Sunday, 10 July 2016

Euro 2016 and the End of History

So, my title this week may be a little melodramatic, but that phrase has been bouncing around in my mental space a lot recently (interestingly enough in the context of the Brexit vote at the end of June, which I'm still processing). In any case, another European Championships has come and gone, and we've added a new nation to the club of winners.

Ronaldo's tears

Call me sentimental, but there's something ineffable somehow of seeing a player universally acknowledged as one of the best of the game, but who never wins anything with his country. In an odd way, I'm sad to see Cristiano Ronaldo taken off this list.

It's not so much that I dislike him, because disliking Cristiano Ronaldo is frankly a bit cliche. Everybody hates him, and part of the fun of hating him is acknowledging that he really is one of the best in the world (though I still think Messi's better overall). But when you've got a player who's that good on the field, and that arrogant off it, it seems a little unfair that he should also get to win the second-biggest prize in football.

On the other hand... part of me really did feel for him today when he had to limp off with his knee-knack. We're so used to Ronaldo's theatrics that when he's genuinely hurt and fighting to stay on, you do feel a little remorse for him. And even I found it hard not to be moved by his expression when the game ended and his team had won.


There was a lot of talk this year about the Golden Generation of the late 90s and early 2000s, the last representative of which is Ricardo Quaresma, as there is at every tournament. I think there's been a sense for a long time that Portugal has been not as good as it was in those years, and a sense of injustice that Ronaldo should come along after those older players had faded away. But now, somewhat improbably, Ronaldo's guided and inspired his nation to sporting glory, twelve years after they had it snatched from them by a Greece team that played very similarly to how Portugal played this year.

How good was the tournament, really?

There's been a lot of talk lately about how bad Euro 2016 has been. Even at the end of today's game, Steve MacManaman was parping on ESPN about what a terrible winner Portugal was, and certainly the pundits at the Guardian have been complaining about the cagey football engendered by the expanded format.

Thinking about it, though, I'm not so sure. That is to say, of course there have been some bad teams, and some cagey games - and it's hard to argue with the point that there's been a dearth of goals this year. Somebody noted on Thursday, when France was beating Germany, that there hasn't even been a hat-trick in the tournament.

But how much fun would it have been if every team had done as well as people had expected? We'd have missed out on Iceland's run (and England's implosion would have been less spectacular if it had come at the hands of any other team, frankly). At the very least, the knockout stages would have been a bit more balanced and so the final would likely have been contested by two of the same old teams - perhaps even Germany and Spain.

No, the football may not have been as scintillating as Mexico 1970, and the expanded format, with its weird rules for qualifying and for the group stage, may not be that successful. But any tournament that can give us surprises like Iceland, Wales and, at the very end, Portugal - well, we probably shouldn't discount the value of upsets and shock results.

So what's next?

And, as imperfect as the 24-team European Championships are, they'll still be better than the next two World Cups - which will take place in Russia and Qatar, respectively. If nothing else, we know that the European Championships actually get awarded to good venues, regardless of how much bribery and backhanders are going on.

And to be honest, though some are already sniffing at the 2020 format, which will be played in multiple cities across Europe to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the European Championships, I think it'll actually be great. The great advantage that Europe has over other regions is the existing infrastructure and fanbase, not to mention the relative ease of getting between venues (erm, excluding Baku, Azerbaijan, of course). Sure, there'll be some grumbling about last-minute plane or train tickets, but it actually seems nice that for once the entire continent gets to join in the fun.

I don't know where I'll be in four years, but it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that I could get over to one of the countries hosting matches. And it'd be great to experience, once again, that feeling of watching a game and knowing that the entire city around you is doing the same. The last time I experienced that was the 1996 semi-final between England and Germany, and I think we could have it again in 2020.