Euros 2016 – my favourite tournament ever, yet one of the dullest I’ve seen.

CoymayAs I settled down to watch last night’s European Championship Final between France and Portugal in Paris, one of the thoughts I had was whether the latter would be able to wrest the title of worst team I’ve ever seen in a major international tournament Final from Argentina’s cloggers of 1990.

By the end of one hundred and twenty minutes of, largely, turgid and cautious football from the Portugese team, they were crowned Champions as they rode their luck somewhat to secure a 1-0 win thanks to a goal by Swansea reject Eder.

So, did Portugal do enough to miss out on the Mauve and Yellow Army Award for worst finalists ever? Yes they did, actually they comfortably avoided that fate as, for the first time, I found myself quite admiring them.

Start slowly and peak at Final time is the widely accepted way to approach World/continental Championships in most team sports and Portugal were able to adhere to that formula as they saved their best until last against opponents who have quite often looked a bit uncomfortable in their role as tournament hosts and many people’s favourites.

France started well and, for a while, it looked like they would win as comfortably as many of the pundits had tipped them to do, but the match turned in the twenty fifth minute when Portugal lost their best player, the man regarded by many as the best in the world today and by some as the best ever, Cristiano Ronaldo, through injury.

Far from proving to be a mortal blow to Portugese hopes, the change, which saw Ricardo Quaresma come on for Ronaldo, improved them as a team. That’s not meant as a criticism of the Real Madrid man (I’m not a great fan of his, but I did feel really sorry for him as he was stretchered off), but the truth is that France found their opponents a much harder nut to crack after that – perhaps France got a bit complacent as they saw the man they must have thought most likely to deny them making his departure, but Portugal survived more comfortably with Ronaldo off the pitch and even began to suggest they might have a goal in them during the second half.

A bit better than I was prepared to give them credit for before the Final, but still nowhere near being an outstanding team - Portugal Euro 2016 winners.

A bit better than I was prepared to give them credit for before the Final, but still nowhere near being an outstanding team – Portugal, Euro 2016 winners.

It was in extra time though that I finally felt the first hint of admiration for Portugal. This was the third time they’d had to play an extra half an hour (no other team in the competition had needed to play more than one), but they were the ones who looked the fresher and the second period saw them take charge against leaden footed opponents who seemed to have run out of ideas as to how to make a breakthrough.

Despite warming to Portugal somewhat, I still can’t make a case for them being deserving Champions though – in my view a flawed and largely boring tournament got the winners it deserved.

Euro 2016 has attracted criticism throughout with the increase in the number of finalists from sixteen to twenty four being held to be mainly responsible for what is perceived by many to be a decline in standards compared to previous European Championships.

On the face of it, more teams taking part has to mean lower ranked sides involved and so it’d hardly be surprising if the quality on offer wasn’t quite as it once was, but my own view is that it’s not the extra teams themselves that have been the problem.

After all, Hungary and the Republic of Ireland only came through the Play Offs, but were involved in some of the more memorable matches in the Finals, while the four countries most likely to be regarded as “minnows” (Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales) in the tournament could all be said to have contributed positively to things in their different ways.

No, rather than the fact there were eight extra sides involved, the problem as far as I was concerned was the itinerary UEFA came up with to accommodate them.

What we had was a repeat of the approach used by FIFA in the three World Cups held between 1986 and 1994 whereby the twenty four Finalists had to be reduced to sixteen for the start of the knock out phase of the competition.

The 86 World Cup in Mexico is one of my favourites and a goals per game rate (gpg) of 2.54 is a pretty healthy one, but the contrast between the 2.33 gpg in the group stage to get rid of eight sides and the 3.00 gpg in the knockout stage is a marked one which suggests a different attitude prevailing in the latter stages of a competition which saw five goals scored in it’s Final.

By contrast 1990 was, in terms of the quality of football played, the worst World Cup I have seen since I watched my first in 1966. The gpg rating was a mere 2,21 – the 2.27 gpg in the group stages not being great by any means, but, this time the caution became more pronounced in the knock out stages as the gpg figure fell away to a meagre 2.06.

The last competition played under the current format was in the USA in 1994 and, with an overall gpg figure of 2.71, it appears that the system was working fine after it’s problems four years earlier. However, very tellingly, Italia 90 had been considered so damaging to the image of the game worldwide that changes to the offside rule and the stipulation that goalkeepers were no longer allowed to handle back passes were introduced and, almost certainly, it was these which accounted for the dramatically increased gpg rate.

