Every tournament needs a classic, a game that unites all those watching in open-mouthed amazement. If we are incredibly fortunate they occur towards the end of the tournament, such as Germany beating Brazil 7-1 or Italy vs West Germany in 1970, but there is never a bad time for the footballing Gods to spoil us.
Euro 2016 has been a divisive tournament. Those who source their pleasure solely from goals point to a lower goals-to-game ratio than in any other recent major tournament, evidence against the expansion to 24 teams. The rest of us have been absorbed by the high level of competition between almost every team. Of the first 24 games in the group stage before Wednesday, only three were won by a margin of greater than two goals. Damn those minnows, being really quite good.
After watching a ludicrous 90 minutes in Lyon’s Parc Olympique Lyonnais, even those previously unconvinced and unimpressed must have been giggling maniacally. Portugal and Hungary produced a match of overwhelming silliness. The defensive uncertainty that was so lacking in Euro 2016’s first two weeks was crammed into one bonkers game.
This was international football crossed with It’s A Knockout, Portugal and Hungary taking turns to score via a collection of weird and wonderful methods. Deflections, flicks, headers, sublime half-volleys from 37-year-old veterans, Gabor Kiraly’s tracksuit bottoms in 30c temperatures; we had the lot. Apart from a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick, of course. The match may have been gloriously haphazard, but there were no pigs hovering in Lyon’s sky.
After the dig at Ronaldo’s set-piece woe, the praise for his response to relative crisis. Three times Portugal were heading out of the tournament, and three times their greatest ever player dragged them through. His first-half pass to Nani was exquisite, but paled into insignificance in comparison to his first goal of the tournament. It was the kind of finish that made you smile, shake your head and laugh, in that order. His second was a more regulation header, but there is no doubt that Portugal’s hero is back on track. A last-16 tie against Croatia awaits.
It would be remiss not to congratulate Hungary, who have been the undoubted surprise team of this tournament. Bernd Storck’s team came into the Euros on the back of three wins (against Faroe Islands and twice against Norway) in nine matches and a qualifying campaign in which they finished four points behind Romania and five behind Northern Ireland. They will end the first fortnight as the most unlikely group winners, and should count themselves unfortunate to face Belgium in the last 16.
Conversely, Fernando Santos will feel strangely buoyed despite Portugal failing to win a single game in France. It is now 17 games (and almost three years) since they won a competitive match by more than one goal, but Croatia could well be their sternest test until the semi-final stage. When you have You Know Who in your team, anything is possible.
It is hard not to write about Ronaldo whenever he plays. His personality makes him a headline-grabber, but so too does the widespread interest in everything he does. He is an actor who dominates every scene, partly through ego and partly through his incredible talent. Portugal’s story of Euro 2016 almost inevitably becomes a story of Cristiano Ronaldo success or Cristiano Ronaldo failure. Friday was an emphatic tale of the former.
Ronaldo is the constant centre of everyone’s attention. His first goal made him the first player to score in four European Championships, and his second made him the second highest goalscorer in the history of this competition. Only Michel Platini stands ahead of him. Given Portugal’s fortunate placing in the upper half of the draw, Ronaldo will hope to end the tournament with another record ticked off the list. After the hilarity of Saturday and talk of goal droughts, you wouldn’t back against him completing the transformation in style.