Published on August 19th, 2016 | by Kirsten King0
UEFA Euro 2016 in review
Now that Portugal are the continental champions of Euro 2016, France can get back to its customary summer tourism and recover from the throngs of football fans who flocked to the country after hosting the UEFA European Championship for the third time since the competition’s inaugural tournament in 1960. Known as the European Nations Cup until 1968, the UEFA European Championship takes place every four years, in the even year between the World Cup. Having just completed its 15th run, Euro 2016 took place in ten cities across France with matches held in the stadiums of Bordeaux, Lens, Lille Métropole, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Paris, Saint-Denis, Saint-Étienne, and Toulouse. 53 teams vied for 23 coveted places in the tournament, with France automatically qualifying as hosts. To date, this year’s competition was the first to include 24 teams—it was previously expanded from 4 to 8 teams in 1980 and to 16 in 1996.
Designs for a major European competition were initially proposed in 1927 by Henri Delaunay, general secretary for the FFF as well as UEFA—its first. However, the idea for a European championship contested by senior men’s national teams was still in a nascent state by the time of Delaunay’s death in 1955 when his son, Pierre Delaunay, took up the pursuit; the tournament was fully realized five years later. Pierre is credited for developing its original trophy, named the Henri Delaunay Cup “in recognition of his outstanding services in the cause of European football.” The iconic prize is central to Euro 2016’s logo which incorporates the colors of the French flag and is taken from this year’s theme, “Celebrating the Art of Football,” a concept that “aims to bring together the creativity that defines French culture with the beauty of the game.” The 2016 tournament slogan, “Le Rendez-Vous,” emphasizes the event as “a succession of activities not to be missed”— most were well worth seeing.
The official match ball for the group stage — “Beau Jeu”—was unveiled by former French captain, Zinedine Zidane, late last year via Zizou’s Instagram page. Used exclusively for knockout rounds, a second official ball—the Adidas Fracas—was also introduced in this year’s competition. French DJ and producer, David Guetta, was commissioned for the official Euro 2016 opening song, “This One’s for You”—a recording for which he sought the voices of one million fans from around the globe. Guetta, who said he had become disenchanted with football as a younger man because “it was racist and violent, when the sport has nothing to do with this,” hoped the song’s message would “bring people together”—but it seems that such a sporting event may never be free from hooliganism.
Stadiums across the country had been envisioned as “ideal stages on which to experience the most beautiful sporting emotions,” but Euro 2016 saw a fair share of drama and theatrics both on and off the field. Fighting broke out twice in Marseille when English and Russian fans clashed with one another, local youths, and police. Similar eruptions occurred on a number of other occasions between various groups leading to arrests, hospitalizations, hefty fines, and deportations. In Saint-Étienne, during the game between the Czech Republic and Croatia, instigators in the stands threw flares onto the pitch as well as a firecracker, striking a steward and bringing the match to a halt. Croatian coach, Ante Čačić, was so incensed by the episode and subsequent draw that he issued a public statement making the distinction, “These are not Croatian fans; they are terrorists.”
At times, the athletes themselves were expected to crack under the pressure of the competition, not only as yellow and red cards were handed out when meeting their opponents or in squabbles over pitch quality, but as tensions mounted between members of their own squads. Early on in the tournament, Xherdan Shaqiri ruffled feathers when the Kosovo-born Swiss player stated that he might change allegiance and declare for his nation of birth if given the opportunity to play as its team captain. Although it was predicted Shaqiri’s untimely announcement might shake the confidence of his Swiss teammates prior to a crucial match against Romania, Switzerland went on to reach the Round of 16. Once the tournament’s knockout phase had got underway, Switzerland was still holding on after Shaqiri’s impressive scissor-kick equalizer late in the game, but ultimately lost a place in the quarterfinals to Poland when it came down to penalties.
