Euro 2016: A tournament that got the champions it deserved
THOSE who like to see the best teams win major international soccer tournaments had been spoilt recently, largely by Spain but also by Germany.
Perhaps that explains the sense of disappointment felt about the finale of Euro 2016, apart from among those enthralled by one particular player, even if he didn't actually have much impact on the final. From an Irish, specifically GAA, perspective, we're used to seeing the big prizes collected by the best team, or at least one of the two or three top teams.
Yet, hosts France, Germany and Italy all made better cases to be regarded as the best team at the Euros than the eventual winners Portugal. After all their weeping and wailing when they themselves hosted the Euros in 2004, Portugal basically 'did a Greece' this time, right down to pooping the party in the decider. They defended doggedly, with a well-organised set-up and tried to snatch goals.
As with the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, Euro 2016 was a flawed format, a bloated, unwieldy cash cow. I stand by the view I expressed a couple of years ago that it's ludicrous that almost half the teams in Uefa make it through to the finals now.
The expansion from 16 teams to 24 led to 20 more matches - 12 extra in the expanded group stages and eight in the new round-of-16. Admittedly, there was plenty of drama and entertainment but, often, there was a distinct lack of quality despite, or more likely because of, all the extra games. I could list the many forgettable matches, but I can't remember most of them.
We wouldn't have missed most of the extra eight teams, considering those who wouldn't have made the cut for a 16-team format. At least Albania and Romania were gutsy, but Sweden and Ukraine offered little, while Turkey will only be remembered for ensuring Northern Ireland progressed.
Of course, Iceland and the Republic of Ireland brought a lot to the tournament, on and off the pitches, while Hungary topped Group F, which produced the eventual champions. Yet, that first-place group finish for the Hungarians is merely part of the proof Portugal are one of the poorest champions ever.
Their initial group opponents, Iceland, then Austria and Hungary, should only have been troublesome had the Portuguese been going to war with them around a millennium or two centuries ago, respectively. Somehow, Portugal limped into third place, celebrating the 3-3 draw they had played against the not-so-mighty Magyars in a manner which had been deemed inappropriate for Iceland by their arrogant figurehead just over a week earlier.
That sent them into what turned out to be the much easier side of the draw. Sure, it wasn't Portugal's fault Spain didn't top their group, nor England theirs, although the latter would hardly have given them much of a match anyway
Spain's conquerors Croatia performed poorly in their last-16 encounter with Portugal, but were still unlucky to lose in extra-time. Portugal then needed penalties to see off a Poland team lacking in ambition themselves. Portugal did deserve to defeat Wales in the semi-final, before beating France in a decider that was won by the team that was less bad rather than the best.
Indeed, it's hard to feel too much sympathy for France. They were handed arguably the easiest group, the handiest schedule, heck, even literally handed the opportunity to open the scoring from the penalty spot having been outplayed by Germany in the first-half of the semi-final.
Then Portugal 's captain and star player - his name escapes me - went off injured after sustaining a knee knock early in the final. And still France failed, their coach too cautious both in terms of tactics and player selection.
Perhaps more of us should actually welcome these occasional triumphs of the not-so-big guns in soccer. Portugal are not the national equivalent of Leicester City or Longford, but at least in soccer there's a realistic chance of a slightly lesser side making it onto the winners' podium.
In the GAA, the cream usually rises to the top, even if there's a lot of, er, other cow product to wade through before that. Whether or not you regard that as a good thing may depend on where you come from - the same teams winning most years can be construed as boring, but maybe that's still better than a lesser team winning by playing in a boring fashion.
That survival of the fittest/strongest in the GAA is due as much to the nature of the game(s) as the format of the championship(s). Soccer is much lower-scoring than hurling or Gaelic football, giving rise to a greater chance of upsets.
There's a greater likelihood in association football, compared to its Gaelic counterpart, that the better team will still lose. Yet, that also encourages teams to play negatively, cautiously, defensively, even sides that actually have quite a lot of talent in their ranks, like Portugal. We've seen Gaelic games going that way in this century and the clock can't be turned back.
The Euros will continue to have too many teams playing too little football. Uefa is unlikely to revert to a 16-team European Championship, not unless enough powerful clubs complain sufficiently loudly about the extra demands on 'their' players - and most of them, despite certain tabloid hysteria, do appear to love representing their respective countries.
Similarly, most Gaelic footballers will continue to insist on participating in an island-wide All-Ireland SFC, boosted by dreams of occasional upsets, even if there's little to no chance that any county even equivalent to Portugal's standing in the game will be able to emulate their achievement and actually win the Sam Maguire. Let's hope not anyway because, after all, Portugal is akin to Mayo, with a proud history and some terrific current footballers.
Yet, while it's understandable Portugal attracted support from foreigners, surely no neutral will back Mayo this year after the weekend antics of their particular star forward.