After one week of the European Championships, it seemed as if the tournament had been birthed from the canals of hell. From the porous organizational skills exhibited by UEFA, to the overwhelmed French police dealing with a mass breakout of disturbingly archaic hooligan violence, Euro 2016 was far from a glamorous spectacle.
To make matters worse, the football on display was not the finest. Words like boring and “snooz-fest” were being thrown around quite liberally by pundits on the scene in France, as well as writers and commentators around the world. The expansion from 16 to 24 teams did not sit well with the purists from the beginning, and it certainly appeared as if that expansion had influenced the drop in quality from past editions of the prestigious competition.
There wasn’t much drama. There wasn’t much excitement. There was unfortunately plenty of angst and worry amidst the clouds of bloodshed ugliness. Then came the final day of group play, a day that exemplified all that is right with the beautiful game.
There were four matches on Wednesday, the 22nd of June, two sets of simultaneous showdowns, with most everybody involved fighting for their tournament lives.
Finishing off Group F, Portugal was taking on Hungary in Lyon, while Nordic minnows Iceland took on Austria at the Stade de France in Paris. Despite the likelihood that three teams would advance from Group F, not a single one had secured a spot in the knockout rounds. It was all up for grabs, and the drama was palpable.
Hungary and Portugal played arguably the game of the tournament (thus far), an enthralling 3-3 draw that saw the Hungarians lead not once but three separate times, thwarted most notably by two second half goals from the man who Cristiano Ronaldo calls the best player in the world today. Ronaldo’s brace rescued his Portuguese side and sent them to the round of 16 on three points from three draws, the star studded Seleccao not winning a single game in a group where they were heavily favored. The result meant that Hungary had won the group.
Back in Paris, the other two teams to snag solitary points from Portugal were involved in quite the tussle themselves. The Austrians had to win to advance, and with the score tied 1-1 in stoppage time, they had pushed all but the goalkeeper forward in a desperate attempt to find a winner. An Icelandic counter-attack ensued, and second half substitute Arnor Ingvi Traustason (a 23 year old defender who plays his club soccer for Norrköping in Sweden) slid at the backpost to bang in an improbable winner and send tiny Iceland through to the last 16 of the European Championships in this, their first ever marquee international tournament. The goal, the celebration, the emotion, and so much more was all encapsulated into one magisterial piece of play-by-play commentary, courtesy of Icelandic television.
Hungary has a daunting task ahead, facing off against the holders of that thing known as the World Cup, Germany. Quite the reward for winning the group. Portugal has quite the intriguing knockout match-up with Croatia, as fans of Real Madrid will be salivating throughout, with Croatian maestro Luka Modric and his Real teammate, Mr. Ronaldo, both in top form and having already scored some of the finest goals of the competition.
And what about little old Iceland? The nation with a population of 330,000, and a football federation that was founded in 1947, in their first major tournament… How about the country that invented the game, with a football governing body that was founded in 1863, a country with 160 times the population. That’s right. It’s Iceland vs. England for a spot in the quarter-finals.
All that was left was the nighttime affairs in Nice and Lille, Group E rounding out the opening stage of Euro 2016. Belgium and Sweden both had work to do if they were to progress, but no one’s job was clearer than that of Ireland who knew that only a win in Lille against an Italian side that had already clinched their ticket to the round of 16 would be enough to keep their dreams alive.
The night of June 22nd, 2016, will always be remembered as “that night”, one of the greatest evenings in Irish sporting history. After a fantastic first half performance that saw them put ample pressure on the organized Italians, the Irish began to sputter in the second half, their wheels spinning frustratingly so in the theoretical mud of the French summer (the retractable roof at the Stade Pierre Mauroy was actually closed due to weather concerns, creating a raucous atmosphere inside, with noise echoing in all directions).
The 0-0 scoreline was so classically Italian, and the Azzurri came within inches of ending Ireland’s hopes once and for all when they hit the post through Lorenzo Insigne, just moments after the Napoli man had entered the match in the 74th minute.
But then came the gift of all gifts as the final minutes approached, a lackadaisical mistake from Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu and the Italian defense that saw Wes Hoolohan (the 34 year-old Norwich midfielder who had come on as a substitute moments prior) placed with the ball at his feet, no more than 15 yards from goal, and with a large bubble of space with which to work. Hoolohan proceeded to place the tamest of low dribblers straight at Sirigu, who easily collected. Irish hearts sunk, Hoolohan knowing that he had blown one of the greatest opportunities of his long career.
Thankfully for the boisterous supporters of the Boys in Green, Hoolohan didn’t sulk, and instead played on with every ounce of energy he possessed. After collecting a pass in the right channel, at least 45 yards from goal, Hoolohan took a touch inside and whipped a long, sharp, curving ball into that area known as the corridor of uncertainty, as Sirigu came charging off his line. The Italian keeper could not get there in time to prevent Robbie Brady (the 24 year-old striker who is Hoolohan’s club teammate at Norwich) from latching on to the end of the cross. Brady headed home, sending Irish fans from Lille to Dublin to San Diego into a state of absolute delirium.
Belgium had scored less than twenty seconds prior in Nice, meaning that if results held, the Italians would still win the group, the Belgians would finish second, and Ireland would finish third, doing just enough to stay alive at Euro 2016.
Belgium finished off Sweden (thus ending the international career of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in rather anticlimactic fashion) and the Irish held on for the win, booking their unexpected ticket to the next round. Manager Martin O’Neill and his assistant, the ever nasty Roy Keane, were both moved to tears by the incredible scenes of the night. Those tears dried rather quickly when they saw their opponent in Sunday’s knockout match, none other than the host nation themselves. It was of course France (and the legendary Thierry Henry) who prevented Ireland, in scandalous fashion, from making it to the 2010 World Cup, Henry’s infamous handball leading to the decisive goal that never should’ve been. Almost seven years on, the Irish have got an almost unbelievable chance at revenge.
In a French summer that has sadly been plagued by hooligan violence, it is the Irish fans who remind us that football can indeed be a game of love. Whether it’s joyfully singing with rival supporters, dancing peacefully in the streets, whispering lullabies to babies on trains, picking up trash around city centers, or going mad for Brady’s winner, the Irish have shown the world what a major international tournament should be about. One lucky Irishman, celebrating with his shirtless brethren inside the Shakespeare Pub in San Diego, California, perhaps said it best.
“We didn’t expect this,” he said with a laugh. “We were just happy to be here, no matter what. Whether we’re in France or California, we’re just out to have good time, laugh, sing, drink, and love. Any success on the pitch is merely a bonus. That goal was just the icing on the cake.”
It’s onto the knockout rounds we go. Some of the match-ups are simply mouth watering, as the quality and drama is sure to intensify. How far Iceland and Ireland go from here is almost irrelevant. The two Atlantic island nations have already done so much, with so little, for the good of the footballing world. They’ve made us realize that above all else, we should simply be grateful for every minute of this game we love.
Euro 2016 Round of 16 Schedule:
Switzerland v. Poland
Wales v. Northern Ireland
Croatia v. Portugal
France v. Ireland
Germany v. Slovakia
Hungary v. Belgium
Italy v. Spain
England v. Iceland