It was a tournament that did not go how anyone expected; the triumph of the underdog, the death of possession football, and, if we’re honest, one of the worst European Championships for a long time. This tournament will live long in the memory of Iceland, Wales, and Portugal but unlikely to linger in the memories of anyone else. This came at a footballing cost, in a tournament that will be remembered more for off-the-field reasons, both positive and negative, than the quality of the football.
The expanded format was widely criticised and indeed, despite UEFA’s obstinate assertions that it was a success, was directly responsible for many of the reasons why the tournament was dour. The group stages were a guarded, sedate matter, owing to the fact that four of the six teams that finished third would still qualify and you only needed to win one game to do so. Indeed, the winners of the tournament, Portugal, wouldn’t even have qualified any other year after finishing third with three draws. In addition, it was clear that many of the teams didn’t really deserve their place in the tournament. Certainly the teams that went out in the group stages were not of sufficient quality to stand up to the best teams in Europe, and thus, even without the added advantage of being able to qualify in third place.
What was so upsetting was that the tournament, by virtue of its expansion, lots its ability to raise up an underdog. Sure Iceland and Wales may have gone on great runs but through the expanded format, the big teams of Portugal and France were able to regather and knock them out. It could be considered that Portugal were the rightful winners as they embodied the ethos of what the expanded tournament became: don’t concede, blanket defence, and commit few men to attack. However, this will be a tournament that a few teams will remember for a long time. Wales were quite brilliant in reaching their first semi-final at a major tournament in their first European championship, including an awesome destruction of the highly rated Belgium team. Iceland may not reach another major tournament for many years after reaching the quarter final, swatting a pathetic England team aside en route. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can also be satisfied with accomplished tournaments, even if the “Will Grigg is on fire” chant, might live longer in the memory.
Those teams that unexpectedly did well must admit that they did not play exceptionally well but rather benefited from a dearth of quality in the tournament. Yes, many teams were playing for draws the whole way through but those teams trying to score against deep defending teams did not appear to have the capability to do so. Maybe the quality of the players in Europe is in a dip (compared at least to the wealth of talent in South America at the moment) but watching Germany fail to break down France, Spain beaten by Croatia and Italy, and Italy themselves beaten by the Republic of Ireland, I felt that none of those teams were close to rivalling their respective teams four years ago.
In fact, this is a tournament where the fans made more of an impact than the football, whether through catchy chants (I’m sure the Icelandic Viking chant will spread throughout world football) or through the hooliganism we witnessed at the beginning of the tournament, furthering Europe’s impression of English and Russian football fans as thugs. Maybe it will take Europe’s teams being comprehensively outplayed by their South American counterparts, who took part in a thrilling and much more watchable tournament concurrently, at the 2018 World Cup, to convince UEFA that the tournament format needs to encourage good football at international level, rather than just be structured to make as much money for UEFA by playing as many games as possible in the tournament. The result of that? A tournament that can be summed up in one word. Lacklustre.