Cristiano Ronaldo

The European Championship 2016 has been interesting, with events off the field being more noteworthy than most of the matches on the field.

With barely a handful of truly entertaining matches for the neutral, an obvious outcome in the end and defensive tactics dominating, should we even look forward to World Cup 2018 in Russia?

The short answer is yes, though we’d love to see some things change. With that in mind, here are the biggest winners and losers from this year’s Euro 2016.

Winners: Wales and Iceland

When the quarterfinals fell into place, football neutrals dreamt of an improbable Wales vs Iceland final. In a tournament of individual superstars looking bored and tired, it’s been the small nations with big hearts that have left a lasting impression.

On the pitch, these teams showed pride — you could see what playing for their countries meant. To see teams react and interact with their fans gave them, for the lack of a better word, soul. They cared, their fans cared and as football fans, we ended up caring.

This was a stark contrast compared to the usual suspects taking it all for granted — Paul Pogba’s antagonistic celebrations, Cristiano Ronaldo’s constant moaning, Eden Hazard’s disinterest under pressure and the entire lethargy of the England team.

The Icelandic Viking chant shows what a connection between footballers and fans can bring. Considering it’s a nation of only 330,000 people, this response was both impressive and intimidating.

Loser: England and Roy Hodgson

Talk about a national implosion. England, the home of football, simply fell apart. With one of the best squads at the Championships, it remains a mystery how they struggled so badly, in particular in front of goal.

Their striking options easily ranked among the best. Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford are top players in the most watched league in the world.

Each match introduced new question marks over Roy Hodgson’s management. How he went from a perfect qualifying record to absolute tactical idiot in the eyes of the media (and fans alike) is both confusing, and in all honesty, unrealistic.

Some said it was the injury to Danny Welbeck that caused a meltdown in tactics, but they had ample, if not better, players to take his role.

What stopped England was a lack of pride. The lions of England had no bite.

Upon losing to Iceland, Roy Hodgson resigned, taking full accountability and leaving this band of underachieving players free to slink off on their summer holidays. While the other nations from Great Britain came back with heads held high, England couldn’t. A team of superstars was unable to do what second-tier squads with pride could.

Winner: Refereeing

During an international championship you often find the refereeing goes awry under new rules and recommendations. These Euros have been an exception to that.

In 51 matches there have been only a handful of questionable decisions. Very few yellow cards and even fewer red. This certainty in refereeing has left matches without ugly scenes of players surrounding and harassing officials. Which is fantastic.

The biggest surprise is how much freedom the referees have given players. Gone are the constant whistle blows for every minor bit of physical contact. Matches are being allowed to flow and its making international football look like a contact sport again, unfortunately for Ronaldo.

This certainty and freedom has somehow reduced the amount of diving and play acting. I didn’t think anything could fix this global problem of simulation, so let’s hope this freedom continues into club football and World Cup 2018.

Loser: Russia, World Cup 2018

The opening weeks of this tournament ended up showing the dark side of the beautiful game. A small portion of Russian fans deliberately set out to injure and cause terror amongst others. English and French fans were also involved, but their actions were only reactionary to the masked, weapon-carrying Russian fans.

This is hopefully an exception to the norm in Russian football culture, yet violence and racism are two sides of a coin in hooliganism. And considering one is still visibly rife in Russian football perhaps the location of the next World Cup isn’t such a good choice.

In 2012, Hulk was the first black player Zenit St Petersburg had ever signed. His arrival caused protests because fans didn’t want a black player in their team. This was only four years ago.

It’s only been since 2013 that the Russian Football Federation has taken racism seriously. There are now fines and penalties. Yet Russian fans don’t see horrible gestures like calling black players apes or throwing bananas on the pitch as anything more than “banter.”

How will fans from around the world react? Hulk has spoken out about racism in Russia and stated “If racism like this happens during the World Cup, it will be a big problem,” he ascribes the abuse to “ignorance and a lack of culture” in this BBC report.

When a player says something like this, you know there is a fundamental problem.

Winner: Defensive Football

UEFA tried to make the Euros more interesting by allowing the best third-place teams to qualify for the knockout rounds. This made those third group stage matches entertaining, as it pushed teams to attack even if they had performed badly in their opening two games.

On the flip side, this made playing defensively throughout the tournament, except for that one third-place match a viable strategy.

Watching defensive football can be entertaining if the opponent is attacking. The problem with this tournament was that many matches have pitted defensive team versus defensive team, leading to stalemates and pure tedium.

Football is a success-driven sport, and international football is all about national pride. Winning is everything. So while defensive football is bad for neutrals, it’s great if your team is winning.

It would be fantastic to see FIFA try something different, to encourage and reward attacking teams. Perhaps, give knockout spots to teams who create the most chances, attempt the most dribbles or tackles.

Loser: France

For all their creative force France was unable to break down Portugal’s tenacious defending. In the end, Portugal looked like the better team even though Ronaldo was stretchered off midway through the first half.  

Only three times since the start of the European Championships in 1960 has a host nation not been in the final or semifinals. So France did nothing exceptional by reaching the final, and although they deserved some plaudits for earlier attacking performances, the better team on the night won. 

Let’s hope this French loss isn’t the catalyst for defensive tactics in future international tournaments. In Euro 2016, defense has definitely been on top and its the most defensive team of them all that has turned out to be the winners.