Our final image of Euro 2016 was of its star performer limping away in tears, battered by moths. Never let it be said that this was a tournament that wasn’t ready to summarise itself in a handy, takeaway snapshot.
The moths, just to be clear, were not responsible for taking down Cristiano Ronaldo early in the final, although we would not be the first to comment that the tough-to-love Portuguese camera-magnet has, in the past, gone down under lighter pressures.
Ronaldo’s game was ended, rather, by a clash of knees with Dimitri Payet of France, a challenge excused by nearly everyone as accidental but which at least one television analyst was ready to file under that slightly muddier category called “letting him know you’re there”: what Ron Atkinson defined as “a reducer”. Ronaldo was certainly reduced. He spent the rest of the match on the sidelines, wrapped in an enormous Elastoplast and looking sorry for himself, though he later became actively involved in the trophy presentations in a way that made John Terry’s similar antics in the field of post-match story-owning look like the work of an absolute amateur.
By then, the moths had largely got bored and drifted away, never sustaining the intriguing implication at the start of the match, when they seemed to be gathering in alarming numbers, that they would “be a factor”. They were, however, something to talk about and Euro 2016 had given us precious few of those. Four weeks basically yielded one and a half good games of football (Belgium v Italy and half of France v Germany). Against this wet-blanket backdrop, a victory for the host nation would at least have been partly redemptive. France, and in particular Paris, is still feeling the aftershock from those dismal terrorist atrocities, so, that night, it was “Je suis Didier Deschamps” for sure.
But no. Not even this simple, life-affirming narrative could Euro 2016 be trusted to deliver. France played like drains and fell to a solitary goal in an agony-protracting period of extra time – possibly the longest 30 minutes Europe has ever spent in front of a television set.
The only people who were happy at the end, then, were the Portuguese, who won the tournament without once turning in a memorable performance of any kind; and the Welsh, who were the victims of Portugal in the semi-finals but who nevertheless returned to a specially organised homecoming celebration and an open-top bus tour of Cardiff.
Now, you can make your own jokes here about what the second prize might have been for those Welsh players (two open-top bus tours of Cardiff?). Except that this was second prize – and not even that, in fact. Accordingly some eyebrows were raised at such a lavish civic honour being bestowed on a team that had finished third or fourth or nowhere, depending on how you look at it. Of course, there’s a question about exactly how lavish an open-top bus tour of Cardiff is. However, moments are to be marked and, as a point of principle, one should probably be in favour of more open-top bus tours rather than fewer of them. Victories in dog shows, pub quiz triumphs, GCSE results . . . Bus away.
What seemed far more worrying to me was the allegation by Mark Bowen, a former Wales international (who was by no means alone in saying this kind of thing), that Wales “covered themselves in glory” out there in France. The reluctance to acknowledge a distinction between “performing above expectations in a wildly below-average tournament” and “covering yourself in glory” might well be said to cut to the heart of football’s significant problem with exaggeration.
This is a problem that seeps right through the game, until you get players going down in agony under pressure from a moth. Not that that happened but you know what I mean. So perhaps a month of hype-correcting dullness at this precise moment in time was exactly what football needed. And a few moths.
Giles Smith writes for the Times
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM