Monday, 11 July 2016

A fitting finale

So that’s that then. After fifty-one games, it turns out that Portugal are the best team in Europe. Who would have predicted that? Particularly after they lost their first qualifying game to Albania. Literally no-one fancied Portugal even with their superstar striker. But this is obviously the year when strange things happen in football. No doubt the Portuguese version of Gary Lineker is preparing to present their football highlights programme in his underpants.
I started supporting the Portuguese after Ronaldo’s injury. Up to that point, I’d wanted France to win because they were the better team and it was in France and also, I thought it would be funny to see Cristiano Ronaldo crying. But when he got injured and taken off after fifteen minutes and actually cried, I felt terrible. I felt like I’d in some way contributed to this man’s lifetime dream being shattered in front of the eyes of the world. I hadn’t of course. Dimitri Payet had done that with what could be classed as a firm tackle.
At that moment, I switched sides. I wasn’t actively cheering them on you understand. I was just less against them winning. I find it weird that I can dislike a team for playing exactly the same way as the Italians even though I really like the Italians. I think it’s got a lot to do with the play acting which Portugal seem to excel at. Particularly Pepe. But there’s been very little of that at this tournament and as the game wore on, I slowly started to warm to them. They’d lost their one world class player but they kept plugging away and they had the odd chance as well.
It was also because France did not go for the jugular. The French have an exciting array of talent at their disposal but they were a bit conservative. Any team that brings on Gignac before Martial is a bit too pragmatic for my liking. I’d like to have seen a bit more derring do. Sissokho had a good turn and shot in the first half, Grieszman should have scored  a header in the second half and France almost won it in injury time when Gignac left Pepe on his arse and mishit a shot that hit the post. And that was it.
During extra time, nothing much happened and we all thought that this rather tame affair would end in penalties. And then out of nowhere, Eder turned Laurent Koscielny and thumped the ball into the bottom corner from twenty yards. A dull game won by an excellent goal.
Ronaldo might be a selfish individualist but there was no disguising his desperation for the final whistle to go and his joy when it did. Although he didn’t play much of a part in the final, he still got three goals in the tournament. He deserves this moment as much as any of the others. I’m sure that in that moment, it crossed his mind that Lionel Messi has never won a senior title with Argentina.
As for France, they’ll go away and lick their wounds. It wasn’t the healing victory that they would’ve hoped for but the tournament passed off without any major incidents and I think if you’d offered them that at the beginning, they’d have taken it.
Highpoints - Wales victory over Belgium was brilliant. In fact the whole Wales adventure was great. Closely followed by Irelands late winner against Italy. Such a beautiful moment. I also enjoyed Hungary striker Adam Szalai ending his forty-four game barren spell by scoring the winner against Austria in front of his own fans and most of Iceland’s unexpected run to the quarter finals.
Lowpoints - The one bit of Iceland’s run I didn’t enjoy was of course England’s defeat to them in the last sixteen. England have been bad at tournaments in the past but this was a new low. One of the worst performances I’ve ever seen. It won’t make me stop supporting England completely but at the World Cup, I think I’ll hold back on fully committing until I see something worth fully committing to. I’ve been let down once too often. Also, the crowd violence in Marseille. England fans are a lot better behaved than they ever used to be but we still have a minority that makes most of us embarrassed. But the Russians have taken it to another level completely and that needs seriously looking at. I really can’t imagine why anyone would want to go to the World Cup there in two years time.
As for the tournament as a whole, it never really got going and there wasn’t a single great game although Wales v Belgium was compelling viewing. I’m not sure international football is all that good anymore although I imagine Welsh fans might disagree. I just don’t think it’s as exciting as the later stages of the Champions League although that has its own issues. There are too many negative tactics and it might be worth it for UEFA to look at ways of incentivising teams to make them go for it a bit more. I also think that missing a semi-final for two yellow cards in five games is a bit harsh.
That’s also it for this blog. Thanks for reading it. The Premier League season starts in thirty-three days.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Almost Done

