There are few things more exciting to a soccer fan than a major international tournament. Those halcyon days of watching three group stage games back-to-back. The opportunity to see the world’s greatest players in a slightly different context. The partisan joy of entire nations willing their teams to succeed. Joy. Heartbreak. Passion.
But it’s finally over: the proverbial fat lady has sung and Cristiano Ronaldo now has a European Championships trophy among his numerous accolades. Fifty-one games all went by in a bit of a flash, didn’t they?
Euro 2016 certainly gave us some standout moments and notable narratives. The expanded 24-team format offered us several inexperienced teams who managed to keep their heads above water: the minnows of Albania won a group game, Northern Ireland managed to progress to the knockout stages and Iceland became everyone’s favorite second team with their crusade to the quarter-finals, beating a typically feckless England team along the way.
And, of course, there was Wales, who not only topped the group in their first tournament outing since 1958, but who sent Belgium packing and made it all the way to the final four.
We may remember those underdogs storylines just as much as some fantastic goals. Marek Hamsik’s winner against Russia will surely bolster his transfer value…
Xherdan Shaqiri’s acrobatic effort against Poland was an absolute worldie…
But the best goal of the tournament was surely Hal Robson-Kanu’s game-changer against Belgium. The man who had been released from Championship side Reading the previous day managed to send three Belgium defenders to the shops with an incredible Cruyff turn that the late Dutch master would have been proud of…
Yes, Euro 2016 provided several great moments, but when you look at it objectively, it was not a great tournament. In decades to come, we will not fondly browse the highlight reels of this one.
The main issue is that teams didn’t come to win—they came not to lose.
The expanded 24-team format meant that two-thirds of the third-placed teams went through to the knockout rounds. While this meant more potential for success for more teams, it also created a defensive mentality. If you don’t actually need a win to progress through to the knockout rounds, then why “go for it” with attacking flair and risk being caught on the counter?
Portugal are the embodiment of this issue: they qualified from their group with three draws and managed to win the whole tournament with only one victory in normal time. It was a dour and depressing route to success.
The smaller teams, with less skill and ambition on their sides, preferred to stifle bigger opponents by putting 10 men behind the ball at all times. Look at the way Northern Ireland barely retreated from their own half in their opening match, or how each of England’s group stage opponents set up against them.
This negativity meant two things: boring games and few goals. Germany’s clash with Poland was about as interesting as a dentist’s waiting room, Wales’ British battle with Northern Ireland contained very little football and Portugal’s knockout tie against Croatia was one of the most soul-crushingly dull exhibits of sport ever documented.
The group stages brought us 69 goals over 36 games. The last World Cup took only 22 games to reach that amount of goals. It was also the lowest average for the groups (1.92 per match) since 1992.
Furthermore, there were 108 goals over 51 total games, which works out as 2.12 per match. The average hasn’t been that low since Euro ’96.
— Seng Foo (@sengfoo88) July 11, 2016
These numbers do not make pretty reading—and they won’t encourage fond memories. And neither will the fact that several big players failed to turn up: major league goalscorers like Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Harry Kane were disappointing, while champion Cristiano Ronaldo only enjoyed sporadic moments of brilliance.
It was also a disappointment that a few of the “dark horses” didn’t live up to their billing. Austria were the hipsters choice, but they couldn’t even make it out of the group stage in a tournament where you are statistically more likely to go through. And Belgium once again showed that they are not as great as the sum of their parts.
When we look back at Euro 2016 in several years, we are going to struggle to think about the details of the tournament. It will probably be stored in your memory bank as “the one where Iceland and Wales did quite well.” That’s not exactly a thrilling summary.
In many ways, the Final was a perfect microcosm of the tournament. There was no urgency, no attacking prowess, no goals in normal time and no real reason to keep your eyes open. The big players were disappointing and the man of the match was a Frenchman who helped relegate Newcastle last season.
If the game had also featured some fighting Russian fans and Jogi Loew sticking his hands down his pants, it would have encompassed every relevant storyline from the four-week festival of football.
Euro 2016: you are gone… and already a little bit forgotten.
On The Ball is Ryan Bailey’s weekly column on KICK. See the archive here.