The European Championships ended just over a week ago and, well, I miss it. International football is a fun affair full of breathtaking matches and unforgettable moments. This edition of the Euros ended with a great surprise when Eder scored the winning goal to give Portugal its first-ever piece of international silverware.
In this week or so, however, there’s been a lot of talk about Portugal being undeserving champions and, more importantly, the quality of football being low and the tournament being “boring.”
Well, here’s what I have to say: The quality of football was top-notch, except that it was at the defensive end where this was wholly evident.
I give it to the people who think the tournament was devoid of football quality. I mean, in many ways, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have spoilt football for generations to come with their downright unearthly scoring habits. I don’t blame fans to expect every major tournament to be in the same vein, even if they do not feature Messi. These Euros, however, featured defensive performances that reminded me of international teams that I had seen when I began watching “the beautiful game.” And, to be honest, I was very pleased. The rise of Messi and Ronaldo as the major players in world football coincided with an unbelievable boost in attacking talent but, unfortunately, defensive quality has suffered.
I saw players such as Paolo Maldini, Sol Campbell, Claude Makelele, Carles Puyol and many others operate at the peak of their powers, and I always felt that their departure left a dearth in the quality of defensive players in the game. These Euros, however, reminded me of the era when defenders thrived. At Euro 2016, an average of 2.12 total goals were scored per game. This is the lowest in all tournaments from 2008 to present, in spite of an increase in the number of matches.
To really know the impact and quality of defensive play at this tournament, one doesn’t need to go further than the champions, Portugal. The Selecao won the tournament on the back of an impressive defensive unit spearheaded by the mercurial Pepe. Sure, they had Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the finest players of all time, but he arguably was not their most important player in this tournament. The back four of Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Cedric and the criminally underrated Jose Fonte was easily the foundation stone for their successful campaign.The way the Portuguese absorbed pressure and then launched incisive counter-attacks through Fonte or Guerreiro was key to them going all the way. France, too, was impressive at the back, especially in the semi-final against Germany where Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti repelled wave after wave of the German blitzkrieg. Not to mention Germany’s defense, which up until the semi-final, had been impenetrable.
Top teams are expected to have strong defenses. But so did historically struggling teams such as Poland, which went out only in a penalty shootout to the champions thus showing how strong defensive tactics can act as an equalizer. Ashley Williams leading the Welsh defense against the tournament favorites Belgium was nothing short of world-class and the Italian defense was, well, like a classic great Italian defense.
Football fans have become so used to wondrous displays of attacking football that many of them have forgot about what efficient defensive organization is. This tournament at least reminded me of that. I mean, look at the way the Italian back three plied their trade at the tournament. Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci formed possibly the most effective triumvirate from Italy after Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. In the match against defending champions, Spain, this was clearly evident in the way they intercepted passes and tackled the Spaniards with unwavering conviction. They only conceded two goals from open play throughout the tournament, and if that is “boring,” then I don’t know what entertaining is.
To think that defense in football will go back to the early to mid 2000s levels right after this tournament would be very premature. Club football is a different ball game, and for defenses to become amazing again will take a long time. These Euros might have been “boring” for many of the people who started watching the game seriously after the FC Barcelona revolution, but for someone who still admires the oft-neglected defensive side of the game, this tournament was downright brilliant.