One of the principal arguments against the expansion of the European Championship was that weaker teams would be included in the tournament proper, thus lowering the standard of competition in the tournament. ‘Nobody wants to see thrashings of minnows on the biggest stage,’ the prosecution stated. Sometimes it’s better to wait and see.
On Tuesday afternoon we saw the first genuine shock of Euro 2016, Hungary beating official dark horses Austria 2-0 in Bordeaux. Three hours later, and just over 330 miles away in St Etienne, the tournament was given its second sprinkling of underdog euphoria.
Iceland’s presence at this tournament alone is a tale of footballing wonder. This is a country with a population of just under 330,000, roughly equivalent to Leicester or Wakefield. This is a country with an estimated 15% of the population in France for this tournament, and 6% in the stadium. This is a country ranked 131 in the world in 2012.
This is also a team who were outplayed during the first half of their major tournament debut, and yet responded magnificently to take a point off a team with more European Championship wins. Fernando Santos’ Portugal team had been overlooked as pre-tournament favourites (with a similar price to Croatia), but have a far more rounded squad than in previous years.
Every match Portugal play is dominated by their greatest ever player. The camera follows Ronaldo around continually, intent on catching a piece of his genius or a display of histrionics. The super ego has landed, and we can’t miss a second of his spiel. Not only is that treatment unfair on Ronaldo, who is actually closer to team player than pampered diva for his national team (although his post-match bitterness was exceptional), but it is also hugely disrespectful to a group of players that certainly have the potential to succeed in France. Any manager that can afford to leave out Renato Sanches and William Carvalho from central midfield should be confident of participation in the tournament’s final week.
Andre Gomes’ cross to Nani – the ghost of Manchester United future to the ghost of Manchester United past – and the subsequent finish ended a superb move in which Ronaldo played no part. It was a fleeting moment on a night of Portuguese frustration, but enough to consider this a sluggish start rather than catastrophic blow to their chances.
Yet Iceland matched Portugal, if not in technical quality than certainly in the immeasurables: heart, fight, effort and determination. Portugal had 25 shots to Iceland’s four, outnumbered them 11-2 on corners and dominated possession and territory throughout, but the Icelandic defence stayed magnificently resolute. This was a performance carved out of Nordic stone. A squad and staff rejoiced as the final whistle sounded. Whatever else happens, they’ll always have St Etienne.
The vast gap between Davidsson and Goliath was epitomised by the battle between Ronaldo and Kari Arnason. The 33-year-old centre-back, who played almost 200 games for Rotherham United and Plymouth Argyle between the ages of 26 and 31 (peak age for a defender), was able to frustrate the star of Nike’s official tournament video. Goalscorer Birkir Bjarnason played in Norway until the age of 24, spells in Belgium and Italy coming before a move to Basel last summer. These are stories to tell the Grand-ssons.
Most of all, this was a night on which to feel an immense pride in the unfancied underdog. One attraction of major tournaments is undoubtedly seeing the established elite battle for supremacy, but it is nights such as these that truly warm the footballing cockles. In this 24-team tournament, there is room for both. Those worried about a lack of competition must find a different lament.
We came to see if Ronaldo could become the first player to score at four different European Championships. We came to enjoy Portugal’s alluring blend of extreme youthfulness and extreme inexperience. We left with the stadium bouncing, singing the names of those who had gone from unknown to cherished in the space of two magical hours.