Football fans waited far too long for the Euro 2020 tournament. Circumstances made it impossible for the tournament to be staged last year, but the wait has been more than worthwhile. After a slow start, during which the group stages were depressingly free of surprises, the competition has come to life with some shock results. In fact, it’s provided us with the biggest shocks imaginable.
Before the tournament began, most fans and analysts had either France or Portugal pegged as the likely winners. Both predictions made sense. Portugal won the tournament the last time it was staged in 2016. The French teams are the reigning world champions, having lifted the most prestigious trophy in all of football in 2018. The fact that fate somehow conspired to have both teams drawn in the same group was a “spanner in the works,” as the English would say, but it was generally assumed that both countries would qualify for the knockout rounds. That assumption was correct. The expectation for them to progress toward the final stages, though, was not.
First, out went Portugal. Their elimination was less of a surprise. The draw for the “last sixteen” stage of the tournament was just as unkind as the draw for the group stage and saw them face Belgium. This Belgium team is probably the greatest in the country’s history and might go on to win the entire tournament. Portugal tried hard but couldn’t find a way through the ranks of red shirts on the might. A world-class goal from Thorgan Hazard – the kind of strike his brother used to be capable of – was enough to send Portugal home. At the full-time whistle, Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo threw his armband to the floor in disgust and disappointment. At the age of 36, it might have been his final act in a Portugal shirt. He’ll want to stick around for the World Cup next year, but the Portuguese manager and FA might have other ideas. He’s still his country’s best player, but the team has to start planning for life without him eventually.
Portugal’s elimination could have been foreseen. France’s could not. Their first knockout stage draw appeared to be every bit as kind as Portugal’s was unkind. On paper, they outmatched opponents Switzerland in every department. However, as many wise souls have pointed out before, football is not played on paper. It’s played on grass, and sometimes big players don’t turn up. On the fateful evening of June 28th, France failed to show their best. They barely started playing at all until they conceded a shock goal to the Swiss, and even then, they didn’t move up the gears for long enough. Their arrogance was at its most obvious after an outstanding goal by the mercurial Paul Pogba gave them a 3-1 lead with less than half an hour to go. Pogba spent more than two minutes dancing for the cameras. France thought they had the game won, but the Swiss weren’t prepared to give up. They eventually got their reward with a stunning injury-time equaliser.
The French team looked crestfallen from the moment the equaliser hit the back of the net. They offered few ideas during extra time even though the Swiss players looked exhausted, and it was no surprise when the thirty minutes went by without another goal being scored. It was time for penalties – and penalties are a lottery. Even at this stage, though, France must have believed themselves to be the most likely winners. Man for man, their players were more experienced at the highest level than their Swiss counterparts. In the end, that didn’t matter.
Switzerland took their penalties first. That put pressure on France every time the Swiss hit the back of the net – which they did every time. France’s first four players held their nerve and scored, but Switzerland kept up the pressure when Mehmedi scored the fifth penalty. Now, the pressure rested on the young shoulders of Kylian Mbappe. The 2018 World Cup tournament was a coming-out party for the forward, who’s been hailed as the natural heir to Ronaldo and Messi as the best player in the world. Euro 2020 had thus far been a struggle, with no goals scored, and it was about to become worse. Switzerland keeper Yann Sommer pulled off a tremendous save from Mbappe’s penalty, and France were out. Mbappe was inconsolable. His country was stunned.
Time and time again, sport offers us reminders that it’s dangerous to be overconfident about any team before a tournament. We saw it at the 2014 World Cup when Brazil was on the receiving end of a shocking 7-1 hammering from the Germans at home. We’re seeing it again here. What we’re also seeing, though, is a tournament that’s rapidly opening up. Both of the clear favourites have gone home. Bookmakers don’t know what to make of it. Trying to bet on the outcome now is a bit like trying to predict a spin of the reels on the “Football Champions” online slots game that’s so popular at sites like Rose Slots CA – you can see what’s going on, but you have no way of knowing what will happen next. Still, though, that’s how football should be. We’d enjoy it if all competitions were more like online slots and less like a two-horse race. Leicester City famously gave us a bookmaker-beating moment in 2016 by winning the English Premier League at odds of 5000/1. Odds that long are actually better than you’d get from a lot of online slots websites, and we might see it again at this tournament. If a team like Denmark or Switzerland could go on to will Euro 2020, any fan optimistic enough to have bet on them would win big.
Both Portugal and France now have to react to the disappointment of their early exits. For star players Ronaldo and Mbappe, the experience will be very different. Ronaldo might fear that this is the end. Mbappe is young enough to come again and should view this as a learning opportunity. If he came into the tournament believing his own hype, he’s had a painful reminder that he still needs to work on his craft. For everyone else, though, it’s a reminder that a “favourites” tag can actually be an anchor around your neck. You get labelled as “favourites” based on your past achievements, but it means nothing if you can’t deliver in the present.