Euro 2016: Best of a month in France
Euro 2016 was not one of those classic tournaments packed with memorable matches. The expanded format led to more defensive matches, but there were many fantastic achievements from smaller nations. Albania’s win over Romania and the likes of Iceland and Wales going deep were moments that will live long in the memory.
The final between France and Portugal summed up the tournament as a whole. It was a tough match to watch, but one with a surprising twist from a (relative) minnow in the end.
Here are some superlatives to wrap up the monthlong quest to the trophy in France:
Best player: Antoine Griezmann (France)
The Golden Boot winner (six goals) and the player who shone above all others for the host side, his sure touch in front of goal deserted him in the final. His late header that flew off target was not as bad a miss as his penalty in the Champions League final, but this is the second time in two months that Cristiano Ronaldo’s team has bettered his on the title stage.
Griezmann will be back, but this was not his time.
Perhaps now he will have to wait a few more years for the Ballon d’Or too…
Honorable mentions: Pepe (Portugal), Aaron Ramsey (Wales)
Best young player: Renato Sanches (Portugal)
He may not have been much of a breakout given that he has just signed for Bayern Munich for €35 million, but the 18-year-old, who earned his first start for Portugal midway through the tournament, was his team’s most outstanding and consistent player whenever he played. He scored against Poland, and then took a superb penalty in the same game. He was brilliant in his subsequent starts against Wales and France.
Portugal’s young midfield is stacked with youth, and Sanches is the pick of the crop. It’s been quite a summer for the teenager.
Honorable mentions: Samuel Umtiti (France), Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
Player who earned himself a move and a payday: Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales)
It was one of the moments of the tournament: An out-of-contract striker turned three Belgium defenders and sent them all spiraling the wrong way in the box with a Cruyff turn before putting Wales in the lead in a dramatic quarterfinal win.
Robson-Kanu had let his Reading contract run down but could not have made a better impression on interested clubs.
But buyer beware: this is a player whose last three seasons have ended with the following goal tallies in the league: three (28 games), one (29 games) and four (36 games). It will be interesting to see where he ends up.
Honorable mentions: Ragnar Sigurdsson (Iceland), Moussa Sissoko (France)
Best coach of the tournament: Fernando Santos (Portugal)
Say what you like about watching Portugal play–and it was not always easy–but Santos will not care. For starter, as he pointed out before the final, only Germany had more shots on target than Portugal this tournament (yes, that includes France). He is now unbeaten in 14 games since taking over as boss less than two years ago.
It sounds simple, but his team had a game plan and executed it to perfection.
And that was without talisman Cristiano Ronaldo in the final. Santos deserves great credit for that.
Honorable mentions: Chris Coleman (Wales), Lars Lagerback/Heimir Hallgrimsson (Iceland), Antonio Conte (Italy)
Best game: Wales 3, Belgium 1
This was a rare sight in France, two teams going for it in a knockout game. Caution was too often the byword in France, but these two sides opened on a rollicking night in Lille. Radja Nainggolan put Belgium ahead with a trademark howitzer from distance but in a breathless first half with chances galore, Ashley Williams leveled up with a header from a corner. His celebration was Wales’s Marco Tardelli moment.
Ten minutes into the second half, Robson-Kanu put Wales ahead, his goal one for the ages, and Wales sealed the win when Chris Gunter (Reading) crossed for Sam Vokes (Burnley) to head home. Two players who spent last season in the Championship combined to knock out Europe’s top-ranked side. What a moment.
Honorable mention: Hungary 3, Portugal 3
Best goal: Xherdan Shaqiri; Switzerland 1, Poland 1
Lukasz Fabianski in the Poland goal had just kept out a free kick with a sensational tip over the bar and Swiss fans must have thought this was going to be one of those days. Then the Stoke winger, whose tournament was quiet before then, latched onto Kamil Glik’s half-clearance, shaping his body for an overhead volley that flew into Fabianski’s near corner. There was nothing he could do about that.
Honorable mention: Alvaro Morata; Spain 3, Turkey 0 (completed 22-pass sequence)
Best penalty lesson to learn: Don’t taunt the GK (Graziano Pelle, Italy)
Maybe Manuel Neuer knew that Pelle had scored a Panenka in his career, but the Italy forward’s decision to pretend to tell the German goalkeeper that he was intending to kick the ball slowly down the middle of the goal–before screwing it wide–was not the smartest. Neuer did go the right way as well. Three Italian kickers ended up kicking down the middle and scoring, but Pelle’s moment was out of keeping with his excellent tournament before then.
Honorable mention: Run up to the ball properly (Simone Zaza)
Iceland's lasting impact
Hopefully it will not be the ‘Huh!’ clapping frenzy that was meaningful and emotional when the Icelanders did it to their fans, but when shamelessly copied by France, had no impact at all.
It should be the sheer joy that the players and fans shared with every achievement it notched up on this incredible journey; the reminder that football, especially the international game, is about fun, bringing communities together, and putting new places on the map. But this success is also down to smart infrastructure, investment in good coaching and indoor facilities and of course a coach (or coaches) that has a plan and gets his players to understand it.
“The players are now legends in the eyes of Iceland’s people,” coach Heimir Hallgrimsson told The Guardian. “They have given the currency of our football a huge boost and it will extend beyond sport too, as a wonderful advertisement for a country that is now on the map like never before.”
Iceland moves onto World Cup qualifying, where it is grouped with Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo in vying for a place in Russia 2018.
Most heartbreaking moment: Cristiano Ronaldo stretchered off
Some people find it hard to give sympathy to Ronaldo but for one of the finest athletes of his generation, no matter his (lack of) popularity, to miss the majority of the biggest game of his career is sad.
It deprived us of the chance to see what he could do on this stage, even if his extra-time coaching and post-match celebrations reminded us that he does actually put the team first.
Team of the tournament
Goalkeeper - Hugo Lloris (France); Defense - Joshua Kimmich (Germany), Pepe (Portugal), Leonardo Bonucci (Italy), Raphael Guerreiro (Portugal); Midfield - Aaron Ramsey (Wales), Renato Sanches (Portugal); Ivan Perisic (Croatia), Gareth Bale (Wales), Andres Iniesta (Spain); Forward - Antoine Griezmann (France)