Football tournaments can be strange: they can be a rhapsody of exhilarating elite football, with helter-skelter games, glorious goals and memorable duels between utter alpha males, all in the context of a grand exchange between football cultures, coaches, players and fans. It is the Italians outfoxing Spain with a robust 3-5-2 formation and the Germans retaliating in the following game, with, yes, a 3-5-2. It is also the Irish rocking their way across France with “Will Griggs is on Fire” and Iceland causing a volcanic eruption with their famed “Hu-clapp”. Next season, you will probably encounter a feeble imitation at a Premier League ground.
Yet this sample of the good and glorious doesn’t reflect Euro 2016 well, a tournament that ultimately suffered the consequences of self-defeating expansionism. In general, the standard of play was very low. The group phase was a procession of two weeks of drawn-out, mostly atrocious football, wherein defending and caution prevailed. In 36 games, just 1.92 goals were scored on average per game, the lowest tally since Euro 1980.
England could not dismantle a deep-sitting Slovakia in their third group game, a drab and dour 0-0 being the result. Marek Hamsik and his teammates were cynical, barely honouring the notion of an outfield players and possibly defending beyond their own byline. They had, however, no incentive to do otherwise – a point sufficed to progress to the knockout face, because, in a European version of the 1994 World Cup in the United States, just eight teams went home after the first round.
A dour tournament awaits its finale
Briefly, the knockout phase held promise of rejuvenating football. Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo were to face off in a heavily hyped “Clash of the Galacticos” in Lens, but the game was neither dour nor drab, but just plainly poor. Both Croatia and Portugal alienated any attacking intent, consecrating vigilance. Neither team deserved to progress.
Not that Euro 2016 was all bad. In Marseille, the hosts and the world champions were engaged in the one high quality game of the tournament, a nigh classic, at least a valedictory game, a semi-final wherein Italian referee Nicola Rizzilo became an unfortunate protagonist in awarding a very contentious, home-advantage penalty.
In truth, this tournament doesn’t deserve a winner. Imagine an empty Stade de France and no probing and poking between Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann, two super athletes who have blossomed in the latter stages of the competition, displaying a shrewdness in carrying their teams forward.
Euro 2016 can be reduced to two existential questions: Will UEFA consider backtracking to a 16-team tournament again in the future, and does the European governing body really need $1 billion in TV revenue? UEFA’s Ángel María Villar’s closing speech suggests little positive.
What will a French triumph mean?
But as tournaments go, on to the final: the whole spectrum of French society once more in unison behind Les Bleus at the national stadium, a sweeping 90 minute mass of priggish flag-waving and rudimentary chanting. If France win, more existentialism arises with the pseudo-philosophical question: what will the victory mean for France as a nation?
Bleu, Blanc, Rouge (blue, white and red, the colours of the French national flag) will, for 90 minutes, prevail – but France is adrift, rudderless, without integration in a larger, albeit feeble, European context, without harmony domestically. Doomsday scenarios of transport chaos, terrorist atrocities, and the occasional rabid dog during the tournament never materialised, but, in general, the Republic is shaky.
Post-colonial France, however, is even more fragile: the hopelessness of the city permeates and multiculturalism seems a failed reality, in spite of France’s historic ties with the phenomenon, in particular in the port city, Marseille.
The noted French writer Honore de Balzac would snigger at present day France and relegate the deeply unpopular president Francois Hollande, notwithstanding his tricolor scarf, to a literary cartoon, not even worthy of a pantomime villain role. High unemployment rates, security threats and social tensions have cast a shadow over France.
In the lead up to the final, Deschamps was straightforward. “We don’t have the power to solve people’s problems but we can generate emotions so they forget their worries,” he said. So, the final should be a grand spectacle, but don’t expect it to change football or France as a society.