Euro 2016 – Ten Takeaways From The Group Stage

1. Let’s not get shirty

Generally one of the quietest men on the technical bench is the kit man but that wasn’t the case for the Swiss representative who was kept extra busy during the France vs Switzerland match. In a fairly heavy handed and tempestuous match the Swiss kit man was called upon not once, nor twice, but five times to replace ripped strips. It was a huge embarrassment for the shirt maker Puma who blamed it on a defective batch. But by then it was too late with the Internet exploding with a series of memes and jokes, the best of which came from Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri who remarked that he hoped the shirt manufacturers also didn’t make condoms.

2. Cheer up Ronaldo!

It’s proving increasingly difficult to like Cristiano Ronaldo. His narcissistic nature coupled with his constant need to hog the limelight (case in point: the Champions League final where he did nothing for 120 minutes then insisted on taking the decisive fifth penalty in the shoot out win) are lumping the Portuguese star recently in the same bracket of affection as Donald Trump. Arguably the world’s best player (ahead of Messi), this should have been Ronaldo’s chance to win over his haters. Instead, Ronaldo has come across as a whiny little b@tch. First, he complained that Iceland parked the bus against Portugal and didn’t really try. He then refused to acknowledge and shake their hands after the game, but did take a moment to pose with a pitch invader for a photo. Days later after missing a crucial penalty against Austria, Ronaldo was caught on camera grabbing a reporter’s microphone and tossing it into a nearby lake. Hardly the behaviour of a world class player. At least a brace in the final game against Hungary put a smile temporarily back on his face.

It’s not been an easy group stage for Ronaldo (image from Tumblr)

3. Riots and flares

Unfortunately any positive memories generated from the group stage will be tainted with the ugly scenes of rioting in the stadiums and in the host cities. Gangs of imbeciles from a variety of nations (primarily Russia and England) have caused havoc and threatened to ruin what has been a good start to the tournament. Added to this, the throwing of flares at games by Russian, Turkish and Croat fans has led to UEFA handing down a stern warning or two to behave (like that will work). It has gotten so serious that the Croatian players had to plead with their fans (who bizarrely were fighting each other) to stop throwing flares after a steward almost suffered horrendous burns to his face when a flare blew up just as he was picking it up. When will these idiots learn? On a brighter note though, news is surfacing from France that one such idiot stuck a flare up his backside in order to hide it from the security searches only for it to explode leaving the yob with a burned bum and bruised ego.

4. The Underdog

When Platini expanded the tournament to 24, he did so in the hope of giving smaller nations the chance to qualify. But in doing so he created a new generation of underdogs – teams who many suggested had no chance of progressing. Sides like Albania, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Wales all reached new heights by not only qualifying but also recording victories in the group stages. What this demonstrates is that the gap between the traditionally more powerful nations in Europe (Germany, Italy, England, Spain) and the rest is narrowing. Part of this is down to the Bosman ruling which allowed players more freedom of movement across Europe, which in turn helped to develop them with the knock on benefit being that their national teams also improved. Whilst they may have exited at the group stage, Albania have shown that they are a team who are improving year over year  and could become a regular qualifier for international tournaments in the years ahead.

They will be back – Albania (Image from tumblr)

5. Third place progress confusion

Nothing like taking a tried and tested formula and throwing that out the window in favour of a new approach. Expanding the Euros from a 16 team to 24 team tournament meant that some of the smaller nations had a better chance of qualifying and it worked. However the confusion surrounding who progresses to the knockout stages could have been avoided. The best four out of six third place teams progressed with the other 12 group winners and runners up leaving only eight packing their bags and heading home. However for some of the third place teams, like Albania, the wait to see was the killer. Having played and won dramatically on Sunday, Albania had to hang around until Wednesday to find out if they were continuing on in the tournament or heading home. In the end they were sent home along with Turkey, so the extra few days proved slightly pointless. Perhaps next time UEFA will change it again and have the eight third place teams play off to see which four progress. I’m sure the fans wouldn’t mind watching that.

6. Plucky Iceland

The smallest nation ever to have qualified for the Euros, Iceland were not expected to do much at the tournament. But two draws and a late 94th minute winner against Austria, Iceland qualified and in doing so showed that they should have been given more credit. After all, they did qualify ahead of the Dutch, including beating them twice en route. Frustrating Ronaldo in the opening match was a joy to behold as Iceland quickly became the neutrals go-to team. A mouthwatering knockout stage match against England now awaits. Their passionate fans showed how wonderful this tournament could have been if other nation’s fans had embraced the same attitude. The stat that seems to be on every commentator’s lips is that 8% of the Icelandic population is at the Euros, but on some occasions it feels like the entire nation had descended on France.

Iceland scored their first ever goal of the Euro’s against Portugal (Image from Tumblr)

7. A new finalist

In any given tournament, the luck of the draw is very much a decisive factor in how far you progress within it. After an enthralling group stage that saw a few surprise upsets (Hungary topping their group, Croatia one upping Spain) the two sides of the knockout bracket look very different. On one side are the competition’s so-called heavy hitters: Spain, Italy, France, England and Germany, meaning that one by one they will be eliminated en route to the final. On the other side is Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Belgium, Portugal and Wales, meaning that there is a good chance that we will see a new team reach the final for the very first time (the only exceptions being Belgium and Portugal who reached the 1980 and 2008 finals respectively).

8. Late Goals

If the group stage has taught us anything, it’s to watch until the very end (or in Iceland’s case the very very end, deep into injury time). The group stage has given us its fair share of goals, but surprisingly a chunk of them have come within the closing minutes. From 69 goals in total over the 36 games, 27.5% came in the last ten minutes of games. The reason for this is uncertain, but you could speculate that it’s the reluctance of teams to press up the pitch, since more than half of the sides are content to absorb the pressure and hit on the break. It might be that Euro 2016 signals the return of the defensive approach or it could just be that every team is trying to replicate how Leicester City won the English Premier League this season.

Iceland’s 94th minute winner against Austria was one of 19 goals scored by teams in the groups in the closing stages (Image from Tumblr)

9. French passion

If the sight of Dimitri Payet wiping the tears from his eyes after scoring a spectacular winner on match day 1 doesn’t get you, nothing will. The West Ham star has been the revelation of the French team and embodies the passion that is running through the country at present. Les Blues haven’t seen this amount of hope and good will towards them since the last time their country hosted a major tournament – the 1998 World Cup. Whilst this squad is arguably not as strong or as complete as that side was, there is optimism that perhaps they can go all the way just like they did 18 years ago. With Payet in form, Pogba pulling the strings in midfield and Greizmann still to shine, it would be foolish to bet against them.

10. Hidden gems

As always there are players who excel in the group stages and make a name for themselves. Beyond the more well known faces of Bale, Ronaldo and Pogba are a host of new faces – players almost unknown to the vast majority of fans before the tournament began. Players like Marek Hamsik of Slovenia who scored a peach against a very poor Austria side. Or Switzerland’s rock between the sticks Yann Sommer who has impressed with some fine saves as the Swiss progressed to the knockout stages. Finally, Turkey’s Emre Mor, the youngster who completed a move to Borussia Dortmund just before the start of the Euros. Mor didn’t start the first game but shone brightly enough when he came on, which forced his coach to start him in the next two games.  He is one to watch in the very near future.

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