There was an increase to thirty two competing teams in 1998, so the format used for the previous three World Cups had not been repeated until this summer at the Euros and, at the risk of boring you senseless with more stats, it’s interesting to compare gpgs from the last six European competitions since the format changed from eight competing teams to sixteen in 1996.

All of the competitions from 1996 to 2012 saw the same format used whereby sixteen teams took part and four groups of four produced the eight Quarter Finalists as the top two progressed.

Interestingly, when football came home in 1996, it did so with a truly awful gpg figure of 2.06 (explained, to a large degree, by the seven knock out matches only seeing nine goals scored in them).

Maybe others will know of something which explains why so few goals were scored in that competition, but nothing springs to my mind for me, Similarly, I don’t believe there were any rule changes which could explain why the gpg should shoot up so much in 2000 when it reached a very healthy 2.74.

Given that the gpg figures for the three competitions before 2016 remained remarkably consistent at 2.48. 2.48 and 2.45 respectively, I would suggest that the 1996 figure was just  a blip, but is it possible to think the same in 2016 for a competition which saw the eventual winners qualify for the knock out stages by finishing in third position in their group having not won a game?

I ask that because the tournament just ended saw just 2.12 goals being scored per game. This cannot come as a surprise when you have a group phase where mediocrity is rewarded to the extent that you have two groups out of six where the old format of best two from four applies and the other four give all competing sides a 75% chance of progressing.

With no way of knowing which groups will see two qualifiers and which ones three, there is naturally a feeling about which says we cannot afford to lose this game as opposed to one of we have to win today. Once you get to the last group game, then everyone has a fair idea of what is expected of them and so you do get an interesting and exciting night’s entertainment then, but it’s the two games before that where the problems occur as teams circle each other warily like boxers in the opening rounds of a title fight.

I daresay UEFA will stick with the current system for 2020, but I hope some thought is given to how else twenty four can be reduced to sixteen, or eight, before then because I believe that there is a strong possibility that it will be a case of more of the same then.

My, almost certainly too radical, solution would be to do away with the last sixteen round and ditch two thirds of the teams in the group stages. This could be done by having eight groups of three where only the winners got through – to avoid sides coming home after only playing two matches, I’d have a straight knock out plate competition for the rest with FIFA World ranking points gained being rated at the same value as in the competition proper.

In years to come how will people look back on Euro 2016? According to Wikipedia, the population of the continent of Europe is 742,452,000 – how many of those will smile at the recollection of a tournament in which thirteen of the twenty four competing teams failed to average a goal per game?

I daresay there will be ten and a half million in Portugal, three hundred thousand in Iceland and let’s also say there’ll be around three million in Albania, nearly two million in Northern Ireland and I suppose there’d be about four and a half million in the Republic of Ireland who might remember Euro 2016 with affection. As for the other seven hundred and seventeen million or so others, I daresay the answer you might get would be something like “crap football with a pretty ordinary side winning it, but I liked watching the little teams play and their fans were great”.

I've never seen the like of it before - the scene on Friday as the Welsh team and staff were welcomed home two days after they'd played in a European Championship Semi Final - okay, Portugal deserved their win in the end, but I still say there was nothing at all in the game until the first goal was scored and, if we could have got it, I believe it would have been us in the Final last night.*

I’ve never seen the like of it before – the scene on Friday as the Welsh team and staff were welcomed home two days after they’d played in a European Championship Semi Final. Okay, Portugal deserved their win in the end, but I still say there was nothing at all in the game until the first goal was scored and, if we could have got it, I believe it would have been us in the Final last night.*

Anybody still with me by now who bothered totting up those populations in the paragraph above will think my maths is faulty to get to that figure for the rest of Europe, but, there is, of course, the three million from Wales to include as well!

It’s been easy in the past to look at these tournaments impartially, but with your country taking part in one, all of that flies out of window! Even if many others will look back on Euro 2016 and feel little in the way of affection for it, that’s never going to be the case for anyone from Wales.

Indeed, I must admit to feeling a bit disloyal following my criticism of the poor quality of football and lack of entertainment on offer for much of the time, but the great thing is that if other sides were as dull as ditchwater, then I don’t think we can be accused of that.

I’ll admit that, given our scoring record in qualification and in the friendly games leading up to the competition, if you’d have told me that we would have reached the Semi Finals in a tournament dominated by defences, I’d have assumed that we would have got there on the back of a few 1-0 wins and the odd penalty shoot out triumph after low scoring draws, but far from it, very far from it.