So the hosts are in the final and this is a good thing. Vive La France. The streets of Paris were a happy place to be last night and this has not always been the case in the last year. France are not the finished article but they’ve got some very good players and the tournaments outstanding striker so they just about deserve it. Germany may feel a bit aggrieved about the way things went last night seeing as they had most of the possession. But they created very few chances and it’s possible they wouldn’t have scored even if they were still playing.
It did occur to me that if things had worked out differently, England could’ve been playing Germany last night. In which case, I’d have been writing this blog in total misery having watched us once again lose on penalties to a team we’d pushed all the way. Sadly, England are not even good enough to get to that point nowadays.
If I’m honest, I’ve sort of had enough of the Euros. I start to feel this way quite often with major tournaments but I had high hopes for this one. I liked the twenty-four team format and the fact that it gave the lesser teams a chance of progressing to the knock-out stages. But last nights game was representative of the tournament as a whole. For the first fifteen minutes, it looked like it was going to be a great game but it never really took off.
Maybe it’s familiarity. I’ve seen a lot of big international tournaments and they always seem to tail off if your team is not involved. And my team is hardly ever involved. It’s also the fact that very little is particularly exotic anymore. I remember a time when I might have recognised a couple of players from Croatia or Portugal for example but now, I’ve seen quite a lot of them play in the Premier League or Champions League. Or perhaps it’s the abject failure of the England team. Of course we should expect exactly what happened to have happened but even still, it came as a shock didn’t it? How could we be SO shit?
I guess that’s why Iceland have been so refreshing. Aside from two of the players, I’d never heard of any of them. Maybe we need more new countries to qualify. Malta perhaps. Or Belarus. I don’t really care who. I just want some pictures of ten thousand people in a town square in a country I’ve never been to celebrating after an improbable win over a better team.
Whatever, I’ll be glad when it’s over. I’ll watch the final of course. I’ve seen most of the games and I need completion. It would be like spending forty hours on a two thousand piece jigsaw and then not putting the final piece in. I hope France stuff Portugal but then aside from people who are actually Portuguese, so do most people.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Goodbye to Wales

The dream is finally over. Wales couldn’t repeat their glorious victory over Belgium and went out at the semi-final stage to possibly the worst team, bar Greece to ever reach a European Championships final. But as their players and fans have all been saying since last night, they should hold their heads up very high.
Certain parts of the British Isles have not had a lot to smile about in the last few weeks. Politics doesn’t seem to be working, the England football team is even worse than it has been in the past and the weather has been shit. But the performance of first Northern Ireland and then Wales has made everyone and I include most open minded English people in this a little bit better about ourselves. Perhaps these Islands can produce happiness and sporting excellence after all.
In hindsight, although Wales are not a two man team, they are massively reliant on those two men. Gareth Bale was obviously still one of the best two players on the pitch although it’s possible he was trying just a bit too hard last night. But in full flow, he’s still a sight to behold and there’s really nothing he can’t do with a football. When most players get the ball forty yards out, my first thought is not ‘go on, have a shot’. But with him, you think ‘why not?’. As for Aaron Ramsey, losing him was a huge blow for Wales. He was the glue that held everything together. It’s hard to believe that the guy I’ve watched labouring in Arsenal’s midfield for the last few seasons is the same person who has appeared to be one of the best players in Europe these last three weeks.
As for the rest of the team and the squad, it’s only when they were bringing on the substitutes that I stated to realise the magnitude of the achievement. Simon Church (“who’s that?” said me. “He plays for Milton Keynes Dons” said my son), Johnny Williams (“who does he play for?” said me. “No idea” said my son). It’s phenomenal what they’ve done.
Chris Coleman should get so much credit. He’s taken a team that often pulled in three or four thousand for international matches and transformed them into a team that will be greeted by hundreds of thousands of fans when they land in Wales sometime on Friday morning.
As for Portugal, they are so unadventurous and lacking in style that I can barely watch them. And I fervently hope that France or Germany beat them in the final. But it’s always worth tuning in to see Ronaldo. And that header was a thing of beauty. Whatever you may think of this preening, selfish narcissist, there is no doubt that when he puts his mind to it, he’s a great athlete. If Wales were going to lose, at least they lost to greatness.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Thanks for (most of) the memories