These bouts of violence and agitation were, however, inevitably interspersed with lighthearted aspects of the competition and humorous moments, sometimes at the expense of players. After missing a late penalty kick against Austria, stress got the better of star-player, Cristiano Ronaldo. When asked whether he was ready to face Hungary—a win Portgual needed to advance—a frustrated Ronaldo snatched the microphone from an inquiring reporter and hurled it into a nearby lake, much to the amusement of the media. Individual fashion choices and kit malfunctions drew comments from sports announcers and supporters worldwide. An unprecedented number of torn jerseys became a joke for Switzerland when the tally reached as many as four during a 0-0 draw with France. Breel Embolo, Granit Xhaka, Admir Mehmedi, and Blerim Džemaili all had their Puma-manufactured shirts ripped during the game. Hungarian goalkeeper Gábor Király’s uniform was another source of levity during the tournament. His insistence on wearing baggy, gray sweatpants—for reasons of personal comfort and superstition—provoked a world craze, eliciting comical remarks from all four corners of the earth and even inspiring a “wear grey jogging bottoms to work day” across Hungary in support of the veteran footballer. Király, 40, who set a record as the oldest player to appear at a European Championship, explained, “I’m not a top model, my job is defending, it’s both a physical and psychological thing.”
Of course, true enthusiasm for the sport itself remains most memorable, elation (or disappointment) over victories being what stays with us all in the end. A match “worthy of a final,” the much-anticipated game between Italy and Germany produced a lot of excitement from supporters of both countries as well as neutral observers. Following an intense 1-1 draw and two 15-minute periods of extra time, the world watched an agonizing nine rounds of penalty kicks until Germany’s Jonas Hector nailed the necessary goal, leaving the Germans with a final score of 6-5 over Italy. German goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, afterwards described the penalty shootout as “a war for my nerves.” It was the first game in which the two nations played a tie to the absolute limit of the clock and the first time Germany has ever defeated Italy over the course of nine major finals meetings; Germany was eliminated 2-0 in the semifinal against France—a lackluster performance in comparison.
Euro 2016 witnessed many other firsts and offered a hope beyond belief for the underdogs this time around—notably for Iceland and Wales. With a population of 330,000, Iceland is currently the smallest country ever to qualify for a major tournament, but what its modest body of inhabitants may lack in numbers was surpassed by its show of heart. More than 8% of Icelanders followed their team to France, and 99.8% were watching from their TVs back home when Iceland won 2-1 over England. Noted again and again as a Cinderella story, Iceland’s steady, unexpected advancement took them all the way to the quarterfinals. Only France proved a force to be reckoned with, scoring an astonishing 5-2 over Iceland and concluding the little nation’s extraordinary journey; France are the first team ever to score four goals within the first half of a Euro finals match, two of which were made inside the first twenty minutes. On their return, the Icelandic team received a hero’s welcome in Reykjavík, greeted with the Viking clap that had become so popular during the competition.
Wales enjoyed their own fairytale this year, the country’s participation in Euro 2016 breaking their 58-year absence from a major tournament. After an outstanding performance, their glory came to an end when defeated 2-0 by Portugal in their semifinal match. Wales, too, experienced a warm homecoming and gained more international attention than any publicity its government says it could fund.
Portugal took the rest of the world by surprise in the Euro 2016 final, when the unlikely team scored 1-0 over France during extra time—and even more inconceivable, they did it without Cristiano Ronaldo, who left the game in its 25th minute due to a knee injury. Things were close enough when French goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, prevented Portugal from scoring on a free-kick awarded for a handball that had actually hit the arm of Portuguese forward, Éder Lopes. But then, in the 109th minute, the same player made the definitive goal, seemingly from out of nowhere. In taking home the Henri Delaunay Cup this year, Portugal has won its first major championship and moves on to the FIFA Confederations Cup. This year’s tournament turned out to be one for dark horses, the host nation stunned at such an improbable outcome. But while France’s manager, Didier Deschamps, has conceded Portugal’s triumph as a “huge” disappointment, one that “will take time to digest,” Les Bleus maintain an undeniable place among international football’s elite. All in all, Euro 2016 stirred up enough football fever to tide us over until the next World Cup.
This article was translated in French by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.