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The French Mistake

July 12, 2016

Without the The World’s Best Player Not Named Messi, stretchered off the pitch in the 25th minute of yesterday’s UEFA 2016 European Championship Final against France at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, Portugal found a way and a goal from substitute striker Eder in the 109th minute to beat the hosts 1-0 in Extra Time. Amid the cries of “anti-football” from commentators and so-called experts, Portugal were truly deserving European Champions, much rather “Innocent as doves, and wise as serpents…” as per their manager Fernando Santos. A Seleção das Quinas may have only won one (1!) game in 90 minutes (the Semifinal against Wales last Wednesday) at these Euros, but they were never beaten, showing the most resolve throughout the tournament resulting in the most timely of scoring.

Truthfully, this was a choke job to waste that home field advantage by Les Bleus. France was tight, entirely predictable in their game plan and got away from what had earned them their spot in the Final. They made three (3) questionable substitutions – I’ll never understand why France Manager Didier Deschamps subbed out Dimitri Payet in the 58th minute, the only player in a blue shirt with a bit of magic in his boot, and Andre Pierre-Gignac was just a more lumbering, less tactically aware version of the man he replaced in the 78th minute, Olivier Giroud – and blew every single chance they had, seemingly running out of steam and endeavor in the Extra Time.

Yet, that’s not mutually exclusive of Portugal’s efforts. Most scribes and talking heads thought Portugal only had a puncher’s chance, needing lockdown defending and a moment or two of brilliance from their captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who was the foremost reason Portugal wasn’t already sitting at home watching the Final. Without CR7 they would have lost to Hungary in the group stage and never made the knockout stage, much less his goals and assists that propelled them to eventual victory in the preceding knockout rounds against Croatia, Poland and Wales. He was a complete non-factor on the pitch in the Final, and yet Portugal was able to rally around their fallen talisman, replicating the triumph of other squads in these Euros whose whole had exceeded their collective talents.

For me, the zeitgeist of the entire tournament was expressed in Steve McManaman’s commentary during ESPN’s broadcast of England’s 2-1 loss to Iceland (available until 7/27/16). In the 74th minute, “Macca” ranted: “It’s as if everybody in a white shirt has decided to have the worst England game of their lives … All at the same time … I’ve never seen a team give the ball away, so often, as I’ve seen in the first 74 minutes of this game.” As time kept on slipping into the future, poor Macca was at wit’s end, whinging about how England’s team had lost the plot and become wholly predictable, rightfully complaining that squad only had one winger – Raheem Sterling, who was completely awful in this tournament – and “about 55 central midfielders”.

In the dying embers of the match, England desperately flailing in their efforts to find an equalizer that never came, Macca cut to the heart of not only that game, but the issue that befell every colossal side in these Euros: “It’s like every man for himself!” He was absolutely correct; England comprised a mixed bag of egos that lacked cohesion and ideas, resulting in an often tepid, meek and negative approach to offensive football when the stakes increased. England, like so many other favored sides in these Euros, had played not to lose for most of these Euros, ironically only playing to win against Wales.

To varying degree, the same malady befell Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and now France in the Final. Heck, even Portugal throughout the tournament, if you are to believe the pessimism of the maddening crowd.  Are we to blame the expansion of the Euros to 24 teams?  The long grueling domestic club seasons for most of the players? Suffering the weight of over-inflated expectations, succumbing to fear of the moment, an unforgiving press and distraught fanbase? Or as I suspect, were all the losers of this tournament ultimately deficient of something fairly elementary that winners always have – the requisite commitment?

Allow a slight further digression to articulate my thrust, as I turn back to England for a second (also, because it’s fun!). With some time to reflect & analyze, could it be that the Three Lions were just too Spursy? In a cruel twist, England tumbled out of these Euros in part due to a desire to manufacture chemistry on the pitch by starting five club teammates from Tottenham Hotspurs, but in retrospect that might have been three too many, all coming to a head against Iceland. Why was an ineffective Harry Kane continuing to start every game and taking all the free kicks against Iceland? Why depend on Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to make bad cross after bad cross? Why play Dele Alli completely out of position? Why sub out Eric the Dierwolf at halftime? Why sub in Marcus Rashford for Wayne Rooney against Iceland and only give him six (6) minutes when he was clearly the most positive and least fearful attacker of the lot? Many questions for English observers and fanatics to ponder while Roy Hodgson enjoys his forced retirement from managing the National Team.

England Football, now in free fall. Crisis, a footballing #Brexit. On paper, England 1-Iceland 2 is one of the greatest upsets in international football history. But not on the field. The better team had won then. The team that wanted it more, executed their plan and played for each other had won then. Iceland did not park the bus, they attacked for 90 minutes, created the better chances, and rightly deserved the result.

Stark in contrast to the disconnected and uncommitted England squad, Semi-Finalists Wales were the anti-England. Not merely desire, passion, and pride for the national shirt, but unwavering commitment to their overall approach, from their tactical plan to their roles, and to each other. The fact that they made semifinals of the Euros defied all expectations and most attempts at logic, and yet they, along with Iceland and Poland, were part of the blueprint for Portugal to construct their title run.

And so the “Miracle on Iceland” was emblematic of these Euros and the final outcome. Yet, it’s been more than a month for upsets and underdogs across the sporting landscape. In these Euros alone, Italy dispatched two-time Defending Champion Spain in the Round of 16, “TikIitalia” ending the “Tiki-Taka Era” of World Football. Tiny Iceland over the inventors of the Beautiful Game. Wales over World Ranked #2 Belgium in the quarterfinals. Elsewhere, Chile beat #1 Argentina in the Copa America Final (again). Serena Williams lost the French Open Final in straight sets to some gal named Mugaruzu. World #1 Novak Djokovic had to spread his early exit in the Wimbledon 3rd round to American journeyman Sam Querrey over two days. Cleveland’s Cavaliers roared back from 3-1 down to stun the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. A Cinderella Coastal Carolina Chanticleers beat a quasi-underdog Arizona Wildcats in the longest NCAA College Baseball World Series in history. Yesterday, Defending 200m Olympic Champion Allyson Felix couldn’t make the 2016 Track & Field Olympic team in that event, faltering by 1/100th of a second (She’s still going to Rio as the odds-on favorite in the 400m). Even the Pittsburgh Penguins were slight underdogs to win Lord Stanley’s cup when the NHL Playoffs began. C’est la Vie.

It’s been a weird summer, and with the Tour De France underway, the Midsummer Classic beckoning and the Summer Olympics on the horizon, this sporting summer is far from over. It has however already been an abject lesson in having a plan, and sticking to it.

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From → Soccer, Sports

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