So Iceland are out and thanks for the memories (except for the Round of 16 game. I’m still trying to forget that one). The smallest country ever to appear at the Euros are on their way home. Their fans have been a delight and their team played with heart and desire.
But this looked like a game too far. France methodically picked them off and at half time, you feared that their great adventure may well end in humiliation. Iceland finally began to look like a team that hadn’t made a single change to their starting line up. But they pulled themselves together, put up a spirited performance and scored a couple of consolation goals.
In truth though, the contest was over after twenty minutes. My main feelings were elsewhere. I know I wasn’t the only one who sat there watching it thinking “how could England lose to these?” Iceland would, I think, struggle to stay in the Premier League. I think most teams, with even a semblance of defensive nous would learn how to deal with their fairly basic tactics. But England are of course not a team with any defensive nous. And that’s the least of their problems.
Dietmar Hamman was interviewed in one of the newspapers and was talking about how English football is a mess. There were a lot of good points that came out of what he said but one of the main things he mentioned was that English footballers are not educated to the same level as their foreign counterparts. This is not to say that they’re thick although there’s no doubt that some of them might not be college material.
It’s more that they’re not curious about the world. Most English footballers cannot wait to leave school and start playing. One imagines school for them has been one long period spent waiting for break time so they can kick a ball around. To a certain extent this is understandable. One would need that obsession to make it in professional football. And the clubs don’t help. They get these kids as ten year olds, put them into academies and their schooling takes a back seat. I’m not saying that you need to be Steven Hawking to play professional football (write your own jokes if you need to) but a little interest in other things can’t hurt. One only has to see Spanish or German footballers interviewed often in a second or third language to realise how bright they are.
I wrote yesterday that the hotel had to remove the chandeliers for fear that they might get smashed by the players. This tells me that although they might be grown men with expensive cars and watches and facial hair, they’re basically still children. Which is OK in the Premier League because they’re surrounded by adult foreigners. But not so good at international level when the pressure gets too much, they look around and all they can see are other children. No wonder we fail miserably every time.
And then there’s the money. As well as having the best paid manager, the England squad would almost certainly be the best paid at these championships. And the more they’re paid, the worse England seem to be getting. This can’t be a coincidence. Paying a seventeen year old twenty grand a week cannot be good for his mental wellbeing or his desire to progress. If I was making twenty grand a week, I’d be tempted to sit back just a little bit.
Anyway, that’s enough about England. I don’t really want to think about them anymore. I think they should be shunned for a while. Like lepers. Let’s all get behind the Welsh to beat Portugal and make Ronaldo cry.


Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Zaza Shuffle

I didn’t watch the whole Germany v Italy game and according to my less than complimentary Twitter timeline, it sounds like I dodged a bullet. Heavyweight clashes can often be a bit like this. Teams are too well set up and know too much about their opponents and they cancel each other out. Commentators will compare what we’re watching to a game of chess and I often think to myself that I wouldn’t spend two hours watching a game of chess.
I watched the highlights when I got home and I was a bit gutted for the Italians, particularly Gianluigi Buffon who is one of the coolest people on the planet and made an absolutely fantastic save. As for the penalties, I know people said it was the worst shoot out ever but try and remember that the goalkeepers were Buffon and Manuel Neuer, probably the best two keepers in the world. Germany scored six out of nine, Italy five. Try and imagine how many England would’ve scored.
Zaza’s run up caused much hilarity and rightly so. As my fourteen year old said “if you’re going to do a run up like that, you absolutely HAVE to score”. It was without doubt the silliest run up I’ve ever seen but if he’d have scored, no-one would’ve cared.
In other news, reports have emerged from the England camp about differences in opinion between Roy Hodgson and his coaches particularly Gary Neville. It’s impossible to know if there’s any truth behind any of these reports. But we all watched England play and no-one could deny that this was a team without a clear sense of who they were or what their style of football was. And getting mixed messages from the manager and the coaching staff would certainly not help.
On top of that, the report said that the Football Association was so concerned about high jinks at the team’s base in Chantilly, the £500-a-night Auberge du Jeu de Paume was told to remove its chandeliers before the players arrived or risk them being smashed. The hotel reopened this weekend and staff have revealed they took down their most expensive glass fittings because the FA was worried they might be damaged.
While I’m appalled by this story, I’m not really surprised. So there you have it. England failed because we had 1) management who couldn’t agree tactics and offered no clear direction and 2) players, some of whom are basically morons, who didn’t know what they were meant to do. No wonder we were so shit.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

All Hail Wales

Last night was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in football. Wales outplayed the team ranked second in the world and they did it playing the sort of football that England can only dream of. They played with heart, desire and tremendous skill against a team that contained some genuinely world class players. It was magical. To be fair, the whole Wales story has been magical. 1-0 down to Andorra in the first qualifier, on one of those plastic pitches where all the black bits somehow end up in your trainers, Gareth Bale scores two goals and they nick it 2-1. And they haven’t really looked back. This is a team that have now won two and drawn one against Belgium who must be sick of the sight of them.
When Naingollan scored that fantastic goal after fifteen minutes, I feared for the Welsh. Yes, they qualified top from what might turn out to be the weakest group and beat Northern Ireland in the first knock out game but this was the real deal. 1-0 down in a quarter final against one of the best teams in the world. Surely the journey ends here.
But this Wales team are made of stronger stuff and they came back at the Belgians. After not scoring for six years, Neil Taylor has now become a danger in the opposition penalty box and he almost scored the equaliser. And then Ashley Williams was given a free header six years out, Kevin De Bruyne went wandering from the post and it was 1-1. It turns out that it doesn’t matter how good your forwards are. If you’ve lost half of your first choice defenders, you’re going to struggle at set pieces.
After the break, it was to and fro and Belgium had their chances. But then Gareth Bale pinged a forty yard pass to Aaron Ramsey, he knocked it inside to Hal Robson Kanu. And Robson Kanu, currently without a club contract, sent three Belgium players the wrong way with a Cruyff turn and cooly slotted the ball past Thibault Courtois. What The Actual Fuck! Possibly the goal of the tournament. This wasn’t Brazil, this was Wales. And after a few scares, Chris Gunther crossed the ball and Sam Vokes produced a perfect header and Wales were in the semi-final.
The Wales fans were singing ‘Are you watching England?’ One would hope that the England players, on holiday in their luxury villas were watching this game and feeling just a touch embarrassed. Or is that too much to hope for?
One more thing. Two bookings in five games is not enough to be banned for the semi-final of the European Championships. Aaron Ramsey has a shot at being player of the tournament and I sincerely hope he gets the chance to play in the final.

Friday, 1 July 2016


I didn’t write a Euro 2016 blog yesterday. There hadn’t been a game for a couple of days and it seemed like a good day to take a break. I’d normally write the blog around eleven in the morning and post it shortly after that. But around the same time, Michael Gove said he’d run for the leadership of the Tory party, Boris Johnson backed out of the same race and the meeting that had been called to demonstrate Labours commitment to fight anti-semitism was derailed by the leader making what could be construed as an anti-semitic comment. Subsequently, my Twitter account lost it’s mind for a couple of hours and I just thought a quirky football blog might get lost in the general excitement.
The thought of Portugal v Poland that evening was not exactly one to stir the blood. Poland are a workmanlike team with only one recognisable star and pretty much the same could be said for Portugal. No-one was predicting a thriller although even then, I think we were all surprised by how bad it actually was. And for Portugal to have reached the semi-finals without having won a single game within ninety minutes is quite impressive if you’re impressed by that sort of thing. Which I’m not.
Tonight has much more potential. Wales and Belgium have a lovely contrast in styles and there’s something great about these two teams meeting in the quarter finals having come out of the same qualifying group. Wales had the upper hand in those games and Gareth Bale has said that beating them at home was the moment that this team moved to the next level. Although I’d suggest that the moment Mrs Bale gave birth to a phenomenal athlete like Gareth might also be considered very significant.
Wales are definitely not a one man team but Bale is an enormous talent who has made a huge contribution on and off the pitch. He’s the one who seems to be doing most of the press conferences. Partly, it’s because he’d be the one player that all the press have heard of but also because he’s a natural. There are no Welsh FA minders sitting next to him and reminding him what the company line is. He just sits there, a man who knows he’s one of the best players in the world, gently taking the piss out of England. And more importantly, he scored against Slovakia, scored against England, scored and assisted a goal against Russia and provided the cross that Northern Ireland’s Gareth Macauley knocked into his own net. It’s safe to say that without him, Wales would not be in the quarter finals. Or even in France.
But having said all that, there is something very together about this Wales squad. Most of them have grown up together and that must help. Also, they’ve been through the massive trauma of Gary Speed dying and the bond they’ve formed seems very strong indeed. I genuinely hope they go all the way although Hazard and De Bruyne are massive obstacles to that happening. I’m just hoping that’s it better than Portugal v Poland.