NICE—It’s not Greece in 2004 or Denmark in 1992. Yet, tiny Iceland, with a 10th of its population in the stadium watching on, deservedly defeated mighty England 2-1 in the Round of 16, springing one of the shocks of football history. The team enjoying its first ever major international competition now faces a quarterfinal date with the hosts, France.
For Leicester City in the Premier League, read Iceland and Wales in the European Championship. In many ways, this has been the year of the underdog, and none more so than in this edition of the Euros. The expanded format saw smaller nations such as Albania into the tournament, but has had nothing to do with the successes of surprise packages like Northern Ireland and Hungary.
In the meantime, many of the superpowers have failed to shine, with pre-tournament favorites France, Germany, and Spain all looking unconvincing. Thus the stage was set for the Round of 16, featuring some intriguing matchups.
A combination of emerging teams such as Hungary and failure to win the group by traditional powers like Spain, England, and Portugal meant that one side of the bracket was heavily loaded with what could have been a classic quarterfinal setup. France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and England were all on one side, with Switzerland, Poland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Portugal, Hungary and Belgium on the other. This meant that, after having only played through the group stage, we would be guaranteed a final featuring a “dark horse” team.
The first knockout match of the tournament pitted Switzerland against Poland and the highly fancied Poles took the lead just before halftime through Jakub Błaszczykowski. The Swiss fought back, and equalized ten minutes from the final whistle through Xherdan Shaqiri’s bicycle kick goal of the tournament. It was to be all for nothing, however, as Granit Xhaka, Switzerland’s best player at the tournament, missed the decisive penalty kick, and Poland advanced.
They will meet Portugal in the quarterfinals as Cristiano Ronaldo and company outlasted Croatia in what was a travesty of uninspired football. One of the most eagerly awaited matches featured zero shots on target for 116 minutes, until Portugal broke and Ricardo Quaresma tapped in the rebound from Ronaldo’s saved shot.
Earlier in the day, Wales had eventually broken Northern Ireland’s resistance 10 minutes from time when Gareth McAuley could only divert Gareth Bale’s cross into his own net from close range.
It was not the only Irish heartbreak of the round, with Ireland eventually succumbing to the hosts. It had taken only two minutes before a Paul Pogba foul led to a penalty and 1-0 Irish lead, and France looked frustrated in the first half before breaking through in the second. A disastrous ten-minute spell for Ireland encompassed an equalizer and the go-ahead goal from Antoine Griezmann, and then a straight red card for Shane Duffy as Griezmann closed in on his hat trick. The Irish team could hold their heads high after two impressive displays against high-powered opposition, but it was the hosts who survived to face Iceland in the quarterfinals.
Wales will face familiar opponents in Belgium, and will be confident against a team they took four points off in qualifying. The Belgians and coach Marc Wilmots had been heavily criticised for lacking cohesion in an opening loss to Italy and a 1-0 win over Sweden, but looked at times against Hungary like the force they had been predicted to be.
A Toby Alderweireld header gave Belgium an early lead, but the surprisingly engaging Hungary side refused to lie down, and gave the Red Devils a tough challenge, even considering the late withdrawal of playmaker László Kleinheisler. Belgium’s quality eventually told in the second half, as late goals from Michy Batshuayi, captain Eden Hazard, and Yannick Carrasco added gloss to the performance.
Germany faced a potentially tricky tie against Slovakia, a team that had beaten them 3-1 weeks earlier. However, as they so often do, the Germans rose to the occasion, sweeping the Slovaks aside. An early goal from Jerome Boateng and another before halftime from Mario Gomez effectively ended the match before halftime. Mesut Özil had missed a penalty in between the goals, but that was rendered unimportant by man of the match Julian Draxler’s second half clincher.
All of Germany held its breath as their quarterfinal opponent was determined the following day. Spain, the two-time defending champions, faced off against an Italian team that had shone in its opener against Belgium and then proceeded to underwhelm spectacularly in their next two outings. Most predictions favored the Spanish, but it was the Italians’ execution of coach Antonio Conte’s master plan that won the day. Giorgio Chiellini bundled home the opener after half an hour, and Graziano Pelle made the result safe at the death, sending the champs home early and causing the German nation no small amount of panic as a date with their arch rival awaits.
Germany may be one of the favorites going forward, but the country that has caught all of Europe’s attention and imagination is Iceland. Despite going behind to a Wayne Rooney penalty inside five minutes, Iceland pulled level inside a minute, and were ahead before halftime after Joe Hart spilled a Ragnar Sigurðsson shot from the edge of the area. England put in a performance so inept that a national footballing crisis has since arisen. English pain was in stark contrast to Icelandic joy, and the “Huh” chant performed by captain Aron Gunnarsson with the Iceland fans has the world watching to see what the fairytale story can produce in the next round.
– Nick Powell, Correspondent (Sport)