A month after France’s opening-game victory over Romania, we’ve finally come to the end of Euro 2016. Portugal are the champs, and international soccer fans get to take a breather for … three weeks until the Olympics begin. So, before things kick off in Brazil, here are five takeaways from the football in France.
1. Portugal won on a Cristiano Ronaldo ghost goal.
Of course it was going to play out like this: Ronaldo’s unbreakable body gets punctured by a former sweater salesman, and the game that was supposed to be a capstone on his career gets devoured by moths. He was subbed out after 25 minutes, because none of us get to have nice things:
Except, goalkeeper Rui Patrício stood on his head a couple of times, France striker André-Pierre Gignac caught the post at just about the only angle that would’ve kept the ball out, and then Portugal substitute Eder served up a Ronaldo Special — throwing off a couple of weaker defenders, bullying his way through from the left wing, and driving one in from long range:
There’s plenty of pleasing narrative here: Twelve years after losing the European final as favorites at home, Portugal won it as underdogs against the hosts; a nation that’s been hamstrung by its lack of strikers finally wins its first trophy thanks to a frontman who’d never scored a goal in a competitive game for his country; a team that couldn’t finish any chances when the tournament started finally has the rub of the conversion green go its way. But this one’s my favorite: After carrying Portugal on his shoulders for the better part of a decade, Ronaldo’s teammates picked him up when he finally wasn’t able to stand.
2. France waited too long.
After a disjointed first four games in which manager Didier Deschamps cycled through a handful of different lineups, he settled on a forward-oriented 4–4–2 formation, with Antoine Griezmann playing just behind Olivier Giroud, in front of two hyperactive, cyclonic midfielders in Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi. That group melted Iceland’s fairy tale and then bested the World Cup champs from Germany.
Against Portugal, Deschamps played the same group, and that group created the majority of the game’s best chances, but it’s hard not to think that those four could have tilted the field even more in their favor. Once Ronaldo went off, Portugal’s counterattacking threat was blunted enough for France to push more numbers forward, but instead, we got this from Pogba and Matuidi:
Pogba might be the world’s most dangerous midfielder with the ball at his feet within 25 yards of goal. And Griezmann is terrifying whenever he’s able to build some forward momentum. Instead, the Atletico Madrid forward kept dropping deep, picking the ball up with his back to goal, far away from it. In their place, we got Moussa Sissoko in a starring role as France’s most dangerous player. He did well (and probably earned himself a hefty new contract), but he is France’s fifth-best attacker. If he is the guy providing all your forward impetus, you haven’t figured out a weakness; you’re playing right into the other team’s hands.
3. Bad soccer can be fun.
And this past month had plenty of it. The quality of play between the club and international game gets wider with each summer competition — there were maybe two or three games at this tournament where both teams played well — but there’s a charming raggedness to watching national teams compete. When Barcelona and Juventus meet, the movements are so coordinated and the individual touches and decisions are so precise that the games basically get decided by which team can be more perfect. But when Wales faces Slovakia, any time one side completes more than five passes in a row, it feels like they just accidentally parted the Red Sea.
The nearly year-round omnipresence of club soccer — between every EPL game being played on American television, the cups, and the European competitions — is endlessly fascinating, but it does create a familiar collection of characters and plotlines. So, it’s a pleasant change of pace to get to see a superstar like Gareth Bale receive a pass from a Silver Lake barista like Joe Ledley, rather than turn him into a traffic cone as he runs by and plants one past the keeper.
4. Tactics beat talent.
Were this not the case, England, Belgium, and Spain wouldn’t have gone home so early.
As Portugal’s victory over the host team proved, upsets happen in international soccer. Usually the favored side creates more of the chances, but the underdog plays well enough for a lucky bounce to earn itself a win (see: Eder). But Iceland, Wales, and Italy all straight-up outplayed teams with way more talent en route to their knockout stage wins. Italy took a crowbar to Spain’s passing machine; Wales dominated the midfield against a Belgian side with hundreds of millions of dollars of attacking talent; and Iceland’s defense withstood the lack of nuance in England’s “play as many strikers as possible” tactic.
Would Spain, Belgium, and England definitely have won these games behind a smarter approach? No, but they could’ve at least told themselves they didn’t deserve to lose.
5. Dynasties are difficult.
Germany have been the best European national team over the past four years: At major competitions, it’s two semifinal appearances and one World Cup title. And in both 2016 and 2012, the Germans were arguably the best side in the tournament before their losses. There’s probably an alternate timeline in which Jogi Löw’s side had a couple of more bounces go their way, and they’re winners of three competitions in a row. Even more likely than that is Argentina finishing a chance in regulation of the 2014 World Cup final, leaving Germany without any hardware, despite a consistent run of great performances.
International soccer is fickle as hell. From the lack of games to the outsize impact of injuries to the randomness of shootouts, so much of a tournament run is affected by things outside of a manager and his players’ control. For as uniquely dominant as Spain were during their three-trophy run from 2008 to 2012, so much had to go their way in order for it to happen.
If there’s any dynasty talk that comes from this tournament, it should be about Ronaldo: over the course of a nearly 15-year club career he has delivered 16 titles and counting. And now he got the one he’s been chasing the whole time; he lifted Portugal’s first international trophy.