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Huge lift for Irish football and more Euro 2016 lessons

Plus, why there is a lack of top-quality teams at international level.

Republic of Ireland's Robbie Brady (centre) celebrates after the final whistle of their Euro 2016, Group E match against Italy at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille.
Republic of Ireland's Robbie Brady (centre) celebrates after the final whistle of their Euro 2016, Group E match against Italy at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

1. Encouraging signs for Irish football

COMPARED TO THE doom and gloom of four years ago, there are plenty of positives to take out of the past few weeks from an Irish perspective.

The fans, of course, have behaved impeccably, even receiving a medal as a result.

Yet just as significantly, and unlike four years ago, the team have genuinely given Irish football followers something to cheer about.

The 1-0 Italy win will live long in the memory, while the first 45 minutes against Sweden were similarly impressive and to lead one of the tournament favourites and hosts France for a significant proportion of a game is nothing to be sniffed at either.

Consequently, in contrast with the bleak outlook surrounding Irish football in the aftermath of Euro 2012, there is much more of a feel-good factor palpable this time around.

Despite possessing a somewhat limited group of players, the Boys in Green played with plenty of determination and skill to earn the respect of fans watching abroad and back home.

More encouragingly still, arguably Ireland’s two best players at the tournament — Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady — are both aged only 24, suggesting there is plenty of scope for optimism in the future, as the team begin preparations for their first World Cup qualifier against Serbia on 5 September

2. Antoine Griezmann is a star

If there has been one genuine star to emerge from this summer’s action, it has surely been player of the tournament Antoine Griezmann.

The France striker scored six goals, in the process becoming the first player to score more than five at the Euros since his fellow countryman, the legendary Michel Platini, managed nine back in 1984.

Griezmann is a natural talent, with goalscoring instincts, matched with pace and ability to beat a player as well as a voracious work rate.

Yet despite these attributes, the 25-year-old striker has still had to prove himself to some degree over the past few weeks. He was dropped by Didier Deschamps after the first match and was played in different positions initially, before coming on to score the decisive last-minute goal against Albania and gaining momentum from there.

Like the rest of the French team, the Atletico Madrid star had a quiet final, but he has regardless been a revelation over the past few weeks.

3. Lack of top-quality teams at international level

England v Iceland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Nice Source: Ariel Schalit

Let’s be honest, as good as this tournament has been for providing great stories such as Iceland’s meteoric international football rise, the quality of football on display has been underwhelming more often than not.

Most of the favourites — Germany, Spain and Belgium — underperformed to varying degrees, while even many supposed dark horses such as England and Austria failed to ever really show up.

Portugal, ultimately, were the surprise winners, and it was for their organisation and defensive prowess more so than their attacking flair and magical moments that they will be remembered.

The fact that they beat just one team — Wales — inside 90 minutes over the course of the entire tournament is a sign of the conservative brand of football they refused to stray from after scraping through the group stages amid a dramatic 3-3 draw with Hungary.

While Ronaldo may have inspired sporadic moments of brilliance, their defence were even more crucial to their success — the fact that they conceded just once (against Robert Lewandowski and Poland) in 450 minutes of knockout football starkly indicates where their main strengths lie.

4. Where are all the strikers?

One of the big themes of the tournament was the lack of top-class out-and-out goalscorers in France.

Antoine Griezmann was the exception to the rule in an otherwise unspectacular few weeks for Europe’s most high-profile hitmen.

A cutting edge for top-tier nations such as Germany, Italy and Spain was clearly lacking at times, while even many talented stars expected to have a big say in proceedings — Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane among others — disappointed ultimately.

Whether this problem is terminal remains to be seen, but it is indicative of a wider trend that has been developing for years now, with many of the world’s best strikers (Luis Suarez, Neymar and Sergio Aguero) now coming from areas other than Europe.

5. Football boosts demoralised France

There is no question that football has provided France with a much-needed morale boost over the past few weeks.

While it would be ridiculous and over the top to suggest that the tournament has provided the French people with a sense of redemption following the harrowing terrorist attacks near the Stade de France on 13 November last year, it has at least served as a distraction and gone some way towards lightening the mood in a country still reeling over the shock of what transpired on that infamous day in Paris.

Even the Irish fans have played a small part in this good news story. As a local bar owner noted of the supporters last month in L’Equipe: “Paris has been morose since the attacks. It does us good to see such happy people.”

Euro 2016 may not have ended as they desired but the French people at least got to witness some of the best aspects of the human spirit over the past few weeks, and for that alone, they will surely be grateful.

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Paul Fennessy

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