Penalties, Punishments and The Acton Cruyff: The Euro 2016 Review
With the semi-finalists of Euro 2016 now decided, it’s time to look back on the last round. We’ve seen harsh punishments, awful penalties and a moment of sheer genius.
Portugal, the team who refuse to stop taking part // Guillaume Horcajuelo
As the dust settles on the quarter-finals, Euro 2016 resembles the bloodiest of battlefields. Poland, Belgium, Iceland and Italy lie vanquished, while Portugal, Wales, France and Germany have survived. While the defeated teams have been wiped from the face of the tournament, the remaining sides have suffered terrible losses themselves.
This is knockout football at its most brutal, and we've not even got to the semi-finals yet. In an attempt to make sense of it all, here's our latest Euro 2016 review.
IT'S NOT ABOUT WINNING, IT'S ABOUT TAKING PART
When Portugal triumphed over Poland on Thursday evening, they achieved something quite extraordinary. The quality of their football was anything but exceptional and yet, having beaten their opponents on penalties, they attained the rare accolade of having reached the semi-finals of the Euros without winning a single game in normal time. Some have suggested that this bodes ill for the rest of their tournament but, on the contrary, it can be seen as a remarkable strength.
Even when Portugal play poorly – and they often do – they are still more than capable of getting a result.
The game is not about winning for Portugal, it's about taking part. They take part over the course of 120 minutes, and hope to sneak the match at the death, or from the spot. They are so good at taking part that their opponents find it basically impossible to stop them. They are now taking part indefinitely, taking part ad infinitum. They are never going to be the neutral's favourite playing such a defensive, dogged brand of football, and yet they remain in the competition, aggressively, insistently taking part.
Despite their failure to claim a 90-minute victory, it will take something special to knock Portugal out of the tournament. When Wales face them at the Stade des Lumières on Wednesday, only a moment of sheer genius will be enough to bring their interminable participation to an end.
Speaking of sheer genius, we need to talk about Hal Robson-Kanu. Prior to the start of the Euros, we denigrated Big Hal with an unflattering comparison to Scott Sinclair, and he has been force-feeding us our words ever since. He scored the decisive goal in Wales' magnificent win over Belgium on Friday night, sending Marouane Fellaini, Jordan Lukaku and Thomas Meunier charging down the tunnel, out of the Stade Pierre-Mauroy and into the car park with the Cruyff turn of the decade.
Born in Acton, raised in London and inspired by the greatest Dutchman ever to have lived, Robson-Kanu is an eclectic mix of influences. That eclecticism has been a huge part of Wales' success so far, and could be the difference when they face their next foe.
While the narrative of Wales' clash with Portugal will doubtlessly centre on Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, it would be naive to underestimate the Acton Cruyff. The internecine rivalry at Real Madrid might make a great story but – despite the fact that he's a free agent and Championship veteran who's spent his entire senior career at Reading – we wouldn't be surprised if Robson-Kanu stole the show once more.
Though the spirit of knockout football is inevitably merciless, there must be some room for clemency when it comes to the rules. It has become widely apparent in the aftermath of the quarter-finals that UEFA's current suspension system is unduly harsh, and unpopular with the majority of fans. Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies are both banned from playing against Portugal, having picked up their second yellow cards of the Euros during the win over Belgium. Nevermind that the referee on the night, Damir Skomina, was somewhat liberal when it came to handing out cautions; two yellow cards in five matches hardly represents unsportsmanlike behaviour, and banning players for such an infringement is, well, a bit fucking much.
While the cases of Ramsey and Davies seem particularly harsh owing to the historic nature of Wales' semi-final, Mats Hummels and William Carvalho are also set to miss one of the biggest nights of their professional lives. None of those players can be accused of consistent disciplinary issues over the course of the Euros, and yet their punishments are potentially devastating.
As such, UEFA would do well to rethink their suspension policy. It has been sensibly suggested that there should be a card amnesty after the group stage, meaning that only consistent, repeat offenders would be penalised. This seems to be more in the spirit of the rules than the current system, and would stop a repeat of the situation that Ramsey, Davies, Hummels and Carvalho now find themselves in. As it stands, the UEFA-sanctioned punishment far outweighs the crime.
THE CRUELEST PENALTY
When it comes to cruel penalties, Simone Zaza knows the score. He took possibly the worst spot kick of all time on Saturday evening, as Italy were undone by Germany in a topsy-turvy shootout at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux. Facing one of the world's most formidable goalkeepers in the form of Manuel Neuer, Zaza decided to model his run up on a traditional Russian folk dance before blasting his effort well over the bar.
Italy proceeded to crash out of the tournament, with Matteo Darmian missing the decisive penalty. As such, Zaza's effort will be remembered for all time for its comic ineptitude, and be viciously ridiculed by Twitter's sponsored betting accounts forevermore.
This is the reality of being a footballer in 2016, unfortunately. Mistakes like this are never forgotten, and the internet never ceases to take the piss. One moment of ill-judgement becomes an eternity of shareable content, an endless cycle of mockery and soul-destroying public humiliation.
All the more reason not to attempt an exceedingly silly run up to a crucial penalty, then. You live and learn, Simone.
GOODBYE TO THE OLD GODS
While there's plenty to be excited about ahead of the semi-finals, Euro 2016 will be considerably poorer without Iceland. The Norsemen were finally dispatched by France on Sunday, beaten 5-2 despite a valiant showing in the second half. To the sound of a thousand thunderclaps from the stands, Halldórsson, Saevarsson, Arnason, Gunnarsson, Bjarnason, Sigthorsson, Sigurdsson, Gudjohnsen, Skúlason, Gudmundsson and Finnbogason went to war for the last time.
It was a bit of a thrashing in the end, sure, but the result doesn't matter. Iceland's many sons have made history, and tales of their exploits will echo through the fjords for years to come.
Iceland's heroic performance at this tournament is one of those achievements that goes down in footballing folklore. As long as the game is played, their efforts at Euro 2016 will be fondly recalled. In the country's first ever major international tournament, the team did the nation proud. It is no exaggeration to say that Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson have put Icelandic football on the map, and quite possibly laid the foundations for further heroics at Russia 2018.
Meanwhile, emphatic as their victory may have been, France shouldn't get too confident. They now face Germany in the semi-finals, and that match promises to be a much more challenging affair.