After 51 matches and 108 goals, Euro 2016 is now a memory. As the complete football obsessive that I am, it has taken me a few days, as it always does after the big international tournaments, to come to terms with life without football; at least for the four weeks before the start of the Premier League season, although I am of course hoping that pre-season friendlies and the MLS may help to fill the void.
Immediately after the final the BBC pundits Alan Shearer, Rio Ferdinand and Thierry Henry all bemoaned the standard of the tournament, suggesting it was lacking in quality, with teams approaching games trying not to be beaten rather than to win and that the new structure of four third-placed teams qualifying from the group was the key underlying factor in this. Maybe it is my nature and the fact that I enjoy these tournaments so much, but these comments irked me.
Going into the tournament there was significant concern that the increased number of matches and the protracted format of the competition would dilute the quality of the games. Certainly the 8-team and 16-team competitions of the past were much more do-or-die affairs and there was no question that the number of goals per game was lower than in recent tournaments with 2.12 goals per game compared to 2.45 in 2012 and 2.48 in 2008 and 2004; by comparison the goals per game ratio in the Premier League in 2015/16 was 2.70 and 2.76 in the Champions League.
For me though the number of goals scored isn’t necessarily a measure of the quality of the football. Certainly a significant number of teams adopted highly reactive, defensive strategies in the tournament and some had significant success this way. Key factors in this are probably the lack of time on the training field afforded to international teams due to the commitments of club football, as well as the unbalanced nature of the teams as a result of the obvious selection restrictions. It would be a brave coach that adopted an expansive style in these circumstances.
However, surely boring is in the eye of the beholder just as beauty is? Watching a team circulate the ball with seemingly endless short passes, content to retain possession for as long as possible can in itself be seen as dull. Watching a team trounce another can be boring. Watching a team hang on for dear life, repelling wave after wave of attack can be enthralling. Watching a team stay tight and organised deep in their own half before winning possession and launching a lightning quick counter-attack can be thrilling.
The 3-3 draw between Hungary and Portugal was an end to end affair, with no shortage of attacking excitement no doubt; but Spain being beaten by Croatia’s pacey counter-attacks or shut down by Italy’s tactical organisation were arguably better examples of effective football.
The convoluted elimination process which took the first 36 games to eliminate just 8 teams did have an impact however; with some matches becoming more about mathematical calculations rather than the result. However, this was a tournament that was characterised by late goals, especially in the early rounds which helped to add something to the group games in particular.
In addition, the performance of some of the underdogs, most notably Wales and Iceland but with special mention to Hungary and Northern Ireland, were a breath of fresh air. Beyond their performance on the pitch, their fans added colour and a carnival atmosphere in stark contrast to the more sinister goings-on in Marseille on the first Saturday and the behaviour of the Croatia ‘fans’ that forced Mark Clattenberg to temporarily suspend the game against the Czech Republic.
Unquestionably the international game is no longer held in the high regard that it once was. Instead the vast financial investment in elite European club football, coupled with beyond saturation media coverage has ensured that a national team’s pedestrian qualifiers, let alone the seemingly pointless friendlies, carry little interest for the modern football fan used to seeing the superstars of the world game, if not live at the stadium, at least on TV on a weekly basis.
However, for a whole month every two years we are given the opportunity to consume our football in a different way. All of a sudden we are thrown into whirlwind of 2 or even 3 matches a day, every day, for two weeks. Those of us who count themselves firmly as football obsessives are in football-overload heaven and alter our daily timetables to make sure we can fit in as many matches as possible. Then as the tournament progresses to the knockout phases, the matches become gradually less frequent but this is compensated by a continued raising of the stakes.
This for me is the essence of the international tournament, while I will always enjoy an exciting game and find myself sticking with a lacklustre one; the enjoyment for me comes less from the individual matches but more from the complete submersion in the tournament. As such, for me Euro 2016 completely fulfilled my expectations.