Sweden and Ukraine joined Republic of Ireland and Hungary as the last four teams to qualify for Euro 2016, but the spotlight Tuesday focused on the host nation for next summer’s tournament. France played England at Wembley Stadium Tuesday, in an occasion that was memorable for the solidarity shown between the two sides.
On the same night, the fixture between Germany and the Netherlands was canceled, with the crowd evacuated from the HDI Arena in Hannover less than two hours before kick-off.
Here are the talking points from an international round of matches that, sadly, will never be forgotten:
English soccer pays respect to French tragedy
England’s friendly match against France was not about soccer at all. It was about the reasons we love soccer: community, heroes, moments, support, and memories. Whatever your views on whether France should have played four days after the Paris terror attacks stunned the world, there was barely a dry eye in the house for La Marseilleaise, France’s national anthem that was sung in solidarity by the England fans and players as well.
This was a moment for football fans to come together. The iconic Wembley arch was lit up red, white and blue, while the words "Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite" was projected on the outside of the stadium.
The result was not important, although the record-books will show that England won 2-0, with Dele Alli and Wayne Rooney the scorers. But this was not France at its best.
In the presence of Prince William and Prime Minister David Cameron, the point of the evening was for England to show its support for its grieving neighbor.
“There's not a people on earth who sing better than the British on painful nights. They have sense of homage and solemnity,” wrote L’Equipe newspaper before the game. It was proved right.
Beyond Tuesday, the debate continues in France as to whether it should go ahead and host Euro 2016. UEFA quickly insisted it would not change host and head Euro 2016 organizing committee, Jacques Lambert, said that rescheduling the tournament “would give reason to those who want to destabilize our country”. Last week, Lambert oversaw an evacuation procedure with 800 fans at the Lens stadium; the week before, he did the same at Bordeaux’s stadium. “This is confirmation that terrorism is a major risk which we are dealing with.”
Should the show always go on? Not necessarily. It was safety first in Belgium, where its proposed friendly against Spain was postponed. The same happened in Germany, whose players spent Friday night in the Stade de France for their own safety, after a suspicious suitcase was spotted in the stadium. In this new world order, security is paramount. The fans remain united.
Ibrahimovic gets another Euro chance
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s agent Mino Raiola, a man not known for under-statement, once claimed the Swede was “Platini, Van Basten and Pirlo rolled into one”.
It may sound like a laughable claim, but Ibrahimovic scored both Sweden goals in Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with Denmark in Copenhagen–the second a stunning free kick–to secure his team a spot in France next summer.
Defeat for Sweden would have brought the curtain down on his international career: he is now 34, rumored to be moving to MLS next summer and has said he wants to play at the Rio Olympics.
Ibrahimovic said before the first leg that he had helped put Sweden on the map–much to the amusement of Martin Dahlin, who played in the 1994 World Cup when Sweden finished third–and his performances at Paris Saint-Germain have won over French pundits.
“He will go down as one of the major players in the history of football,” said former player and manager Jean-Michel Larqué. “Beyond his spectacular goals and qualities as a footballer, is his superiority over his teammates and opponents. He dominates the game in all areas, like a 400-meter runner who wins every race, like a pole-vaulter who always clears his target. And he manages all this with an impression of ease, relaxation. You never see him grimacing, never looks like he’s breaking with the effort.”
Euro 2016 will be richer for having Ibrahimovic involved.
Playoffs yield surprise heroes
While Ibrahimovic led his nation, some under-the-radar heroes emerged in the qualifying playoffs, too.
There was some bafflement when Hungary technical director-turned-coach Bernd Storck submitted his starting XI for the playoff against Norway. Storck had given 21-year-old maverick Laszlo Kleinheisler his debut. Kleinheisler, currently in the Videoton reserve side because of a contract dispute, gave Norway goalkeeper Orjan Nyland no room for negotiation with a smart shot on the turn in the first leg in Oslo that caught the keeper unaware.
