It being Sunday, and progress on my weighty essay on ‘Brexit and history’ moving forwards with all the purpose and clarity of England’s attack against Iceland, I thought I’d write about football. After all, Euro 2016 would seem to be a potential distraction from the Brexit clusterfuck that has descended on Britain and Europe. Brexit has, however, a habit of invading every area of life. For example, I posted to Facebook a photograph (above right) from the Ireland-Belgium match with an attempted witticism that had nothing to do with Brexit, only to discover that one of my relatives saw fit to post an anti-EU comment on it, an especially stupid and ignorant one as I subtly pointed out to him. But back to the football…
It has been a largely turgid tournament. The simple virtues of industry, organization and sticking to a basic plan have generally succeeded. Creativity has been conspicuously minimal. The prevailing tactic for many corners or free kicks in the final third has been to find a means to pass the ball all the way back to one’s own goalkeeper in order to build an attack with glacial slowness from the back. Not surprisingly, therefore, most scorelines have resembled binary computer programming.
Quality has been in short supply. This may be because of tiredness, either because of the rigours of long domestic seasons or because the widely-advertised ‘McDonald’s Player Escorts’ has been having an unfortunate effect. The standard of some of the awfulness has been impressive. In their opening group match against Poland, Northern Ireland resembled a bunch of Sunday league players who had won a prize to appear in the European Championships rather than an international football team. Fortunately for the Northern Irish, they then met Ukraine who resembled a bunch of Sunday league reserve players. Not that Ukraine were even the worst team in the tournament. Arguably the Czech Republic were even more awful; but indisputably Russia, who looked alarmingly unfamiliar with some of the basic principles of football such as running or passing the ball to a teammate, took the honour of being the most dreadful side in a tournament where the competition for that prize was intense.
Thanks to overcoming the feeble Ukrainians and then managing to keep Germany’s score down in their next match, Northern Ireland actually sneaked through to the knock-out phase. The format of the tournament has been widely, and rightly, criticized. It takes thirty-six matches to whittle twenty-four teams down to sixteen; but then having indulged various forms of risk-averse football from bad teams, the competition reverts to knock-out brutality as fifteen matches reduce sixteen teams down to the last side standing.
Defenders of the tournament structure point to how the enlargement of the Euros has meant that various minnows such as Albania, Northern Ireland and Iceland have been able to participate for the first time. But all of those countries would have qualified under the old sixteen-team format. Instead the enlargement has admitted various shades of dross. (And amid all the soul-searching in the FAs of Ukraine, Russia and England right now, one wonders what the Dutch are thinking: semi-finalists in the World Cup two years ago, the Netherlands failed to qualify for the Euros despite it being probably the easiest qualification process for any major football tournament.)
As the smallest country ever to qualify for any major football tournament, Iceland are the ultimate minnows. With a population of 330,000, once one has factored out women, children, the elderly, the sick, the obese, the researchers on volcanoes, it is hard not to wonder whether the Icelandic national football squad comprises all the able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 on the island. In fact, something like 1 in 2,000 Icelandic men in that age range are representing their national side in France. They are wonderfully cheered on at their matches by many thousands of Icelanders who have presented the watching world with some fantastically choreographed, and slightly scary, chants. So many Icelanders seem to be in France that one fears for their homeland: the puffins may have worked out a way of taking over by the time the population returns.
The Icelanders did manage to upset the usually humble, modest and generous-hearted Cristiano Ronaldo. By daring to defend against Portugal in their opening group match, rather than more properly bowing down at Ronaldo’s feet, the Icelanders achieved an unlikely draw and brought upon themselves the wrath of the demi-god who accused them of having a ‘small mentality’. Ronaldo’s wider point is worth considering: is it in the spirit of football or indeed humanity that an insignificant country such as Iceland should attempt to play to its own tactical strengths rather than to the tactical strengths of its larger and more important opponents? Would it not be fairer if smaller countries actually played to lose against larger countries?
