French flair can provide happy ending
Tournament's legacy hinges on Les Bleus unpicking Portugal's defensive structures
All through the French camp in Clairefontaine, the press conference yesterday at the Stade de France and right out into Paris and the rest of the nation, there is a changed and highly charged mood around the national team.
A country more indifferent to football than most is now emotionally involved. A country that has recently endured such tragedy and anxiety has come together in joyful hope. An often unpopular squad is now loved, as seen in the way the team so fulsomely celebrated with fans after the semi-final win over Germany in Marseille. It could be heard with the way Didier Deschamps and tournament star Antoine Griezmann referenced the effect football can have after the events of last November, and it could be seen with the self-expression and intensity of their football on Thursday. This went beyond just getting to a home final, or even beating the Germans at last.
The front page of Le Figaro yesterday made it clear. 'La France a l'unisson'. Hugo Lloris now wants to really bring it all together. "It's been a beautiful story up until now," the goalkeeper said yesterday, "but it will be even more beautiful if it has a happy ending."
The problem is that will by no means be a procession. Portugal - and especially their star, Cristiano Ronaldo - know what it is like to have their beautiful story soured. In their own European Championships in 2004, they were unexpectedly beaten in the final by an austere Greek team. Portugal are now prepared to use that experience to their own benefit, and fully willing to adopt the Greeks' role. It only deepens the parallels that their manager oversaw an even more defensive Greek team between 2010-14, and Fernando Santos has already fully embraced the idea of doing whatever is necessary to win.
The statements after winning the semi-finals summed up the difference in approaches. While Griezmann spoke of going on to "finish with a flourish", Santos had no interest in such indulgences. "The first final I had in my career, somebody said to me: 'Finals are not about playing, they're about winning.'"
Those differences sum up the contrasting styles of play that have driven this tournament. Although France would be fitting winners from so many emotional and social perspectives, there is an argument that Portugal would be more fitting winners from a football perspective. On the whole, these Euros have seen more of their constrained and rigid style than it has of France's individual flair and attacking enthusiasm. It is appropriate that the final features a direct face-off between such approaches, then, in order to set Euro 2016's legacy.
It has not been as dull or defensive as the 2010 World Cup, but it has been very far off the carnival of attacking football we saw in Euro 2000. In fact, it hasn't been anywhere near as intensely competitive as any of the 16-team European Championships since the 1996 expansion.
That has been one big consequence of the move to 24 teams, and it adds to Portugal's aptness as potential champions that they are in the final after finishing in third place in their group, a consequence of UEFA's structural contrivances to bring in more teams. The governing body on Friday expressed more approval of their own idea, and even hinted that the 2024 event could feature 32 countries. That makes no sense to anyone who has only watched the football, but does make sense to anyone who watched the scenes in the stadiums or in some of the countries involved. Supporters of Iceland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Hungary and Ireland enjoyed some of the greatest moments of their history, vindicating UEFA's idea that the feel-good atmosphere that a tournament qualification brings helps spread the game and gets more kids playing.
That is true, but will also happen because of one unintended consequence. Rather than the gaps in quality leading to the notionally lesser sides getting heavily beaten, many of them - especially Northern Ireland against Germany and Albania against France - have been successful in shutting out the stellar attacks. The effectiveness of that football has propelled the spread of more a defensive style throughout this tournament, to the point that Portugal are now in the final, although it has clearly been aided by the lack of strikers being produced by European academies. World champions Germany suffered the absence of finishers more than anyone.
There is another recent development, though, that is perhaps the biggest cause of more defensive football. The best managers are not going to lower themselves to international football any more. There just isn't enough prestige or money in it compared to the Champions League or major domestic leagues, and this probably represents the final step in club football's long-term overtaking of the major tournaments. It says much that Antonio Conte is the only manager at Euro 2016 who would be wanted by a super-club, or that he had already taken the decision to join Chelsea before it had even started. That meant his sophisticated approach was light years ahead of anything else we saw in France, and came close to taking a very limited Italy squad very far.
As Pep Guardiola said on Friday about the Premier League, "big managers take me to another level . . . they push me to achieve things." That dynamic has not been seen in Euro 2016. The majority of managers were either well past their best, like Vicente del Bosque, or just never going to get anywhere near that level at any time. Some top players experienced the oddity of going from the ultra-progressiveness of their club surroundings to the relative primitiveness of their national set-up, even though this is supposed to be the elite end of the game. It made for a lower standard of football than the Champions League. Many managers didn't know how to get the best out of their supremely talented attacks - like Belgium - or just went totally the other way and created a solid defensive structure to compensate, like Santos with Portugal.
"It's not a side that comes out," Deschamps said of his opponents. "They have a very solid defensive triangle."
Deschamps himself is somewhere in between all that, and a good manager if not a great manager. It does reflect well on him that he has kept trying to figure France out and altering their attack, rather than just going defensive when it has become clear the formation isn't yet fully functioning. It also means Ireland could well have a central place in the story of the hosts' tournament, given that the way they rattled France forced Deschamps to take the key decision of moving the exhilarating Griezmann into the centre. The 25-year-old has not looked back since, and instead only looked to do ever more imaginative and exciting things.
That is one other distinctive trend of Euro 2016. The evolution of both football and the mass media over the past decade has meant tournament build-ups are often totally consumed by hyped populist coverage of the major stars, but the irony has been that none of them have properly dominated a competition since Brazil's Ronaldo in 2002. That has changed in France - partly because of the team set-ups, partly because of the players' form - and was flagged by the key goalscorers in the semi-final: Griezmann and Portugal's Ronaldo.
Griezmann's running has also personified France's willingness to be adventurous, while Ronaldo's presence and goalscoring have just about allowed Santos's risk-averse style to work.
It is for those reasons that it's hard not to think the hosts will just have too much not to win the final. Even though Portugal have grown into the competition and their style, and despite the tactical excellence of their win over Croatia, there is still the feeling that their solidity hasn't been truly tested and that their run has been forgiving.
France have, by contrast, come through the biggest test of all. They didn't just beat the world champions but beat a historic and acrimonious rival, who they had never eliminated from a tournament. The psychological significance of that could, of course, foster an emotional hangover or even a sense of complacency about the main job being done, but that didn't seem the case after the game on Thursday or in the days since. They seemed emboldened by it, ready to push on for more, as Bacary Sagna emphasised.
"I can't wait to get out there and show the French public that we're ready to fight for everything," said the right-back.
It will mean everything to France, although Portugal are likely to allow them nothing.
Lloris ironically ended up striking a similar tone to Santos. "At this stage of the competition there are no favourites; what matters is winning."
Winning would also matter so much more than usual.
Sunday Indo Sport