The goal changed the tie: in Budapest, Norway had to play on the front foot, and it was inevitable that it would be caught on the break. Tamas Priskin opened the scoring and killed off the playoff, his first goal in over a year, as another Storck selection paid off. Hungary was in shock after last week’s death of Marton Fulop, the former national team goalkeeper, at the age of 32. The victory over Norway has guaranteed Storck will keep the job and Hungary is back in a tournament for the first time since 1986.
Elsewhere, Jonathan Walters may be an unlikely torchbearer for Irish football–he qualifies via his mother Helen, who died when he was 11–but he summed up the team’s never-say-die attitude against a petulant Bosnia-Herzegovina team. Walters scored twice in Dublin to ensure Ireland’s place in France, as Ireland reached its second tournament since 2002.
That was when Roy Keane walked out of the camp in Japan before the competition began: now Keane is assistant coach and his influence was hailed as crucial by coach Martin O’Neill.
Is it too easy for England players to win call-ups?
The big debate in England this week focused on Roy Hodgson calling up Jesse Lingard to the squad for the France friendly after the withdrawals through injury of Michael Carrick and Jamie Vardy. Lingard has been an Under-21 regular and there are currently 37 English players out injured (16 of whom are in contention for a place in the squad next summer), so it’s fair to say that the Manchester United winger may not be set for a regular run in the side.
Lingard has made two starts in the Premier League, and joins the likes of Dele Alli (8), Eric Dier (36), Jack Butland (17), and Harry Kane (47, but he made his England debut after 18 starts) in the squad.
Hodgson has insisted that it’s only the injuries that have opened the door to other players, and not that it’s now just easy to play for your country.
“People like Dele come in because an opportunity has opened up for them with others moved aside,” he told the press this week. “I don't think it's a situation where the moment you kick the ball correctly from A to B you'll get in the England team. It's not like that at all.” But when Alli takes that opportunity and plays as he did against France, it’s hard to complain about it at all.
Former England players Jamie Carragher and Sol Campbell disagreed with Hodgson. Both had to play for three seasons in the Premier League before their international breakthrough, and that was at a time when there more English players in the top flight. Latest figures show that under 35% of Premier League players qualify for England. The players overlooked in this squad, then–like Jason Puncheon (96 starts), Marc Albrighton (69) and Mark Noble (233)–can definitely book their summer holidays now. As for why so many English players are injured… that’s another story entirely.
Top three players of the week
Lassana Diarra (France)
The French midfielder epitomized the spirit of his country this week with an eloquent and dignified response to the attackers that killed his cousin, Asta Diakite. He came on in the second half at Wembley–as did Antoine Griezmann, whose sister was at the Bataclan concert hall–and that in itself was a success.
Jon Walters (Ireland)
The 32-year-old Stoke forward was missing for Ireland’s 1-1 first-leg draw in the fog but made his return in Dublin Monday night in style, with two goals against his former teammate Asmir Begovic. The first was a penalty that Begovic seemed to guess would go down the middle (it didn't), the second a sharp volley that squeezed in at the near post. Walters was emotional at the final whistle, but still found time to console Begovic before he’d left the pitch.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)
Two years ago, Ibrahimovic came off second best in a grueling World Cuo playoff against Portugal, when a Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick saw off Sweden. This time there was no Ronaldo to stop the Swedish captain (Nicklas Bendtner may think he’s that good), who scored three goals across the two games to get Sweden to Euro 2016.
Top three goals of the week
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden vs. Denmark)
A curling free kick that, when viewed from behind the kicker, was aimed outside the post and swerved back in. A brilliant goal from a player who will get the tournament send-off he wanted and deserves.
Dele Alli (England vs. France)
The Spurs midfielder did not take too long to settle into international football as he capped his first start for England with a stunning 25-yard goal that flew past his club teammate Hugo Lloris.
Mario Gaspar (Spain vs. England)
Only in Spain could a right back score with this type of volley that combines technique, vision and timing so wonderfully. Mario, who plays for Villarreal, has now scored on his two international appearances.