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Dublin: 21 °C Wednesday 12 August, 2020

3 winners and 3 losers from Euro 2016

How Martin O’Neill’s Ireland fared and more thoughts from the summer’s biggest footballing event.

The winners

Martin O’Neill

France v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Lyon Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

FAI CEO JOHN Delaney has confirmed that Martin O’Neill will imminently sign a new contract and lead the team into the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and most would agree it’s well deserved.

Granted, the Derry native didn’t get every decision right tactically or in terms of selection — the Ireland manager will likely have certain regrets about the second half against Sweden and the Belgium game in general.

However, it shouldn’t be underestimated how much pressure the team were under against Italy and how much O’Neill gambled — handing Shane Duffy a first competitive cap was one example of a brave call that could easily have backfired.

Ireland were one loss away for it essentially turning into a repeat of the Euro 2012 debacle, but instead, O’Neill got virtually every call including the key substitutions right, enabling a surprise win over Italy and Ireland escaping the Euros group stages for the first time ever.

They also certainly didn’t disgrace themselves either against tournament hosts and favourites France in the last-16, taking an early lead and holding onto it for a considerable period.

And while the French ultimately emerged as deserving winners, Ireland didn’t get the rub of the green on certain issues. There were one or two dubious refereeing calls that went against them, such as the corner that should have been in the lead up to the second France goal, the overwhelming favourtism to France in terms of ticket sales for the match, and the extra three days Didier Deschamps’ men had to prepare for the game.

Overall though, O’Neill has left France with a positive outlook. Although they may have arrived with the oldest squad in the tournament, the starting XI for the matches against France and Italy had a youthful look about it, with some of the younger players including Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy emerging with their reputation enhanced.

There is consequently plenty of optimism as the team prepare for their first World Cup qualifier against Serbia on 5 September.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal

Soccer Euro 2016 Portugal France Source: Martin Meissner

Many expected an excellent few weeks for Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal to end in disappointment against France, particularly after the Real Madrid superstar left the pitch injured and in tears after 25 minutes of last Sunday’s final.

Ronaldo has been a key figure for Portugal throughout his career, scoring 61 goals in 133 matches at international level.

However, up until last week, silverware with his country was one of the few honours that had eluded the Real Madrid superstar over the course of a much-decorated career.

And while he may not have been integral to the triumph, Ronaldo could still be seen urging his teammates on from the sideline last weekend.

So often accused of a level of narcissism that supposedly renders anything other than individual achievements irrelevant, in contrast with the at times almost smug reactions to Real Madrid’s triumphs, Ronaldo appeared genuinely thrilled last weekend despite for once not being centre stage in the win.

Rather than hampering Portugal, the loss of their main man — who had contributed three goals and three assists at Euro 2016 — appeared to galvanise them, with others (most notably Eder) stepping up in his absence.

And there is no doubt that, even with Ronaldo in their team, Portugal overachieved significantly. Few people would have given them much chance after they lost their opening Euros qualifier 1-0 at home against Albania — a result that led to the sacking of then-manager Paulo Bento.

In addition, none of their performances in the group stages of the tournament gave the impression that they were potential winners — Fernando Santos’ side qualified with less points than Ireland, drawing all three of their games, and wouldn’t have progressed were it not for the rules allowing third-place teams to advance owing to the tournament’s recently expanded format.

And ultimately, for all the individual brilliance of Ronaldo, organisation and pragmatism was at the heart of the team’s success, as emphasised by the fact that they conceded just once in four knockout matches.

The smaller nations

Soccer Euro 2016 Iceland Austria Source: Thibault Camus

While Euro 2016 wasn’t exactly inundated with thrilling matches or technically accomplished football, there has been no shortage of great stories over the past few weeks.

Northern Ireland not only qualifying but actually reaching the knockout stages with a team of players that the majority of supporters at the tournament would struggle to identify was one remarkable example.

It said it all that, despite a 1-0 loss to a star-studded Germany team, the best player on the pitch that day was Michael McGovern — the 32-year-old goalkeeper who is currently without a club after leaving Hamilton Academical and whose heroics were vital in ensuring the team retained a healthy goal difference and consequently advanced to the round of 16.

Few would have predicted it, when O’Neill first took charge. The team won just one of their first 19 matches with the former Shamrock Rovers manager at the helm.

Yet, by merely qualifying for the Euros, the team exceeded expectations, while they went into the tournament on the back of a similarly improbable 12-game unbeaten run.

Northern Ireland were ultimately narrowly beaten 1-0 by Wales to end their Euro 2016 dream, nevertheless their progress in the four years since O’Neill took charge has been remarkable.

