Football in the time of turmoil

first_imgOn November 13, 2015, as France and Germany played a friendly match at the Stade de France in Paris, terrorists detonated suicide vests outside the stadium to begin a night of tragedy and turmoil in which 137 people were killed in the city. French president Francois Hollande, who was watching,On November 13, 2015, as France and Germany played a friendly match at the Stade de France in Paris, terrorists detonated suicide vests outside the stadium to begin a night of tragedy and turmoil in which 137 people were killed in the city. French president Francois Hollande, who was watching the game, was escorted out by security services. Incredibly, but perhaps understandably, the French and German coaches knew about the attacks at half-time but didn’t let on to the players. Though it must have been a terribly difficult decision to make, it kept a crowd of tens of thousands calm at a critical moment. When France visited England a few days later, Wembley was swathed in red, white and blue-not for the Union Jack but for the French Tricolore.Now, as France gets ready to host Europe’s premier international football tournament, Euro 2016, which kicks off on June 10, the security is heightened and the atmosphere is tense. Nobody is pretending that the safety of spectators, or even players, is guaranteed. “No one can forget what happened. But there is no need to talk about it,” French coach Didier Deschamps said stoically in March. “We lived very emotional moments, all together. Now we must move forward.” And so the country is moving forward, as is all of Europe. But perhaps France do need to look back. Not at the attacks but at another moment in history, 18 years ago, when all eyes were trained on the country.In 1998, France hosted the World Cup and went all the way in a Zinedine Zidane-inspired frenzy. Despite having the home advantage, few would have predicted that the team was capable of emerging triumphant against the very best in the world. It had helped that Brazil were disjointed and shocked by problems with their star striker, Ronaldo. But the careers that the French players went on to have in club football, including Deschamps, who was then captain of Les Bleus, proved that it was no fluke.advertisementSince then, the French have endured a typically Gallic decline. Strikes, infighting, accusations of cliques and racism have beset the side. It would be a romantic tale of beating the odds, of uniting for a common cause, if France were to go on and win the Euro this time around. Football and romance often do go hand in hand, but cold logic suggests that romance alone will not give Euro 2016 the story it so desperately wants.By far the best team, and the favourites for the tournament, continue to be the 2014 World Cup champions Germany. So flexible is their squad that no one knows for sure which formation they will deploy. It could be a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. Pundits suggest that great teams are able to switch between formations, and the depth and variety of the German squad means it really is possible.Euro 2016. Photo: Getty imagesStrikers Mario Gotze and Mario Gomez are contrasting players. Gotze has finesse and guile, Gomez’s talents are strength and finishing. Manuel Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world, and in midfield Bastian Schweinsteiger (if properly fit), Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira, Julian Draxler and Mesut Ozil are exceptionally talented. The defence, with the emergence of Jonas Hector to replace the retired captain Philipp Lahm, and Antonio Rudiger, is possibly stronger than in 2014. David Hartrick of ‘In Bed With Maradona’, a British website famous for its coverage of the best young footballing talent, is excited by some of the youngsters in the German squad: “Leroy Sane is looking like quite a special talent. Such is Germany’s embarrassment of riches that there is no guarantee he will start…but he is an excellent substitute to have as he offers something a bit different in that squad-directness. Julian Weigl is one of the most accomplished 20-year-old midfielders you could ever wish to see,” he says.Among the other contenders, England’s 2014 showing was pathetic. They lost to Italy and Uruguay, two middling teams of the tournament, and endured a dull, predictable nil-nil against Costa Rica. It was the final tournament for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, Liverpool and Chelsea legends respectively, who never made enough of a difference for their country. Perhaps the problem for England is that Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Joe Hart, James Milner and the “mandatory” Wayne Rooney (as coach Roy Hodgson calls him) are still with the national side.England did perfectly well in their qualification group. They now have a “bright, promising” squad, according to optimistic UK football writer Tom Buchanan. But the fear is that talents such as Manchester United’s breakout Marcus Rashford, and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, will be coaxed into mediocrity by their surroundings, rather than transcend them.advertisementBelgium, conversely, won every single WC group game and were regarded as dark horses. The same will be said for the Euros, prompting the question: if everyone expects them to do well, are they truly the dark horses? They have a rare crop of talent, but the challenge is to make it count. Eden Hazard played himself into form towards the end of a dreadful season for Chelsea, where he appeared to alternate between sulking and being injured. Thibaut Courtois rivals Spain’s David de Gea and Germany’s Neuer for goalkeeping excellence, and he has the protection of Tottenham’s defensive pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. There are problems, though. Marouane Fellaini continues to exist-a blight on competence. Vincent Kompany, a brilliant defender, is injured. Lastly, they are Belgians, who have done nothing of real merit in modern international football. Winning is supposedly a habit, and not one they have found easy to pick up. Confidence and consistency are difficult to develop on international duty. And like France, Belgium’s fans and players may not have overcome the difficulties in emerging from a terror attack.One team that usually puts in a strong showing, Italy, is currently matching England for its downward spiral. Simply put, there are no exciting young Italian players, and except for goalie Gianluigi Buffon, no exciting older ones too. This is an average squad, and it is no surprise that Antonio Conte will move to Chelsea after the tournament-far better to line up employment before a failure.Austria, Russia, Croatia and Poland all have the odd talented player, with Polish striker Robert Lewandowski a threat against any side, able to play with even limited assistance behind him. Realistically, though, they do not have the depth to make even their first elevens anything to worry Germany or France. Lewandowski is perhaps the stand-out player of the less prominent nations, though Welsh forward Gareth Bale is his rival on that front. The Welsh deserve enormous credit for qualifying, and with Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey able to support Bale, they are not a one-man team. However, because they have such a small pool to pick from, they will struggle if Bale is not able to drag his colleagues along with him. After enduring a difficult 2015 with Real Madrid, his Champions League triumph crowned a resurgent season in Spain. He won’t be able to win the tournament, but he could certainly be at the heart of more than one upset along the way. And talking of men who can lead an entire country, it is impossible not to mention the quiet and humble Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who once suggested that Sweden would be fine if they had 10 more of him.Graphic by Sanjay PiplaniClick here to EnlargeAnother small country with a superb Real Madrid player is Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo hobbled through the last match of the season against Atletico but still scored the winning penalty to demonstrate his ability to be the vital player. This season was his sixth in a row where he scored more than 50 goals for his club side, but there is no denying his powers have waned. That he is still so deadly shows how high his peak of a couple of years ago was-he has enough to destroy teams by himself, but his supporting cast will probably not be enough to take him as far as his ego demands. Ronaldo may move to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer as he winds down his career, so this could be the last chance to see him on the biggest stage, with his physique and determination still intact.Portugal’s neighbour, Spain, have to atone for the disaster of the World Cup, where they simply seemed too exhausted and prone to the yips. There was nothing really wrong with the players, but the performances were mesmerically bad. Their coach, Vicente del Bosque, kept his job, and there has been no huge change. Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos linger on-the best of enemies at the heart of Barcelona and Real Madrid’s defences, respectively. Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets are Barcelona’s heart, and Koke, David Silva, Thiago, Cesc Fabregas, Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta are some of Europe’s best. But, in attack, they struggle. Diego Costa has not made the squad, nor has his replacement at Atletico, Fernando Torres, despite a late, nostalgic uptick in form. What they do have is Alvaro Morata, of Juventus, sold as a youngster by Real. Only journeymen Nolito, and Artiz Aduriz, a Basque striker who somehow scored 35 goals this season, will be able to offer back-up as central forwards. Will Unwin, a journalist for English television company ITV, covering Euro 2016, is not optimistic: “There’s some changing of the guard but there are still a few inherent problems in the shape of Iker Casillas who needs to be binned off.”advertisementSo, all told, Germany’s strongest rivals are France. They qualified automatically, but didn’t really suffer for not playing competitive games for two seasons. The friendlies they did play would have-were they awarded points-seen them qualify for the tournament. It’s still hard to be certain of the quality of opposition considering nothing was really at stake for them. What they have in their favour is some of the best players in the world. Hugo Lloris is a confident goalkeeper. Patrice Evra has the leadership qualities of Winston Churchill with none of the downsides. They have Blaise Matuidi alongside Paul Pogba, the most promising young talent in football after Brazil’s Neymar. Antoine Griezmann provides pace on the wing after another brilliant season for Atletico Madrid. Man U’s next big hope, Anthony Martial, offers an attacking threat, as does Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud judging by his late flurry of goals for the national team.They do face obstacles, though. There are divisions in the squad. Mathieu Valbuena, dropped because of fitness and competition for his place, was allegedly the victim of a blackmail plot over a sex tape. That’s not all-the blackmail plot is rumoured to involve his international teammate and Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, who was dropped as a result in spite of being the country’s best striker. However, France resident Philippa Booth of English-language podcast and website French Football Weekly, isn’t too concerned by his absence: “Is Benzema a brilliant player? Yes. But the system France plays, for better or worse, may be not the best accommodation for him,” she says.French legend Eric Cantona, who doesn’t see eye to eye with Deschamps, suggested that Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa-both with North African heritage-were left out for ulterior reasons. Deschamps has threatened to sue, showing just how easy the French side find it to fall out with one another.Amongst terror warnings, the flooding of Paris as the Seine burst its banks, and the ruthlessly timed strikes from several unions across the country, France could really do with something positive. The French national side can give them that, if they manage to draw their talents together and ignore the infighting and divisions. They are the only real contenders to challenge Germany, who have given a modern, entertaining twist on their stereotypical qualities of efficiency and professionalism. It may not be a surprising Euro 2016. But it won’t be a boring one either.Netherton is a UK-based football writer whose work appears regularly on Yahoo and Eurosportlast_img