A Bland Euro

10 Jul

The European Championship is usually my favorite soccer competition. As great as the World Cup is, the Euro’s limited field almost guarantees good soccer throughout. Everyone deserves to be there, and there is no need to watch some team from Oceania struggle before making its inevitable exit in the group stage. These teams know each other well, have deep histories, and the best usually play enjoyable brands of the game. The 2008 and 2012 Euros both gave us some of soccer at its finest, with the titans all battling it out and a clear winner emerging ahead of the pack.

I was, therefore, skeptical of this summer’s expanded Euro format, with the field adding eight teams for a total of 24. There were some fine moments out of teams that aren’t Euro regulars, most obviously Iceland’s stunning upset of England, and Wales’ run to the semifinals was an added bit of fun. But on the whole, my worries were well-placed. With 24 teams fighting for 16 spots in the knockout rounds, the group stage is mostly just a formality for the good teams. Scoring, predictably, was also down: the additional teams’ only hope comes from that boring, park-the-bus style of play that plagued so many of the games. The bracket also shook out so that basically all of the traditional powers (France, Spain, Italy, Germany, England) were on the same side of the bracket while Switzerland and Poland piddled around on the other side. In the old Euros, every team in the knockout stages was either a superpower or had rightfully earned its berth. This time around, there were only a handful of compelling games in the first two rounds.

I’m not the only person who noticed the underwhelming product. ESPN’s studio show immediately after Portugal’s triumph was more devoted to trashing Portugal’s style of play and the tournament in general than it was to honoring Portugal. (Only in soccer does style take absolute precedence over who actually wins.) They weren’t wrong: Portugal was boring, basically incapable of winning a game within 90 minutes, and wouldn’t have gotten out of the group stage in the old format. The final was an appropriate end to the whole tournament, and while this was Portugal’s first major title, it’s not like they’re the new kids on the block in European soccer. It took some human drama in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo to keep it from being totally blah.

In part, the 2016 Euros were flat because (unlike the past two Euros) there really wasn’t a great team in it. Aging Spain’s reign has come to an end. Italy too was down, though they still looked like one of the top two or three teams in the tournament, and were stuck playing a good team early in the knockout stages. The Dutch didn’t even make it, despite the 24-team field. Belgium, who appeared poised to fill the power vacuum, underwhelmed, and still have nothing to show for their golden generation. The English, despite having one of their more promising sides in recent memory, choked royally, as the English do. Their flop provided the rest of the continent with some excellent schadenfreude post-Brexit, and probably infected a generation of good young players with the English soccer virus.

The closest team to greatness in France this summer was Germany, but the reigning world champions didn’t quite have the same edge as they did two years ago. They were still suffocating in their control, and somewhat terrifyingly were the youngest team in the field; the ease with which they plug in rising stars like Joshua Kimmich and Julian Draxler is remarkable. What they lacked this time around was the finishing touch. World Cup heroes Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze were out of form, and while Joachim Low found a temporary solution in Mario Gomez, he was unavailable for the semifinal with France. The German attack was reduced to cross after useless cross, and they folded surprisingly quickly after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s inexcusable hand ball in the box.

The French were steady and good, and seemed nearly inevitable heading into that final in the Stade de France. Then, however, they pulled a vanishing act in the final, either lulled into a false sense of security by Ronaldo’s injury or undone by the pressure of the moment. Antoine Griezmann was brilliant in the tournament, but seemed to run out of gas at the end, and could use some time off after a long and draining year that saw him burnish his credentials as a top-flight star, miss a penalty in the Champions League final, and endure the horror of his sister being trapped in the Bataclan nightclub when terrorists attacked Paris last November. Paul Pogba ghosted for long periods of time, leaving me once again wondering what all the hype is about. There was no shortage of collective talent to go along with the brilliant renditions of La Marseillaise, but the French whole never seemed to exceed the sum of the parts.

That left us with Portugal, another country that has had much more talented teams in recent memory. They went into the Stade de France having beaten no one of real consequence to make the final—their toughest opponent was probably Croatia—and for the first ten minutes looked very much out of place. All they needed was an injury to their world class superstar. After that, the defense locked into place, with Pepe clearing ball after ball and Rui Patricio on top of his game in goal, and once France started to press, the Portuguese decided that they might try their hand at that whole goal-scoring thing and indeed did so in extra time.

It’s been a strange year for Cristiano Ronaldo. He was fairly useless in the Champions League final before popping in the winning penalty for Real Madrid, scored a few goals but did nothing otherworldly in the Euros, and both his teams had remarkably easy paths to their respective finals. And yet, here he is, leader of two European champions in one summer. As a Barcelona fan I’m somewhat obligated to hate him, but this was a humanizing moment for the Madeiran magician, and a game that will, weirdly, improve his legacy. His raw emotion and attempt to play on that wrecked knee, followed  by cheerleading and coaching from the technical area later on, are, in a way, far more impressive than his endless highlight reel of goals. We saw a different side of Ronaldo in this one, with a player often critiqued for his diva tendencies coming into his own as a passionate leader.

It’s also befitting of Ronaldo that, in an otherwise less-than-inspiring tournament, he became the story. That’s the Ronaldo way: he is the center of attention, and this game was a reminder that sheer power of ego can be a good thing, too. And while he may never have Lionel Messi’s humility and ball-sharing skills, he can be a powerful force for a team just by being Ronaldo. (Though Ronaldo is better at paying his taxes, apparently.) Even though his actual role was minimal, it’s hard not to think he’s earned the right to claim a major international trophy. I don’t mind cocky athletes if they can back it up, and Ronaldo most certainly has throughout his career.

This redeemed Ronaldo will be my takeaway from Euro 2016, along with yet another sense that international soccer has grown too fat off its money grabs. We’re stuck with 24 teams in the 2020 Euros too, and UEFA is going with a gimmicky tournament with no single host country, with teams jetting everywhere from Baku to Glasgow to play their games. The final is even in a country that is no longer part of Europe. With Portugal’s success, I wouldn’t count on an attacking revolution in the next few years: expect more parked buses and sterile offensive outputs, and no number of washed-up pleading ex-player pundits can change that. True change would probably have to come from FIFA, which reassures no one. Oh well. Hey, we’ve got some summer hockey tournaments coming up.

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