They weren’t the only ones, of course — the likes of Wales and Iceland also did themselves proud with similarly incredible roads to success.

The losers

Roy Hodgson and England

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England v Iceland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Nice Source: Thanassis Stavrakis

Even by their usual anti-climactic standards, it’s hard to explain England’s dramatic implosion at Euro 2016.

Iceland, a country whose population and resources is minuscule by comparison, knocked them out in a stunning 2-1 victory.

Ultimately, Roy Hodgson seemed prone to some of his predecessors’ tendencies — most notably Sven Goran Eriksson — of accommodating stars at the expense of the team.

Wayne Rooney struggled to make the desired impact in the still quite unfamiliar midfield position. Hodgson also persisted with the out-of-form likes of Joe Hart, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane, with many fans perplexed by the lack of game time afforded to Jamie Vardy and even Marcus Rashford, who — in less than 10 minutes on the field against Iceland — looked livelier and more inventive than the rest of the attack were in the entire game.

The subsequent outcome was what some commentators described as the team’s worst humiliation since they were knocked out of the 1950 World Cup by USA.

Hodgson rightly chose to step down immediately thereafter. He had failed to inspire a much-hyped group of players with the squad adjudged to be the most expensive going into the tournament.

It was a poor result, but perhaps the situation is not as dire as many people feel. England travelled to France with the youngest squad in the competition, and their lack of experience showed, as panic set in once they went behind against Iceland.

It’s a harsh lesson for their talented young players, but as Northern Ireland, Wales and even Portugal to some degree have all shown, it is possible to go from depressing lows to incredible highs in a relatively short space of time at international level.


Soccer Euro 2016 Italy Spain Source: Francois Mori

Overall, Euro 2016 was a tournament defined by the best teams’ failure to perform.

France looked decidedly apprehensive in the final, Belgium once again laboured under the weight of expectation, Germany looked a shadow of the side that won the World Cup two years ago and were badly hampered by a lack of cutting edge in attack, while Spain were beaten by a far less talented Italy side.

Of all the top sides, however, Vicente del Bosque’s men were the biggest disappointment.

Having won the last two successive Euros, the Spanish understandably went into the tournament as many people’s tips to win it.

Yet with so many talented players (Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and David Silva to name a few) to choose from, some of whom didn’t even make the final squad, the team ultimately surrendered their title in meek fashion amid a deserved 2-0 loss to the Azzurri.

Despite glimpses of brilliance, such as Iniesta’s glorious pass to set up Pique’s late winner against the Czech Republic, the stars of the side failed to perform for the most part and even looked apathetic at times.

They are a side caught between two extremes — players who have won everything at international level and perhaps have lost some of the hunger that made them champions in the first place, along with the younger members of the team who have so far lacked the authority and the conviction to emerge from the shadows of their elder counterparts.

Moreover, the much-publicised row between the departing Del Bosque and legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas was a sign that this once-great team was now being suffocated by egotism and disregard for the greater good — their historic success four years ago suddenly seems a million miles away.

International football

Travel Stock - Nice - France Source: Brian Lawless

In some senses, Euro 2016 has been a success. The game will be healthier in many countries now owing largely to the 24-team format creating greater scope for the kind of fairytale stories epitomised by Iceland’s success.

But if there was any doubt before the tournament, there is now no question that international football is no longer the pinnacle of the game.

Champions League and domestic football are nowadays the priority for most world-class footballers — and where much of the money in the game is to be made.

While the likes of Daryl Murphy may describe the Euros as the highlight of their careers, it seems unlikely that superstars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Robert Lewandowski will lose any sleep over their underwhelming performances this summer.

It was heartening to see the passion with which the supremely talented likes of Gareth Bale and Cristaino Ronaldo greeted their countries’ respective successes and the impressive displays they produced in the process, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule.

While it would be harsh to suggest the best players don’t care anymore, winning a World Cup or a European Championship is no longer the ultimate goal as far as most of them are concerned.

As Ryan Giggs noted on his ITV punditry debut: ”When I was young I wanted to be successful, players now want to be famous.”

Furthermore, a look at the managers at the tournament gives an indication of international football’s diminished status.

How many of the coaches involved at the Euros would tempt the top clubs? Antonio Conte is the obvious anomaly, and you could possibly make a case for Joachim Low and Vicente del Bosque, but for the most part, the coaches are a mixture of the promising (Michael O’Neill), the obscure (Bernd Storck) and the ultra-experienced (Lars Lagerbäck) who perhaps no longer have the desire for the daily rigours of club management.

All this explains why the success of functional sides such as Wales and Portugal has ultimately eclipsed the exploits of more gifted teams and pre-tournament favourites, including the Germans and the Spanish.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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