By Franz Beckenbauer
In the chorus of those complaining about the quality of this European Championship, you won't hear my voice. Even rank outsiders like Wales, which beat Slovakia 2-1 thanks to a free-kick by Gareth Bale, as well as North Ireland (1-0 losers to Poland), Albania (1-0 losers to Switzerland) and Iceland (1-1 draw against Portugal) have played respectably well. There is genuine quality there.
And the 2-0 win by reigning World Champions Germany over Ukraine was also a close affair. The match could have ended in a draw had it not been for the acrobatic artistry of defender Jerome Boateng in clearing a ball at his own goal line.
What was surprising was the 2-0 win by Hungary over their neighbours Austria, who were the heavy favourites. The two nations have played each other 136 times, a figure matched nowhere else in Europe. This time I suffered along with the Austrians. They were a bit too over-ambitious, wanting to decide the match immediately. Even though they had a full 90 minutes, they were too hectic in their pace, and so at the end their strength was waning.
But now that the first round of matches in all six groups of Euro 2016 is finished, I didn't see a single team that downright failed. In a major tournament, teams are a bit tentative in the opening match which often becomes one of watching and waiting. All the same, these first matches were truly exciting.
Italy actually rose above themselves in their highly-deserved 2-0 win over Belgium, many people's dark horse favourites. And this with a starting team of an average age of 31.17 years making it the oldest one in the world. Of course, goalie Gianluigi Buffon with his 38 years does considerably boost the overall average. But age also brings experience. Other teams field young, hungry players who, however, lack tournament experience. You have to have the right combination such as the Italians, the Spaniards and also the Germans.
Defending European champions Spain in fact is playing without their virtual national hero, Iker Casillas, in goal. And Fernando Torres and Diego Costa are not even in the team roster. Yet things appear to be working out. Coach Vicente del Bosque, that old fox, has found a good mixture of tried and true players from FC Barcelona, augmented by players like Sergio Ramos, in charge of the defense, who is the only Real Madrid player in the starting formation, though the roster also has Lucas Vazquez from Real Madrid.
Then there are a number of new players, of whom only one can be said to be truly young — the 23-year-old forward Alvaro Morata from Juventus Turin. This is a great mixture of players and the Czechs didn't stand a chance when Gerard Pique scored the winning 1-0 goal after an outstanding cross from Andres Iniesta, who appears to be in the form of his life.
Croatia is also well-staffed, what with Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona being two playmakers who can maintain a high pace, even though the 1-0 win over Turkey was a tough grind. In any event I am keenly watching this Group D with Spain, Croatia, the Czechs and Turkey. Something is brewing there.
Given the tensions in France and the overall mood in the country it would be good if the French team could free itself of the blockade that was all too apparent in their 2-1 win over Romania to open the tournament. People reminisce fondly about the year 1984 when France, who were also the tournament hosts, won the championship, led on the field by midfield magician Michel Platini. This year, however, the French side appears to be still pretty young for such a tournament.
Ahead of the match against Portugal, Iceland trainer Lars Lagerback was hoping to provoke superstar Cristiano Ronaldo with comments about his being like a Hollywood actor on on the field. Okay, one can't take such pre-game comments too seriously. Ronaldo does polarise, and looks like he feels insulted when an opposing player even dares to touch him.
But such moments actually make him human. For all his great class, he is vulnerable. And it is great for a team to have such a personality in its ranks — the best, or second-best after Lionel Messi, footballer in the world. But, once again, as seen in the mere 1-1 draw against Iceland, it appears that Ronaldo won't reach the very top with Portugal the way he is used to doing with his club Real Madrid. Not even if he manages to grow beyond himself.
First Published On : Jun 16, 2016 23:42 IST