The UEFA European Championship 2016 was all it was touted to be, and occasionally, much more. It was a tournament in the making for six years, and billions of euros, ever since France was announced to be the proud host in May 2010. This competition differed markedly from the previous editions by including more countries in the group stages – a total of twenty-four teams qualified for this four week extravaganza that has been perceived as Michael Platini’s parting tribute to his home country.
The environment around the prelude to the Championship was that of cautious optimism. Paris had suffered a heinous attack just seven months prior to the commencement of the tournament, and was yet to recover from it. The French government sought to extend the period of emergency that had been declared, with the prime minister mentioning that Euro 2016 was a security priority.
It was in such a backdrop that France kicked off against Romania on the 11th of June. After a tense match, the hosts eventually prevailed, with the winning goal coming from Dimitri Payet in the 90th minute. The late goal marked what was to be the rule rather than the exception throughout the tournament.
As the competition wore on, unlikely winners emerged out of the group stages, with underdogs pulling unpredictable upsets. The knockout stages followed, beginning with sixteen teams. It was here that the victors displayed tactical supremacy that would set the tone for the rest of the tournament. The incredible highlight of the pre-quarter finals was the victory of the less favoured Iceland over the more fancied England. It was unbelievable to witness Iceland (a nation of only 3,00,000 people) defy all odds and prevail against a team that had come into the competition as one of the most expensive squads. Another match of interest was that of Spain against Italy. Spain were the defending champions, having won the two immediately preceding Championships, hoping to win a third consecutive Euro. Italy, however, had other plans, and thwarted their hopes with a display of both brilliant football and shrewd defending to set up a mouth-watering quarter final tie against the World Champions, Germany.
It was at this last-eight stage that the tournament asserted its unpredictability even further. In the match of Belgium against Wales, the prevailing notion was that of a Belgian victory, or, if Wales did manage to win, it would only be after extra time. Wales quickly dispelled this falsehood, winning 3 – 1 in normal time against the highest ranked European nation, to face Portugal in the semi finals. Portugal had won against Poland in a tight game that couldn’t be resolved even in extra time, with Portugal advancing by clinching the penalty shootout.
Germany approached their quarter final fixture against Italy with a pronounced wariness – they had an abysmal record against Italy in major tournaments, with plenty of heartbreaks. This game was billed as a battle of the goalkeepers, with both teams having to inevitably rely on their goalies, as the game progressed to a penalty shootout. It turned out to be a nerve-wracking conclusion to the fixture, but the reigning World Champions had triumphed over the Azzurri.
Iceland, having improbably won the game against England, faced the hosts in the quarter final. It was here that their meteoric rise came to a screeching halt, as they lost 5 – 2 to a menacing French team, although they did head home to a hero’s welcome.
The first semi final was between Wales and Portugal, with both teams missing key players due to suspension, and Portugal outplayed a faltering Wales to seal the deal and set the final clash at Paris.
France went up against their nemesis, Germany in the other semi final. In a bid to avenge defeat in their previous encounter at the quarter final stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, France pulled out all the stops to surpass the World Champions. They endured a relentless blitzkrieg of German attacking football to emerge victorious, as Germany were unable to add the final finish to any of their advances.
And so, France are to face Portugal in the grand final, at Stade de France, in front of an eighty-thousand-strong audience, with hundreds of millions watching worldwide. In a way, it is only fitting that France play in the final game of a tournament that they have immaculately hosted without any major hitches. After the terror attacks in Paris, amidst all the apprehension, distrust, doubt, and security threats, it is on such a global arena that the nation can display its ability to reconcile as one, and get behind their team. After all, what is sport, if not the grand unifier?
To get you caught up with the latest in the Euros: https://www.theguardian.com/football/euro-2016
– Srishyam Raghavan