Dour games, joy for underdogs at violence-marred Euro 2016
PARIS >> The Portuguese party had just begun when a message briefly flickered on the Stade de France big screen: "Merci pour tout, Michel."
It wasn't clear what the absent Michel Platini was being thanked for at the end of the European Championship on Sunday.
A public show of support before UEFA's banned president loses his title in September? An endorsement of the former France captain's vision to expand the tournament by eight teams?
Whatever the sentiment of the message, supporters booed. Loudly.
Few fans viewing the 51 games over the last month objectively will have been engrossed by the action.
The first 24-team continental showpiece required perseverance from fans to stick through many dreary games. Compensating for the tedium, though, was the enriching march of the minnows, something Platini could never have anticipated by adding eight teams.
Newcomers like Wales and Iceland didn't just make up the numbers. They had so-called heavyweights who went home early — from England to Spain — watching in awe at their progress.
Wales, whose only previous appearance on the international stage was the 1958 World Cup, made it all the way to the last four — the first British semifinalist in 20 years.
England's campaign ended in huge embarrassment in the round of 16, providing newcomer Iceland with its greatest footballing moment. Iceland was the smallest nation ever to qualify for the tournament and its windfall from UEFA should help to keep the production line of talent rolling.
It took a potent display from host France to end Iceland's glorious run, breaking through the resilient defensive unit to win their quarterfinal 5-2. But France couldn't barge through another well-drilled side when it faced Portugal in Sunday's final.
Even after the most theatrical and agonizing moments of the tournament — the 15-minute spell in the first half when Cristiano Ronaldo twice left the pitch to receive treatment before tearfully being forced out of the game.
Portugal persisted without the three-time world player of the year to win its first major title. Portugal's 1-0 victory in extra time reflected one of the early conclusions of UEFA's technical observers: possession is no longer king. Retaining the ball with masterful passing, as Spain showcased during their title triumphs in 2008 and 2012, can prove inadequate when thwarted by dogged opponents.
It meant teams could be less ambitious, sit back and hope to pounce on the break, especially when 16 teams knew they would advance from the group stage.
How will Euro 2016 be remembered? Not for tactical innovation, nor for a breakthrough star. Antoine Griezmann was already the star of Atletico Madrid before being named the player of the tournament with six goals.
Long after the dour group-stage is forgotten, the legacy will be the fans — the aggressive and the boisterous behavior.
Russia left the tournament with a solitary point in the group stage but was at risk of being sent home in disgrace as punishment for its fans' violence. England was also threatened with expulsion after hooligan elements in its fan base clashed with Russians around the opening game in Marseille.
Tear gas was deployed in southern France, a foretaste of police tactics to disperse some crowds right the way through to the final when there was an attempt by some supporters to force their way into the Paris fan zone.
The great relief for authorities was the lack of any major security incident, given the tournament being played under the state of emergency that was introduced after extremist attacks in Paris last year.
And fans from many countries did add to the enjoyment of what should be a sporting festival.
The Icelandic thunderclap was quickly adopted by the French and will surely spread across the continental game.
The most sung about player at Euro 2016 didn't play a single minute. Will Grigg, a backup Northern Ireland forward, was always on fire, petrifying defenses to fans who revived and appropriated GALA's 1990s dance hit "Freed From Desire."
While England fans adopted it to insert striker Jamie Vardy's name, continental fans were happy just to sing about Grigg in broken English — a bemusing experience.
And tales of the minnows and underdogs provided UEFA with cover when the focus switched to tedious tactics as the average goals per game dropped from 2.45 in 2012 to 2.12. Sunday's match was the first continental final going scoreless after 90 minutes and the newly-crowned Portuguese champions only won one game out of seven inside 90 minutes in France.
Still, the governing body saw its coffers swell through an expected tournament record profit of 830 million euros ($917 million) in the last single host competition for some time.
Next time around, it will be staged in 13 cities across Europe — culminating in Wembley Stadium in London hosting the semifinals and the final.
That's another Platini innovation that fans could be booing in four years — unless the quality of the football improves perhaps.
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