We ended up behind only France as second top scorers in the competition and only they and Belgium were able to better our gpg of 1.67. Maybe I’m biased, but, for me, the Allen/Ramsey/Bale axis was as strong as any other similar threesome in the tournament (the first two named have been selected in UEFA’s team of the tournament today), while Hal Robson-Kanu, Sam Vokes and Jonny Williams all played their part in ensuring that our attacking game was amongst the most effective in the competition.

Yes, we were still, essentially, a counter attacking team which relied greatly on organisation and defensive discipline, but the best thing about Wales in Euro 2016 was that, if sides might have thought “stop Bale and you stop Wales” once, they can’t do that any more.

That professional attention seeker and wind up merchant Piers Morgan has, apparently, been getting some mileage out of claiming that the welcome home for Wales party on Friday when, according to some reports, something like two hundred thousand people were in Cardiff to personally say thank you to the squad, was all a bit over the top.

Sorry Mr Morgan, but just having a common Welsh surname doesn’t mean that you get what’s been going on in this country over the past month. Ask the people of Iceland, they get it, they get that a mouse (in the perception of many from outside our two countries at least) has roared – the heroes who engendered such a feeling of pride, happiness and unity in their fellow countrymen and women fully deserved that welcome on Friday and much more.

*picture courtesy of




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6 Responses to Euros 2016 – my favourite tournament ever, yet one of the dullest I’ve seen.

  1. Russell says:

    Gosh , Paul you have done your homework on goal ratios.

    It’s been a tournament that delivred few golden moments , Hungary v Portugal was a truly entertaining affair, which broke with the traditional self controled no risk fair , that international sides usually serve up.

    My continued attention to the tornamant was a result of Wales continued progress that I still find hard to understand, perhaps your point regarding our midfield was indeed the catalyst of that success along with a truly remarkable team spirit.

    Never realised how many football fans that are hidden away in our land, hopefully they will rock up this season to support the City?

    I don’t want to mention that truly objectionable man that works in the media, simply for his own end and publicity, however he did grab my attention when taking on the gun lobby in the USA, he must gave wanted the sack.

    Can’t wait for the real miserable stuff to begin.

    Thanks for the comment , observations during the Euros, it’s made the closed seasom bearable, along with the wonderful, political farce played out this summer , its priceless and it still continues up until today, Boris as foreign secretary, really ,did not see that one coming,what next City as champions.

  2. Dai Woosnam says:

    Re Boris…Careful, dear Russell, Clive is watching.
    He doesn’t want politics…and he is probably wise in making that request.
    Which is why I will say nowt about Piers Morgan…for my view on that pompous – but essentially decent – gent is largely antithetical to your view and Paul’s…though clearly Piers was wrong on the Cardiff parade.

    A thought from me on our player of the tournament…not Ramsey or Bale. And certainly not Allen who – despite his phenomenal effort – passed the ball to the opposition half the time. (How he made the UEFA team of the tournament is a mystery…it must be his slight physical resemblance to Pirlo !!)

    To me, our best player was Gunter. For the last couple of minutes aginst England, apart, (when he allowed himself to be knocked over by Sturridge) , he did not put a foot wrong.
    And he played a vital part in the best Welsh goal of the tournament …the Vokes header. (Yes, extraordinary though the HRK goal was…it was also rank bad defending, seeing he had three guys on him, who all left him to the others.)
    Before closing, one other thing. Thanks for the masterful summing up, Paul.

  3. Clive Harry says:

    The Boris remark is allowed Dai because it was made in the context of a football comparison but I am watching for any attempts to smuggle political references in on the blind side!
    As for Joe Allan, I agree with you. Incredibly industrious but when he needed to be more creative without Ramsey beside him, his distribution was sadly lacking.

