Hooligans the low, Iceland's cry among highs of Euro 2016
In this Tuesday, June 14, 2016 file photo Iceland's supporters wait for the start of the Euro 2016 Group F soccer match between Portugal and Iceland at the Geoffroy Guichard stadium in Saint-Etienne, France. Watching sport has always been popular among Icelanders, Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson said Friday, June 17, 2016. Now their national football team is taking part in an international tournament for the first time, the fervor has risen to a whole new level. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)
JOHN LEICESTER, AP Sports Writer
The first European Championship with 24 teams wasn't to everyone's taste.
Some atrociously dull games and unambitious pack-the-defense tactics from weaker teams lent weight to critics' laments that the addition of eight more nations watered down the quality of the football.
But the wider door also ushered in underdogs who delighted and, in the case of Wales and Iceland, amazed. The convoluted process for determining which teams advanced to the knockout stages produced drama but also took super-brains to understand. Bottom-line: The jury is still out on whether the expanded format's pluses outweigh its minuses.
Of the 107 goals before Sunday's final, where France plays Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in the tournament's 51st game, one of the best was scored in the first match. Dimitri Payet's curling, left-footed late winner for the under-pressure host nation against Romania made the West Ham winger the first darling of a tournament where expected stars barely glittered, to name just goalless German forward Thomas Mueller and his Bayern Munich teammate Robert Lewandowski. The Pole's record-equaling 13 goals in tournament qualifying were followed by just one more strike in France, when Poland was counting on him most.
Thankfully, the group-stage departure of Russia and the last-16 loss of England, humiliated 2-1 by a country, Iceland, with a population one-tenth that of inner London, saw the back of their mindless hooligans. Fun-loving fans from surprise semifinalist Wales had the last laugh, and the slow hand-clapping Icelanders left in the quarterfinals with a last "HUH!" — a battle-cry subsequently adopted by delirious French crowds when Les Bleus beat their major tournament nemesis since 1958, Germany, to make the final.
In short, the 31-day tournament, held amid intense but not overly intrusive post-terror attack security, produced a harvest of both highs and lows.
Here's a closer look at some of them:
The lowest of the lows. The viciousness of seemingly combat-trained Russian thugs who charged English fans before the teams' 1-1 group-stage draw in Marseille , and again in the Velodrome Stadium itself, surprised French police geared up against terror threats but not street fighting. Almost all of the 35 people injured, one critically, in the street battles were British. England fans itching for a rematch with Russian hooligans that thankfully didn't materialize disgraced themselves the following week with drunken, loutish behavior up north in Lille, met by sprays of police tear gas and several dozen arrests. And a 2-2 draw between Czech Republic and Croatia was interrupted when flares were thrown onto the pitch and Croatia fans fought among themselves.
A sourpuss UEFA edict against players having their children join them on the pitch for post-match celebrations was a kill-joy low. UEFA said it was concerned for small kids' safety and that the European Championship is "not a family party."
A high was the kids of Wales players running on the field at the Parc des Princes in Paris after their dads beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in the round of 16, being cheered on by Wales fans as they shot at goal with their little legs.
Those heartwarming scenes were the only redeeming feature of an otherwise teeth-grindingly dull match, of which there were more than a few. The increased total of 51 games, from 31 in the previous 16-team format, always threatened a greater likelihood of duds, as weaker squads with plenty of heart but lacking the skills to progress deep into the tournament opted for defense in numbers and hoped for goals from counterattacks. Even star-studded teams were only moderately more interesting than drying paint at times. In advancing to the quarterfinals, Ronaldo's Portugal had just two attempts on target in 120 minutes against Luka Modric's Croatia, which managed none. A yawn-filled low.
Not a contradiction in terms, thanks to Chelsea's new coach Antonio Conte, who squeezed every ounce of quality out of an Italian team that ended the eight-year reign of 2008 and 2012 champions Spain with mesmerizing attacking gusto crafted onto the 3-5-2 solidity of a Juventus back-three and evergreen 38-year-old 'keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Conte's only foot wrong was bringing on Simone Zaza in the last minute of extra time for a penalty shoot-out against Germany in the quarterfinals. With a prancing horse run-up that made him the butt of online jokes , Zaza was one of four Italy players who failed to convert in the 6-5 penalty win for the world champions.
Other 90 minutes well spent were Wales' 3-1 quarterfinal victory over Belgium, lit up by Hal Robson-Kanu's hip-shimmy turn and goal that put the Welsh ahead; Germany's flowing 3-0 dismantlement of Slovakia in the round of 16; and, for its wow factor, Iceland beating England — a high for underdog-loving neutrals but not for England coach Roy Hodgson, who immediately threw in the towel.
The Icelandic cry will echo in memories long after the tournament, as will the symbiotic relationship, full of mutual adoration, that players and fans from the island of 330,000 people built during their adventure of a lifetime to the quarterfinals. The fans' haunting rendition of their song "Ferdalok" ("Sun shimmers in the water, see the glacier glow ...") during the team's honorable 5-2 loss to France was the spine-tingling high of a tournament that lacked an abundance of earth-shattering football but not entertaining moments.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester