-0 draw against Austria in the Parc De Princes. 

In an extraordinary final round of fixtures, Portugal would thrice equalise against Hungary, managing a 3-3 draw.  The Portuguese would be on course to meet England in the second phase, with Iceland and Austria drawing 1-1 four minutes into injury time, before a late winner for the Icelanders gave them a 2-1 victory and a meeting with the English in the last sixteen (which many in England actually felt relieved about, being as it were avoiding Cristiano Ronaldo a team that was victorious over England three times in six years back in the early to mid-Noughties).

For Euro 2016, there would follow a three day break in fixtures, while drama in the real world dramatically picked up a few notches.  While England, Wales and Northern Ireland were waiting to re-commence their Euros campaign, on 23rd June the United Kingdom went to the polls in a referendum on whether to remain within the European Union.  The final result was that British public voted 52% in favour of leaving the supra-national pan-European organisation – a result which saw the immediate resignation of standing PM David Cameron.  Though spoof news Website ‘Southend News Network’ ran a story of the England, Wales and Northern Ireland national sides being expelled from Euro 2016 because of the Brexit vote, it was a result which meant little with regard to the football.  However, here on in, a footballing exits from Europe looked imminent for some.

Football resumed the following Saturday, with Switzerland meeting Poland in the first tie of the Second Round in Saint Etienne, which finished 1-1 after extra time.  The penalty shoot-out which followed saw new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka miss a penalty, leading to Switzerland’s elimination after losing 5-4 on penalties. 

The final evening game that day, saw Portugal inflict a 0-1 defeat on Croatia with a goal from substitute Ricardo Quaresma just three minutes from the end of extra time.

Later that afternoon, the second ‘British Derby’ between Wales and Northern Ireland saw the Welsh proceed to the Quarter Finals after a Gareth McAuley own goal gave them a 1-0 win. 

The following day saw Eire line up against the French at the Stade De France.  A Robbie Brady penalty after two minutes put the Irish ahead, however France would battle back with two goals from Antoine Griezmann to give the French a 2-1 win and send Ireland home.

The Sunday early evening kick off would be Germany against Slovakia in Villeneuve-D'Ascq.  The Germans ran out comprehensive 3-0 winners, with goals from Jerome Boateng, Mario Gomez and Julian Draxler, while Sunday late evening would bring a 4-0 win for Belgium over Hungary in Toulouse. 

Early evening Monday would see reigning European Champions Spain up against Italy at the Stade De France, in a replay of the 2012 Final.  This time however the Italians would turn the tables with a 2-0 win secured by goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pelle. 

That upset however would pale in comparison to Iceland’s meeting with England later that evening.  England took the lead after four minutes with a penalty from Wayne Rooney.  The lead however would last just two minutes after England were caught out by a long throw and Ragnar Sigurdsson would equalise.  After eighteen minutes, Kolbeinn Sigborsson put Iceland ahead – a lead which they would hold until full time to inflict a 1-2 defeat on England.

Defeat to Iceland, with a population of just one thirtieth the size of Greater London and no professional football league, was enough for Roy Hodgson to announce his immediate resignation after the final whistle.  England’s exit also inspired the joke that the English would exit Europe twice in one week

After another three day gap, the Quarter Finals commenced with Poland meeting Portugal in Marseille.  The Poles took the lead with a goal from Robert Lewandowski after just two minutes, however eighteen year old Renato Sanches equalised to give the Portuguese side a 1-1 draw after extra time.  The Portuguese however proceeded after winning 5-3 on penalties.  

Now the only British Isles side left flying the flag in Europe, Wales went on to meet Belgium in Villeneuve-d'Ascq on a Friday evening.  The Welsh fell a goal behind as a superb goal from Radja Nainggolan put Belgium a goal up.  Belgium’s lead however lasted for just over half an hour, as captain Ashley Williams equalised for Wales.  Ten minutes into the second half, Hal Robson-Kanu carried out a Cruyff turn in the Belgium penalty area before slotting it away to put the Welsh ahead.  With four minutes left to play, Wales secured their place in the Semi Finals with a goal from Sam Vokes, and a 3-1 win.  The Welsh had a tie with Portugal in the week ahead to look forward to, immediately billed as the ‘Ronaldo v Bale’ show as the two Real Madrid superstars would be lining up against each other.

The Saturday night Quarter Final tie would be against two of the perennial big guns of World football – Italy and Germany.  History would be on the side of the Italians though, having never lost a tie against the Germans in a major tournament finals.  Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil would put Germany ahead on sixty five minutes, before Leonardo Bonucci equalised from the penalty spot with twelve minutes to go.  With no further goals in extra time the matched ended in a 1-1 draw, meaning a penalty shoot-out would follow and history now surely favouring the Germans.  Simone Zaza – brought on in time added on during extra time – tried to confuse the German goalkeeper only to look totally ridiculous after sky-ing Italy’s second penalty.

 

The Germans also hadn’t missed a penalty in a major tournament shoot out since the Semi Final of the Espana ’82 World Cup – that was until Thomas Muller stepped up and saw his effort saved by Gianluigi Buffon in the Italian goal.  Like buses, you wait thirty four years for the Germans to miss a penalty and then two come at once, after Mesut Ozil hit the post.  Southampton’s Graziano Pelle however would also put his effort wide.  With the fifth penalty takers of both sides – Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger and Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci both missing their efforts, the shoot-out went to sudden death.  The next four penalty takers for both sides all scored, until Matteo Darmian missed for Italy and Jonas Hector successfully converted for the Germans to win 6-5 on penalties and preserve their forty year unbeaten record in international shoot-outs.

In the final Quarter Final tie on Sunday evening, the hosts France met the underdogs Iceland at the Stade De France.  Goals for Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet Antoine Greizmann and two for Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud meant that the French secured a 5-2 victory and a meeting with Germany in the Semi Finals.  Iceland however returned home to Reykjavik to a heroes’ welcome, which included the much admired and copied ‘Viking War Chant’.

The other surprise package of Euro 2016 – the Welsh – went on to meet Portugal in Lyon, as Euro 2016 proceeded to the Semi Finals after another three day break between fixtures.  Sadly however, the Welsh fairy tale would come to an end.  Wales made it to half time on equal terms, until Ronaldo broke the deadlock to put Portugal ahead five minutes into the second half.  Three minutes later, his former Manchester United team mate Nani doubled Portugal’s lead with the Welsh crashing to a 0-2 defeat and Portugal securing only their second ever major tournament final appearance.  Chris Coleman’s side however returned to cheering crowds at the Cardiff City Stadium, as the Welsh side far exceeded expectations in France. 

In the second Semi-Final, France would meet long-time foes Germany – whom they lost back to back World Cup Semi-Finals against during the 1980s, including the famous Patrick Battiston and Harold Schumacher incident of Espana ’82. The French however would remove a monkey from their back as an Antoine Griezmann penalty just ahead of half-time, as well as a second eighteen minutes from time, gave France a 2-0 win to progress to the final of Euro 2016.       

Ahead of the final, the Stade De France became infested with moths due to the fact that the ground staff had left the floodlights on at the stadium over-night.  The finale of Euro 2016 would also have the rare sight of an Englishman playing a part in the final of a major international finals tournament, as Mark Clattenberg would referee the event. 

As a spectacle, the match took a turn for the worse when Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo would be substituted through injury after twenty five minutes.  The Real Madrid star would be pictured with a moth having landed on his rather forlorn looking face.  Portugal however stuck to the game plan and played on in what – entertainment wise – would be a rather shoddy advertisement for the game.

 

The Final went to extra time.  Eder – a player whose failure to score for Swansea City saw him loaned out to French club Lille – came on as substitute in the last ten minutes of normal time.  With eleven minutes to go in extra time, it was Eder who broke the deadlock to put Portugal a goal ahead.  The Portuguese saw the game through for a 1-0 victory which gave their first ever major tournament win.  Also, in a summer where Barcelona’s Lionel Messi retired from international football after failure to land international honours, Ronaldo finally bagged an international winner’s medal, twelve years on from the disappointment of losing in the final of his first international tournament on home soil at Euro 2004.

It’s also a huge irony that despite losing with much more talented squads in Euro 2000 and Euro 2004, as well as their Eusebio-inspired run to the Semi Final in the 1966 World Cup, Portugal would finally win a tournament with a much less talented squad this time out.  In Euro 2016, the Portuguese drew all three of their group games and finished third.  They were also the only third placed side who failed to win a single group game.  The Semi Final with Wales was also the only game in Euro 2016 where they actually won the game within ninety minutes.  Had it not been for the tournament’s expansion to twenty four sides, Portugal’s tournament win most probably would never have come to pass.

 

The tournament’s format would also be a talking point as to whether the quality of the tournament was in some way effected.  The tournament brought an average of only 2.12 goals scored per game, the lowest total since Euro ’96, with many arguing that teams approached group games with a mind-set that one victory or three draws would likely see them progress to the knockout phases, breeding a safety first attitude of ‘better not to lose than to go all out for the win’.  It would indeed be interesting to see what direction the format of future Euros would take – for instance would they follow the path that the World Cup took and expand to thirty two qualifiers, with only group winners and runners up progressing from the group phase?

One major drawback from this is that from fifty five future entrants, the percentage of qualifiers would rise to 58% - i.e. the majority of UEFA’s membership, making the drawn out two year qualification process farcical.  One option could be whittling that down to a simple two-legged play-off round and nine automatic qualifiers (beneficial if UEFA are looking toward multiple hosts for future tournaments, as will be the case with Euro 2020).  The freed up time from this could even make room for the creation of a bi-annual World Cup, with the Euros taking place once every four years in one of the off-seasons.

More World Cups and Euros has the benefit of allowing more countries to host major tournament finals and, in the instance of World Cups, give FIFA increased opportunities for expanding into newer markets such as China and the far east, the USA or Australasia should one of these territories host a World Cup.  It would also certainly appeal to television companies, as international football tournaments are proven ratings winners in the era of fragmented multi-channel TV audiences (and by extension, also please advertisers).  European Championships and World Cups also fill up acres of near-infinite TV broadcasting space in comparison to the four channel world of three decades ago.

 

However, the drawbacks from this undoubtedly would be concerns over player fitness, especially if three seasons out of every four would see competitive football extended by an extra month.  Also, there may too be the threat of over kill with regard to all year round saturation coverage of football – though such prophecies of doom with the domestic game have still yet to be fully realized nearly a quarter of a century on from the creation of the Premier League.  The biggest obstacle no doubt would be objections from club football sides – increasingly internationally owned and finance driven and unlikely to allow their star turns to be performing in international tournaments for a whole month for three years out of four.

One thing however that club football certainly lacks with regard to international football is the greater uncertainty of outcome.  Leicester City’s title in 2015/16 aside, club football in most European football leagues has a fairly certain outcome, which international football doesn’t really have as international sides have to live off of what they produce rather than buy their way out of trouble.  Either way, you know full well the off-season between international tournaments usually see a mostly bored football viewing public eagerly wishing there were a World Cup or Euros to fill a football vacuum that the Confederations Cup never could.  Regardless of home nation failure, international political crises or the potential for right wing hooligan thugs to spoil things, its most definitely will be roll on Russia for the 2018 World Cup Finals (only another twelve months to go!). 

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*Published 28th July 2017

The Box Set of Previous Euros can be found here