UEFA Euro ’16 Wrap-Up
By Tyler Neal
In case you missed it - and you probably did if you live in Oklahoma - one of the biggest soccer tournaments in the world came to its conclusion this weekend. On June 10th, the month-long 2016 European Championship began on a very strong note with France, the host of the tournament, defeating a much weaker Romania 2-1. France's 2nd goal - the winner on virtually the game's final kick - came from Dimitri Payet, a late-blooming player who had only just announced himself to English Premier League viewers in the 10 months leading up to the tournament. The 29 year-old, in only his 18th appearance for his country, unleashed a stunning shot with his non-dominant left foot that flew into the top left corner & sent France well on their way with a great start to the tournament.
You could say that Euro '16 will be remembered as an experiment. Usually in major soccer tournaments there are 2 'stages': group and knockout. The World Cup, our planet's premier competition regardless of sport, has a format of 8 groups with 4 teams each. The Euro's, up to this year at least, have had 4 groups of 4 teams each. In this format the top 2 standing teams from each group, after a round-robin format where each team plays each other team in its group, advance to the knockout stage - the 'round of 16' in the Euro's. This year UEFA - the administrative body for association soccer in Europe - decided to include 24 teams instead of what had previously been 16. This meant that instead of only 2 teams advancing from each group, there would be a few 3rd place teams advance to the round of 16.
Despite its experimental nature, Euro '16 would prove to be nothing short of dramatic, to say the least. After some slow starts to matches due to teams playing cautious and trying to avoid defeat, there were 10 (!!!) goals scored with 3 minutes or less left in regulation over the course of the whole tournament.
After a fairly disappointing knockout phase, the final pitted the French hosts up against Portugal, a team that surprised many to advance as far as they did. France were heavy favorites, especially on home soil with their fans behind them. The French fans believed that Les Bleus raising the trophy at the end of the competition would bring some much needed unity and healing to the country as a whole after the devastating terrorist attacks that happened last November in the capital. On the other side, Portugal is a team that usually has very individually talented players but always proves to be less than the sum of its parts. The most talented of these players, of course, is Cristiano Ronaldo, the most physically-gifted & arguably the best player in the world.
As the final started, France, led by Antoine Griezmann & his competition-leading 6 goals in 6 matches, dominated possession of the ball & looked the more dangerous team. Then in the 23rd minute, every Portuguese fan's worst nightmare occurred as Ronaldo was stretchered off due to an injury to his knee. Surely France will win, viewers in the stadium and around the world thought.
Portugal had not put together many great performances in this tournament. They had actually tied all 3 group stage matches and came 3rd in the group, which would've rendered them disqualified in any Euro tournament before this year. However, one thing Portugal did prove to have was a team spirit & a unity that helped them to find ways to win when things weren't necessarily going well for them. So when Ronaldo went off, it was almost as if his Portuguese teammates had been prepared for this moment. They made the game scrappy and forced France to fight for anything they got. In the end, a surprising goal against the run of play from Eder, a relatively-unknown substitute, put Portugal in the driver's seat with 11 minutes to play. They would hold on for the win and Ronaldo, the Portuguese captain, was able to come back out on the field to celebrate with his teammates and lift the trophy - Portugal's first major tournament win in its history.
In sports, the better team 'on paper' usually prevails in the end. We see this in America, especially in the NBA, on a weekly basis. However, it is very satisfying as a neutral fan to see an underdog pull of the ultimate upset to achieve something for which they will be remembered in their country and abroad for the rest of their lives.
Tyler is an Oklahoma City-ite married to Kristen, and currently working as a State Farm Insurance team member. He's a lover of all things sports, and definitely a bigger soccer fan than he has reason to be.