  4. The other Bob Wilson says:

    I enjoyed reading all of the articles earlier in the week where various hacks picked their teams of the tournament. There was barely one which didn’t have a Welshman in it and, from memory, there were six of them who featured. Hardly surprisingly, the “big three” of Allen, Ramsey and Bale were all in at least one of the selections and there was also a place for James Chester and Ashley Williams in one of them. Dai will be pleased to know that the other Welshman to make a team of the tournament was Chris Gunter and, in another nod to City, Aron Gunnarsson also made it into someone’s team – I’m not knocking either player (I agree that Gunter was very good for much of the time and I thought Gunnarsson was excellent against England in particular), but, and I need to acknowledge what’s going on in politics to emphasise the point here, we are living in incredible times!
    I mentioned in one of my earlier pieces on here that Wales could have held their own goal of the tournament competition. Besides the two goals Dai mentions, there were Bale’s two free kicks and his goal against Russia came at the end of a high quality passing movement, Robson-Kanu’s other goal included some incisive passing (and a fair bit of luck!) and Ramsey’s goal was beautifully conceived and executed – it’s got to be the one which put us in front against Belgium for me though.
    Regarding Joe Allen, I think we had three central midfielders who were too similar against Portugal and our opponents concentrated on Allen because he was the one of the trio who was most likely to find a pass which could open them up. I couldn’t understand the positive reviews he got against England much either, but, for me, he was very good in the other four matches – think he probably needs to get away from Liverpool though.
    Russell, although I thought it had so much going for it, Hungary v Portugal barely featured in the critic’s choice for Game of the tournament – the winner, by some distance, was Wales v Belgium and we were many people’s choice as team of the tournament.

  5. Dai Woosnam says:

    As ever Paul, I am loath to disagree with you, seeing as your opinions are never knee-jerk ones, but always thoughtful responses.
    However, on the HRK “wonder” goal, I cannot help myself. I know I am going against received opinion, particularly as that goal put us into the lead. But I ask you to see it in reverse.
    Imagine Ashley W, Ben D, and James Chester were all gathered around – indeed almost on TOP of – Belgium’s version of Harry Houdini. It is all very well the sporting press exclaiming the equivalent of “and with one bound he was free!”
    It just won’t wash.
    Were these three prison officers escorting a deadly serial killer, they would immediately be dismissed from the Prison Service.
    Mind you, not that HRK is worried whether someone thinks his goal inferior to the sensational third goal…as a thing of beauty, I mean.
    It turned out to be astonishingly lucrative for him, didn’t it just!?

    Before closing…will some kind reader help me and remind me of the difference between a Cruyff turn, and the wonderful turn that Adrian Alston used to perform.

    We really need the late Alan Weekes here, with his double axles, and triple axles. There was a difference, I know…albeit a subtle one.
    For my memory is not what it was, and I cannot now “see” the Alston turn in my mind’s eye, but Cruyff’s is regularly shown on TV in all its glory…so, help me please Paul and Co.

    All I do recall re that turn was a Radio Wales discussion at the time, comparing and contrasting the two turns. They noted the difference way back then. But I have lost the nitty gritty of just what it was. I seem to think it was deemed to be just a matter of angles.
    So please enlighten me.

    Mind you…it might be difficult in words…!!
    It reminds me of the chap who tried to write down on paper without using diagrams, how to do up a bow tie, and then a pair of shoelaces !!

  6. The other Bob Wilson says:

    Sorry Dai, but we are talking instinct with what Robson-Kanu did – I don’t see that you can replicate a situation like that in a training session. The defenders had a split second to react and, like virtually all of us would have done if we had been playing, they bought the dummy, there was no time for any sort of communication between them and so they all had to react to what they saw. I thought one of them (Deneya?) got himself into no man’s land a bit, which meant that he probably wouldn’t have been able to prevent the goal even if he had not fallen for Robson-Kanu’s trick, but I don’t think the Belgian defenders can be blamed too much.
    I know we’re not supposed to mention politics on here, but rugby’s okay I presume. I first started paying proper attention to rugby around the time of the famous Babas v All Blacks match in 1973 and the greatest thrill I got from the game then was to see the sort of jinking, side-stepping running that Phil Bennett produced at the start of the move for Gareth Edward’s amazing try. I always thought that there was something typical Welsh about such running (sadly it’s all bit disappeared from our game these days as we worship at the altar of Warrenball), but it wasn’t Bennett who excited me most, it was that devastating runner Gerald Davies.
    Now, I don’t think anybody used to criticise the string of defenders either left flat on their backsides or grasping thin air after Gerald had run fifty yards to score and it should be the same for the defenders foxed by Hal Robson-Kanu – these days pundits nearly always find someone to blame when a goal is scored and they are usually right to do so, but sometimes there has to be an admission that the opposition was just too good for you.
    Another reason why I go for Robson-Kanu’s goal over Vokes’ is that although the contributions of Chester and Gunter were to be applauded, they come second in my book to the pass of Bale and the cleverness of Ramsey’s run, the lovely instant control he showed and then the pass which set up the scorer.
    I seem to remember Adrian Alston saying that he was doing Cruyff turns before Cruyff did, but my feeling is that there were probably others who were as well – it was just that Cruyff did it on the biggest stage of all in front of the world’s media – I daresay someone had scored from a “Panenka” penalty before he did as well.

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