Friday 15 December 2017

Real intrigue has still to come

The step up in quality in the knockout stages will be belated, but profound

Irish supporters in full voice durihng the match against Sweden.. Photo: John Walton/PA
Irish supporters in full voice durihng the match against Sweden.. Photo: John Walton/PA

Barney Ronay

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet. Welcome to France, Euro 2016 and football's own slightly fretful summer of discontent. It is of course important to separate reality from perception and social media hysteria. The vast majority of the opening flush of these Euros has passed as intended, a good-natured mix of travelling colours, with the odd mishap and plenty of extreme goodwill.

And yet for all the careful caveats, there has been a distinctly frazzled quality to France 2016. Ten days into the tenth edition of the modern version of the European Championships, it has at times been hard not to look around the periphery, and even the glossily restyled stadium interiors, and feel an unexpected trepidation.

Sport can never exist in a vacuum. Staging a Euros at time when much of Europe itself is troubled by a peculiar kind of angst was always likely to feel like sticking up a plastic gazebo and trying to hold a birthday party just as the thunderstorm prepares to break. On the pitch, the football has been gripping at times. Off it, Uefa's administration has been generally good, barring some woeful segregation issues; and with the caveat that when it comes to organising a four-week beano in blessedly summery France, it is tempting to reach for a familiar line about piss-ups and grand cru Bordeaux vineyards.

And yet, one full working week into this expanded competition, the fete en hiver still feels a little chilly. The official Uefa motto of Euro 2016 is "Le Rendez-Vous", a fitting piece of corporate Euro-schmaltz. Watching English and Russian thugs bring Marseille to a gibbering halt, fighting breaking out in Nice, Lille and Paris, and the French police sticking to their own gas-first-ask-later guerilla tactics, it has been tempting to suggest an alternative. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, perhaps. Or simply La Nausee. France 2016: summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street.

It is no great surprise the more everyday security has been a little slack, the policing of a toxic minority stretched and reformulated on the hoof. Paris felt like a wary and frazzled place even before that bravura opening night at the Stade De France, decorated on the pitch by Dimitri Payet's brilliance This a country still in an official state of emergency, braced for another broader assault on its interior.

Attention has focused now. Booze bans are being muddled together. England's and Russia's host cities will face an intensive lockdown. And perhaps, who knows, from here we might even get to talk about the football, which has been, if not relentlessly high grade, then gripping and competitive.

The slight sags and creaks of expanded format have been evident. There are too many teams in France. Or at least too many that haven't done anything really interesting to gain a tournament spot, which is ideally reward for some triumph of development or coaching, some rare seam of talent. Turkey, Ukraine and Russia - good with the brawl, not so good with the ball- have looked like passengers.

Others have provided a rare flowering of the one-superstar-plus-10 phenomenon. The early stages of Austria versus Hungary looked a bit like 21 other blokes had won a raffle to play a game of football with David Alaba. Albeit such is the nature of sport that by the end, Hungary's greater coherence and team play had taken the game away. Portugal began like a team withering in the shadow of the tournament's only - ageing, sullen - global star. Against England, Gareth Bale basically stood and watched his teammates defend.

It seems likely these Euros will end up as two mini-tournaments split down the middle, a scaled-back version of the Cricket and Rugby World Cups, with their initial phony war of minor nations. Some have bucked the trend: Northern Ireland have risen to this tournament and played some lovely football, as did Iceland in their opening game. But with 36 games in two weeks to cut just eight teams from the draw, the step-up in intensity for the knockout stage will be belated, but hopefully profound.

From there, it looks an open field, a Euros that could be taken all the way by any team capable of putting together two good games. France remain a convincing favourite. Home advantage goes a long way, as does a crop of thrillingly talented midfielders. Payet has been the most alluring story so far, a relentlessly clever, driving source of creativity. Spain had an ominously oppressive rhythm to their game against Turkey. Alvaro Morata's two goals might just have a settling effect, as will Andres Iniesta's fine performance as a deep playmaker.

Germany have played slowly, the quicki-taka of Jogi Low's better teams congealed into a more studied tempo, perhaps lacking some vital drive and variation. Italy, never actually written off by anyone with any sense, have become slightly cliched semi-dark horses. Antonio Conte looks to have pared his team back to a precise set of bespoke tournament tools, with nothing wasted, no component part without a use. Somebody somewhere will have to produce a sustained level of intensity to beat them.

As for England, the suspicion remains this team has no idea yet of its own best shape or indeed its ultimate capacities. It is hard to avoid the feeling England have hit an ideal Anglo-sweet spot here: a team with enough talent to raise tantalising hopes; and a manager confused enough to mitigate against them, raising the spectre of more familiar, homely feelings of angst, regret, years of hurt and all the rest. Which is a shame because England have been energetic and entertaining, if constrained by the overthinking of a manager uncomfortably flush with attacking power.

There have been some interesting tactical and structural variations. Goals have come late, often in the final few moments as well-set defences finally creak. In 2012, 58% of all goals at the Euros came in the second half. To date here, that figure is at 70%. Despite some initial raised eyebrows, the percentage of goals scored from a cross (42%) is slightly down on the whole tournament last time around.

What has changed from the last World Cup is the dearth of counter-attacking goals. If Brazil 2014 was marked initially by the spectacle of massed charging sorties across halfway - the tattooed berserkers of Chile, Louis van Gaal's informed long ball - then in Europe the door has been shut with just three proper counter-attacking goals so far, two of those in the last moments against stretched opponents.

Another development, encouraging for those inured to the celebrity-fetishism of modern football, is the lack of obvious stars and the dominance of team play. A cynic might suggest this is part of a wider lack of once-in-a-generation talents at this tournament. There is only one Ballon D'Or winner here. At the time of writing, his Euros have been little more than a stroll and a moan. Otherwise, only Iniesta and Manuel Neuer have even managed a podium finish in Zurich.

There is a spread of talent, though. Marek Hamsik has looked a wonderful midfielder in the world's 24th-ranked team. Belgium are stuffed with hitherto dormant excellence. Beyond this, the pattern of play has at times been smothering, reminiscent of a well-drilled mid-range Champions League group stage. If it has been a little guarded, there is plenty more to come from almost all of these teams.

As there is from the tournament itself. For all the grabbing corporate hands and the inanity of Big Football's fans-across-the-globe cliche, sport on this scale is at bottom a means of bringing people together.

It has been so for the majority, with plenty of good-natured mixing, and not just from the slightly manic, friendlier-than-thou Irish, who could yet suffer the tournament's first arrest for offensively excessive hugging, unbidden car-tyre-changing, overpowering full-body bonhomie.

Off the pitch, France 2016 may still reflect to a degree the state of France, 2016 and indeed Europe itself. The politics of anxiety and fear have already intruded in the darker corners. The threat of some wider disintegration will continue to linger at the edge of things. Still, though, the games go on, with the hope that all the snags and hiccups and minor flares are behind us, the real sporting intrigue ahead.


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