Thursday, July 7, 2016

French revenge could light up the Euros

French revenge could light up the Euros.
Let us be honest, the Euros have been a bit of a damp squib this time around.

Northern Europe has had a wet and cloudy June and this seems to have been reflected on the field of France 2016.

The free-flowing football of Brazil 2014 is a bit of a memory, perhaps a telling comment on the tactics-heavy European teams.

With the possible exception of Portugal's 3-3 draw with Hungary, there have been no standout games which ebbed and flowed to keep the neutrals enthralled. There have been a couple of thrashings – France racing to a 4-0 half-time lead over Iceland or Belgium thumping Hungary 4-0 for instance, and some very clinical, high-quality football – Italy in the group stage most notably, but not a lot to write home about.

The multi-team format, three times the size of the eight country Euro '92 in Sweden, has led to some teams deliberately playing for draws (Slovakia against England), fielding weakened elevens (Italy v Eire) or even happily losing 1-0 (Northern Ireland against Germany).

The knock-out stage was supposed to add some spice to the mix and has done to a small extent – Wales' surprising 3-1 dismissal of Belgium woke the continent up even more than Iceland's 2-1 win over a soporific and mesmerised England.

Then Germany and Italy provided some welcome comedy in their penalty shoot-out after an exhausting 120 minutes.

Finally France remembered their lines as host nation to the relief of most football followers and put in a bravura performance to eliminate the Viking upstarts. The lack of an on-fire host nation, in sharp contrast to their outstanding team when they hosted the World Cup in 1998, has probably hurt the tournament.

The Champs-Elysees may yet become a sea of red, white and blue on Sunday night, an echo of 1984, 1998 and 2000, but Les Bleus have only two games left in which to impress.

Euro 2000 lingers in the mind as a colourful tournament decided by a rollercoaster final, Euro 2004 had the fairytale of a minnow, Greece, cheekily stealing the crown with unashamedly entertainment-free tactics.

Euro 2008 was nourished by the exciting emergence of the Spanish tiki-taka dynasty and in 2012 La Roja's 4-0 thrashing of Italy in the final was the stuff of wonder.

On paper a 24-team field in 2016 should have provided a fertile patch for great stories and indeed the tales of Wales and Iceland will live long in the memory.

Just ask the citizens of those formerly minnow nations and they will tell you. I have an Icelandic friend who said despite many experiences, a wife and children, his country's run to the quarter-finals was the happiest time of his life.

And Welsh football has had nothing to sing about since 1958 for goodness' sake.

How disappointing therefore that the dragons lost their fire-breathing lungs last night in Lyon when they needed it most. Portugal had been there for the taking having stumbled into the semis after finishing third in their group and not winning a single game in 90 minutes.

The shallow Welsh squad was sadly exposed last night with the yellow-card absences of defensive rock Ben Davies and their midfield schemer Aaron Ramsey.

How wrong is this rule every tournament? Yet again the authorities' po-faced insistence on an imaginary ideal of fair play has deprived the big matches of some of their key actors.

Play in the league and you only miss a game after five yellows, so why after only two in tournaments? Ramsey's second caution, earned for a handball against Belgium, was a harsh call at the time whose consequences cruelly blunted his nation's big shot at glory.

The French have it in their hands to rescue Euro 2016 and make it a championship to remember. Didier Deschamps' men certainly should have the motivation to turn on the power against the Germans in Marseille tonight.

Les Bleus were knocked out the World Cup semi-finals by the Mannschaft in 1982 and '86 and most recently were knocked out by their old nemesis in Brazil 2014.

The '82 semi is the one which is referred to most readily in the press for good reason. That was one of the most emotional football matches in history.

France threw away a 3-1 lead in extra-time to lose on penalties in a match most recalled for Harald 'Toni' Schumacher's flying and unpunished kick on French striker Patrick Battiston.

The trauma was immense for the French players, who gained some comfort back however by winning Euro 1984 at home.

Yet the '82 semi-final loss remains a thorn in French football consciousness, a pain invoked every time France play Germany in knock-out football.

The Dutch felt the same trauma when they lost the 1974 World Cup final in Munich to West Germany, and only exorcised their demons in the semi-final of Euro 1988 in Hamburg.

If France want to similarly slay the ghost of Seville 1982, then tonight in Marseille is their chance.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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