Six things we’ve learned from the Euro 2016 group stages
The new format has worked - just
Fears that lowly ranked sides like Albania and Northern Ireland might dilute the quality of the competition have not materialised. Cynics might say the overall quality was so low that nobody noticed anyway, but the fact is that some of the more fancied teams - the likes of the Czech Republic, Austria, Turkey, Ukraine and Rumania - couldn’t make it past these minnows.
The extended format has brought plenty of colour and amazing stories like Iceland’s success to the tournament, and have helped more than make up for the lack of excitement felt elsewhere. But UEFA also got very lucky. Groups E and F were clearly at an advantage, knowing just how many points were needed to advance ahead of other third-placed teams.
Collusion a la Germany v Austria at the 1982 World Cup was a very real possibility. In the end, results from the first two rounds of games meant that teams either needed or wanted to win but it could have been very different, as the damp squib of the last 30 minutes of England vs Slovakia showed. Don’t be surprised if UEFA moot a further extension to 32 teams in the near future.
The mixed zone is a strange place
Players and reporters can usually talk to each other after the games, or (as has been the case so far) not talk to each other in the dark, dank bowels of the stadium dubbed the “mixed zone”. Stricter entry regulations than at previous tournaments have lessened the horrors of dozens of (mostly) sweaty men jostling for position at the barriers with even sweatier, deodorant-deficient bodies, but weird things can still happen nevertheless. Take the Germany versus Poland game for example, when one colleague from Moldova* asked the World Cup winning players to sign autographs (“for my son, Peter”*) and pretended to work for a local paper from Gibraltar* that had – on closer inspection – never featured a single story about the Euros. How he got his accreditation remains a mystery.
The Champions League has ruined the Euros (and the World Cup)
Well, watching Europe’s best teams on a weekly basis hasn’t completely ruined the enjoyment of international football - who writes these misleading headlines, anyway? - but it has certainly reduced the fun for the neutral fans. If you have nothing riding on a game and don’t harbour any strong feelings towards either of the teams in action, then you would have been disappointed with most of the fare on the show so far. It’s one thing to know that national teams cannot possibly play at the same level as the elite club teams, quite another to not feel let down, regardless. Even for those with low expectations, the group stage hasn’t delivered enough.
Paris doesn’t care
Parisians have a reputation for being snooty and aloof. After two weeks in the French capital, your correspondent can happily say that this is complete nonsense. Everyone, from our incredibly helpful Airbnb landlord Pierre to countless waiters and the security staff at the stadiums has been polite and friendly. What is true, however, is that Paris as city has as much interest in following the Euros as Berlin has in the Cricket World Cup. There are no televisions in bars and restaurants, no one talks about football. If it weren’t for the occasional invasions by Vikings (from Iceland) or the boys in green, you wouldn’t even know a big competition was going on at all.
Roman Neustädter has probably made a mistake
At the end of May, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a decree to grant Russian citizenship to the 28-year-old Schalke 04 player, who had played two friendly games for Germany a few years ago. Neustädter was eligible to play for Russia because he was born in the Ukraine to a Russian mother, and he was duly called up to represent the Sbornaya at the Euros. Unfortunately, the new recruit did not convince in France and was harshly criticised by the Russian media (“he plays without character”, one paper wrote); whether he’ll be included in future squads as Russia looks to rebuild ahead of the World Cup in 2018 is doubtful. You might think that he had little to lose, considering that he had no realistic chance of getting into the German national team but Neustädter’s Russian adventure has come at a heavy price: he was forced to give up his German passport and will have fewer career opportunities as a consequence.
Austrian fans are the best
Everybody loves the crazy Irish and the even crazier Northern Irish with their funny songs. Sweden’s travelling supporters turning the Tuileries Garden into a scene from Minions was a sight to behold, and Iceland’s rhythmic roar has potential to become a stadium classic. But the best fans so far have been the Austrians. 35,000 showed up to cheer on their misfiring team against Iceland at the Stade de France. It was impossible to not be moved by the occassion, hearing them sing along defiantly to the melancholic and rather depressing lyrics of Rainhard Fendrich’s “I am from Austria”, about “the high times being over” and “honour and glory having all but gone” before the game. It perhaps didn’t quite work as a football song to raise the spirits, but it made a lovely, genuinely touching change from to the usual militaristic fare.
*names and details have been changed to protect the not-entirely innocent.