‘Just wait till next year’ is the perennial cry of the disappointed sports fan, particularly in the US, where all the big sporting events – bar the Olympics – are annual ones. In the major American sports there’s no relegation or promotion, so year on year the same contests recur, and next time really could be different. It’s the glory – and the horror – of international sport that it doesn’t operate to that comforting rhythm. If you blow a World Cup, it will be at least four years till you get another chance. If you lose an Ashes series before we even get to Christmas, it won’t be next year’s Christmas present to have them returned.
In the end Portugal did to France at Euro 2016 what Greece had done to Portugal at Euro 2004: they scraped a 1-0 win against the home favourites in the final. France played like a team who believed the hard work had already been done in getting there. That’s what made them vulnerable to an upset, especially against a side like Portugal, who had a recent folk memory of getting stung in their own backyard. It means that no host nation has won the European championships since France in 1984, just as no host nation has won the World Cup since France in 1998. Home advantage isn’t what it used to be.
Most people have a favourite team or, failing that, a favourite player. I’ve never been sure about those but I have always had a favourite goal, at least since 1998. Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute winner for Holland against Argentina in that year’s World Cup quarter-final contained everything you could want: a momentous occasion, heart-stopping drama and aesthetic perfection. Bergkamp took Frank de Boer’s fifty-yard pass out of the air, controlled it with one touch, left the Argentina no. 2 for dead with his second and nonchalantly flicked it home. Then he lay on his back while the world went mad. I can still remember the sense of wonder seeing it in real time. It never grows old. Now that goal has a rival.
It took about as long for Roy Hodgson’s whole world to fall apart as it did for David Cameron’s. The evening began full of false promise and hubristic talk of the tougher challenges ahead. The early Rooney penalty seemed to confirm that there was nothing to worry about, just like those fake exit polls showing Remain comfortably ahead. The betting markets tightened. Then, in rapid succession, came the double blow: it was 12 minutes from Sigurdsson’s equaliser to Sigthorsson’s second; 16 minutes from the result in Newcastle showing the two sides neck and neck to the result from Sunderland showing Leave alarmingly ahead.
Why did he do it? Why take such a needlessly cavalier risk with the country’s future and his own? Maybe he thought his luck would hold. Well, it didn’t. It’s hard to see a path back to the European summit from here. Yes, facing Iceland rather than Portugal turns out to be a slice of good fortune. But then it’s likely to be France in the quarters, and if it comes to that Germany or Spain in the semis. The final seems a very long way off. And all because Hodgson took a gamble against Slovakia, in the mistaken belief that he was in control of his own destiny. I never had Hodgson down as a Cameron-style chancer.
I haven’t watched every game, and I may not have been paying attention, but I don’t think I’ve seen a single cutaway to a non-white face in the crowd at this tournament. I was particularly struck by this during the match between Croatia and the Czech Republic, when all the players were white too, along with the coaches and the officials. (There are no non-white referees. Does UEFA ever think about things like this? I doubt it.) That game was one of an increasing number at which violence has erupted in the stands. Croatia’s fans are notoriously racist but there were no ethnic minorities around for them to target; they beat each other up instead. Euro 2016 has been characterised by its white-on-white violence.
Those of us stuck at home and unable to enjoy the pleasures of fraternising on the streets of Marseille or Lens have to make do with what we can glean from the TV coverage. Even then it’s possible to get a strong feel for what divides Europe as well as what unites us. France, it turns out, is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Specifically, the French seem to have a different idea of what action replays are for.
England played against Russia like a team that could win this tournament, but also like a team that almost certainly won’t. It’s the usual story: you worry about them getting tired. In the first half they looked at times like world-beaters – Euro-beaters anyway – but the second half wasn’t so good (it very rarely is for England at big tournaments) and in the end they couldn’t hang on. So far, so familiar. However, it’s more specific than that. This time you worry about them getting Tottenham tired.
The Euros have always had a couple of advantages over the more grandiose spectacle of the World Cup. First, genuine outsiders do sometimes win the whole thing. It’s happened twice in the last six tournaments. In 1992 the Danish team, who hadn’t qualified for the finals, were summoned off the beach after Yugoslavia had to pull out (shortly before ceasing to exist); they ended up beating the Germans in the final. In 2004 Greece came from more or less nowhere to lift the trophy, defeating home favourites Portugal in both the first match of the tournament and the last. No outsider has ever won a World Cup, unless you count West Germany in 1954 (the so-called ‘Miracle of Bern’). Almost by definition, any sporting contest that has to look to German success to provide evidence of its unpredictability is a fairly closed shop.
As someone who struggles to remember basic facts about my family (middle names, dates of birth), I’m grateful when online security questionnaires give the option of naming the sports team you most want to lose. I know the answer to that one: Manchester United. I have sometimes wondered how much use it is as a security filter. Isn’t almost everyone’s answer to that question Manchester United? Now I face a dilemma. If the question asked me to name my favourite manager I’d also have no trouble supplying an answer: Jose Mourinho. That, I realise, is a more unusual response.