Another round of international friendlies have come and gone, built up to be very important by the media- the last round of fixtures before squads are selected for the European Championships, with a mixed bag.
To start with, England lives up to its reputation with their regretful habit of absolutely bombing at major tournaments after looking somewhat competent in friendlies. There was a quite frankly astounding 3-2 victory against Germany, masterminded by England’s spurs contingent and a cheeky goal from England’s new wonderkid, a certain Mr Jamie Vardy. But of course this was followed by a rather dire 2-1 loss to the Netherlands, who haven’t actually qualified for this year’s tournament, meaning England can beat the champions but can’t beat the team that had the most dramatic fall from grace.
This hopefully gives Roy Hodgson some idea of team selection but little else. At least Germany then demolished Italy 4-1 to give us some hope that we can actually beat good teams. Just probably not in tournaments.
Northern Ireland were the other impressive home nation in this round of fixtures, continuing their unbeaten run to eleven games, the longest in their history. Granted their 1-0 victory was over lowly Slovenia which is currently ranked 54 in the world, but it was their 1-1 draw and in fact near victory away to Wales that will have fans and pundits alike wondering if they can pull of the shock of the tournament and escape from a group containing Germany, Ukraine, and Poland. The game against Slovenia may also have found Northern Ireland their own Jamie Vardy in Conor Washington, a former postman who was playing non-league football just over four years ago.
Wales unfortunately had friendlies to forget, though the silver lining, if they wish to see it, is that they definitely should not be considering leaving out Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey any time soon, who both missed the Northern Ireland game and the 1-0 loss to Ukraine. Though at the very least Joe Allen showed why he is still at Liverpool. They can still have hope of leaving a group with England, Russia and Slovakia though, as long as they keep all their key players fit.
They can at least be more thankful than poor Scotland, who, by failing to qualify, were playing for pride, and really, just because everyone else was. Still, they can console themselves with two 1-0 victories, over the Czech Republic and then Denmark. The Czech Republic victory was eminently more impressive, and one in which Scotland always looked the victors, whilst they were arguably lucky to withstand the heavy pressure of Denmark and, as a result, were very thankful for Craig Gordon’s outstanding goalkeeping performance. Scotland, at least, can hope to move on and rebuild.
The fixtures also managed to pay tribute to footballing legend, a term often bandied about but unarguably deserved here, to Johan Cruyff, who died on the 24th March. Harry Kane, who seems to be able not only to score when he likes but also how he likes, started his impressive solo goal with a Cruyff turn he later stated to have been a homage, and the winner in France’s 3-2 victory over the Netherlands was scored by number 14, Blaise Matuidi, the number of minutes at which there was a minutes applause and the number of the shirt the three time footballer of the year always wore. A fitting tribute even if the result would not have been to his liking.
Finally, Portugal played Belgium’s first game since the Brussels terrorist attacks which killed 32 people. The triumph here was that the match took place at all, in a climate of fear and unknowing. The match had to be transferred from Belgium to Leiria in Portugal in order to take place, and was the second Belgium friendly in succession not played as scheduled, after the their match against Spain was cancelled. But this match took place, and football united defiant in the face of terror by simply carrying on and not letting the terrorists change what we do, not allowing their hatred to alter what we say, and consequently we have the real victory. Portugal may have run out 2-1 winners but the result at the end of the game, for once, was of no real importance. In fact, the whole game itself was testament to the international appeal of sport, and it’s ability to bring us together.