When UEFA decided to expand the 2016 European Championship finals to 24 teams, there were those who sneered scornfully and said another eight teams would diminish the tournament. Too many minnows, not enough quality, a purely money-exercise, were the three of many criticisms.
Yet with the first round of group matches now complete, there is a case for saying the decision (the personal preference, it has to be said, of Michel Platini) was totally justified. Okay Northern Ireland seemed to freeze somewhat against the Poles but 10-man Albania deserved at least a point against Switzerland.
Form seems to have counted for little so far. Austria, considered dangerous dark horses coming into the tournament, were humbled by Hungary who lead Group F. Wales, not England despite their 100% win record in qualifying, proudly sit at the summit of Group B.
One round of games means little in the scheme of things of course. But what it has proved is that with prodigious homework, a bit of luck and a good dose of canny tactical planning, anything is possible. You can have all the individual stars in the world but if you don’t put it together as a team, you will inevitably struggle. Just ask Belgium.
If there is one trend that has pervaded the tournament so far, it is chances being missed. England had a number against Russia, Portugal even more against Iceland. Defenses have looked weak but strikers have not exploited them. There have been few standout games though perhaps that has more to do with teams taking a typically cagey early approach rather than mediocre sides taking part. The atmosphere in the stadiums, apart from one notorious game in Marseilles, has been terrific.
None more so than in St Etienne on Tuesday night where little Iceland (population 330,000) made history with their first point in major tournament. Which makes Cristiano Ronaldo’s churlish comments afterwards all the more disappointing. Yes Portugal had 27 goal attempts – 10 on target – to Iceland’s four. Yes on the balance of play they should have won easily.
But what were Iceland supposed to do? They are not the first team to defend deep and snatch a goal on the counter-attack. Didn’t Greece at times do likewise a few years ago and go on to win the tournament?
“Iceland didn’t try anything,” whined the Portuguese captain afterwards. “They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable.”
No it wasn’t. Iceland, supported in the stadium by around 2% of their entire population, simply played to their strengths: endeavour and organisation. And in case Ronaldo had forgotten, Iceland reached the finals with two games to spare and in the process ensured that the Netherlands, giants of European football, missed out.
The fact is that the gap is narrowing, in Iceland’s case largely because of a highly effective coaching setup back home. “Our defending was fantastic: we were really organised and worked really hard. Apart from one or two situations, we were really focussed and it was a total team victory for us,” said Icelandic joint coach Heimir Hallgrimsson whose team effectively reined in Ronaldo just as the Republic of Ireland did with Zlatan Ibrahimovic 24 hours earlier.
“You can’t ask one player to stop guys like Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s unfair to put a player to mark him, so it has to be a team effort. There were a lot of players that were responsible for Ronaldo, and luckily he didn’t have many chances.”
And that’s what it’s all about – teamwork. Which is exactly what Portugal, so talented individually, need to focus on if, as expected, they are go deep into the tournament though Croatia strike me, so far at least, as potentially the most potent challengers to the usual suspects.