After 30 days of late drama, underdogs and refereeing of the highest standard, it is perhaps only fitting that Euro 2016 has culminated in Portugal lifting a shock first European Championship.
Reversing the roles of what happened when hosting their own European Championship back in 2004, Fernando Santos’ men saw off France after extra time with a strike from unlikely hero Eder. A man who may never have taken to the field if not for an injury to Portugal talisman and captain Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is perhaps telling of the quality of the final that Ronaldo’s injury has become the most memorable moment other than Eder’s winner and serves as a worthy reflection of the tournament itself – full of memorable moments but lacking in genuinely exciting games. The new 24 team format meant that teams could now qualify for the knockout stages despite finishing third in their group, a route eventual winners Portugal themselves took, which lead to a number of teams playing dull and uninspiring football, knowing that avoiding defeat could be enough to progress.
In truth, you could tune into many of the games at the Euros from half-time without having missed much action. Of the 51 games played, 22 were goalless at half-time. However, this was perhaps compensated by the number of late goals at the tournament with 20 coming after 85 minutes, a significant increase compared to eight at the same stage of the last European Championship in Poland & Ukraine.
The new 24 team format has also come under scrutiny for providing an unbalanced draw in the knockout stages. International heavyweights Germany, Spain, France, Italy and England pitted against each other on the same path to the final while the other side of the draw had teams like Croatia, Belgium, Poland and Portugal competing for the other final place. This led to a drop in quality in the knockout phase and UEFA would do well to revise this issue if they are to retain the new format.
One undoubted advantage of the 24 team tournament was the introduction of teams that may have never had the chance to compete on such a stage otherwise. Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales all made their debut at the tournament and all provided meaningful contributions. It also provided an intriguing backdrop of all the home nations (bar Scotland) competing at a major tournament for the first time since the 1958 World Cup, made all the more exciting by the fact that each of them advanced from their groups to make the knockout round.
The final word however, goes to the real stars of the Euros. Iceland and Wales. The two captured the imagination of Europe by surpassing all expectations placed upon them and ensuring that their debut European campaigns shall live long in the memory. Iceland famously knocking out England before eventually being seen off by France in the quarter finals with Wales going one better by reaching the semi-finals after beating a Belgian side ranked second in the world. It may not have been one of the classics but Euro 2016 proved that anything is possible when you are inspired by a ‘Viking thunderclap’ and, in the words of Wales manager Chris Coleman, “dare to dream.”