Congratulations, greedy European bureaucrats. You took the perfection of the European Championships and turned them into a bore and farce. By expanding the tournament from 16 to 24 teams, you diluted it. Portugal’s turgid triumph—that dead air of a match—was the conclusion that the tournament deserved.
Once upon a time, it was possible to rate this championship more highly than the World Cup. The games usually featured hateful historic rivalries. The rough parity of the field worked in the format’s favor. There were few blowouts; there was little incentive for teams to park the bus and defensively grind for a tie. This edition, and its champion, represents the ruin of that European dream—tactically stultifying, goal starved, lifeless. By adding matches, the tournament sapped players of energy, a fatigue that showed on Sunday. By adding teams, it created the goofy math that allowed a squad that finished third out of four in its group to advance to the elimination rounds and ultimately win the title.
The European Championships look especially sad when compared to the Copa America. Unlike the soporific matches in France, Copa America featured attack-minded soccer, an appealing openness—with the exception of the Brazilians, now in the winter of their austere decline. Where watching Euro matches felt like a grim obligation, the Copa was a relative joy. Even Messi, who stumbled at his crucial moment, fulfilled expectations with his play. Alexis Sanchez exceeded them. By contrast, the stars of Europe weren’t much to look at.
So Cristiano Ronaldo has his trophy, where Messi has an indictment for tax evasion. It’s a shame, really, that Ronaldo exited the match. The first eight minutes, while he still had two legs, were vigorous and dramatic. But without the villain, the plot went slack. And more than that, his injury eliminated the realistic possibility for Portuguese counterattacking. Portugal were always a grim side, but their dense defensive block was meant to be the pedestal for Ronaldo’s statuesque counters. Whatever his faults as a human being, Ronaldo is probably the greatest counterattacking player in the history of the game. Despite his creeping age, he remains that stalemate-breaking threat.
One of Ronaldo’s remarkable characteristics is that even his admirable behavior earns him opprobrium. Through the tournament, he has hectored his teammates—berating them for lapses, yelling at them to increase their effort. In the press, these antics have earned him the label of “diva.” Ronaldo was chided for treating his supporting cast with so little respect. There is, of course, another way to describe his behavior: leadership. And when Ronaldo sheds tears, he’s not just lamenting a lost opportunity for legacy enhancement. His subsequent behavior from the sidelines and after the match belies that preening reputation. His theatrical qualities, his obvious affection for his own physique, and his cynicism obscure his human qualities. The man clearly cares about his team and his country.
Despite years of disliking him, I felt a moment of sympathy for Ronaldo … and then it fled. Let’s recall everything he said after Iceland tied Portugal in the opening round of the tournament and hurl his words back at him. “Iceland didn’t try anything. They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. … When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.” A beautifully articulated critique, Cristiano, and one that is more aptly applied to your own side. Can we have that trophy back now?
In sum, a poor tournament for a limping continent. It’s a shame. Soccer is Europe’s secular religion. Instead of offering a sense of consolation or even transcendence, this quadrennial event seemed to remind Europe of everything that’s broken. It was a perfect encapsulation of sputtering incoherence, shattered promises, and decline.
Read more Slate coverage of Euro 2016.