The uncaring Norsemen defied, however, Ronaldo’s prediction that ‘they are not going to do anything in the competition’ by qualifying for the knockout phase. So it was in the round-of-16 that they met post-Brexit England. Pre-Brexit England had been talked up as a highly talented and youthful squad of players, and much was made of their lively performances in the group matches which yielded a draw against Russia (yes, the same Russia who proved themselves to be the worst side in the tournament), a win over Wales thanks to a goal at the death, and an utterly dominant 0-0 demolition of the mighty Slovakia. Few pundits gave the Icelanders much hope against the English juggernaut that was trampling its way across Europe.
Now, I have to confess that I was in such a post-Brexit funk that I decided to get pissed with a friend rather than watch the match. This was because I wanted Iceland to win, but didn’t give them much hope (and having put myself through the torment of watching one hope die on EU referendum night, I did not want to repeat the suffering so soon). I shall, of course, be accused of a complete lack of patriotism—but, you know what, I wear my lack of patriotism with pride. Of the many stupid beliefs one might have, patriotism is right up there with the stupidest of them. (And this gives me an opportunity to refer to a good article on patriotism by Will Self.) I have never understood why one should identify with people just because they were born in the same country as me; the ‘my country right or wrong’ mentality strikes me as the height of idiocy. Often I quite like England to do well because I sense the local happiness that this will bring, but actually I care very little. If Wayne Rooney was a passionate advocate of international justice, or Raheem Sterling was an admirer of Virginia Woolf novels, or Joe Hart spoke lucidly about the Stuart age, or Gary Cahill was a devotee of Bob Dylan then I might care, because in general I find myself identifying with people like that. But as it is, they are product-advertising millionaires playing for a country with the world’s worst national anthem and which, thanks to the EU referendum, had just decided to unleash bigotry and racism on its own people. (But I should be fair: I genuinely do celebrate the fact that the England side is a reflection of the cultural diversity of the country.)
I have subsequently watched most of Iceland’s convincing defeat of England (which sadly did not involve them bringing on Eidur Gudjohnsen as a riposte to England’s Boris Badjohnson). Most of the analysis concluded that England’s display had been awful—indeed, that it was arguably the worst ever performance by the national side. I prefer to be more generous: I think the England side were putting on a piece of performance art that attempted to convey the confusion, lack of direction and sheer horror brought about by Brexit. It didn’t win a football match, but it won my admiration for perfectly and aesthetically capturing the national zeitgeist.
Now Iceland get to meet the host nation. I am somewhat torn: on the one hand I want Iceland to continue their Viking heroics; on the other hand I would like to see West Ham’s Dimitri Payet resume his lonely mission to inject some flair, imagination, creativity and quality into the tournament.
As I write there is still the possibility of an Iceland vs. Brexity Wales final. Wales, in their first international tournament since 1958, have won more tournament matches in three weeks than England have in their previous seven tournaments combined. (Another fun England fact I have learnt: since 1966 England have won only six knock-out matches in international tournaments.) In the best match of the tournament (yes, better than the 3-3 goalfest between Portugal and Hungary), Wales put on a truly outstanding performance to send my pre-tournament tip Belgium home. Now they get the opportunity to do what Iceland so spectacularly failed to do: pay reverence to the divine genius of Ronaldo and let Portugal win. Yet, for all that a country ought to suffer a bit of karma for voting for Brexit, it is hard not to want Wales to get to the final.
Finally, it is worth noting that Germany are, predictably, still in the tournament. For those Brexiteers who voted Leave because they believe that Germany dominates Europe, nothing in Euro 2016 so far is likely to disabuse them of their fantasy. The Germans have been the best side, and have even found a way to win when hashing up a penalty shoot-out. They would make worthy champions: they play expansive, dynamic football based on a tactical and organizational approach as coherent as England’s was incoherent. If football is a guide to anything in this post-Brexit world, then it suggests that one ought to choose Germany over England every time.
UPDATE: Sadly Iceland have been knocked out by France. Which means that we will not get to hear one of the truly beautiful national anthems again in the tournament. Still, the Welsh have a lovely anthem we can enjoy, hopefully for another couple of matches.