By Suresh Nair
SO, so ironic that this week Britain is voting whether to stay in or out of the European Union (EU) in a defining referendum which could seriously jeopardise British access to the EU’s prized single market.
Yet on the football field, the four British and Irish teams have already emphatically cast their votes, through their boots. The best of British flavour was so, so evident as every Britain flag-bearer at Euro 2016 qualified for the knockout stages at the pre-quarterfinals (the last 16), some against the greatest of odds.
Big salutes to (in alphabetic order) England, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Wales for showing that the contingents from the British Isles are no pushovers from a little continent known as the “Land of Football”.
The way Martin O’Neill’s Ireland battled tooth and nail to overcome Italy 1-0 on Thursday morning. The way Gareth Bale-led Wales showed the gutsy Welsh fire. The way Northern Ireland zipped the lips of millions of critics, going down by only a solitary goal against Germany. And the way (oops) England still remains the great enigma, somehow always less than the sum of their parts, rarely illuminating, generally disappointing.
Hats off to the British bulldog spirit. The four “Best of British” ambassadors have now got the gloves ready for the knockout stages of Euro 2016. And looking at Copa America, at least, unlike in Brazil, the British flag-bearers are still in serious contention, and you know anything can happen in the last 16, right up to extra time and even the deadly penalty-kicks.
Yes, so much has been expected from England (world No 11), with Europe’s highest paid manager in Roy Hodgson. He is reportedly paid £3.5 million a year to put him ahead of Italy’s Antonio Conte in second place (£3.15m) and Turkey’s Fatih Terim in third (£2.7m).
But unbelievably, like late starters, they have so far failed to rise to the occasion. Wayne Rooney, Eric Dier and Kyle Walker apart, few of Hodgson’s men have yet set the tournament on fire.
Be it through their own performance (Raheem Sterling, take note) or oversight from the manager (not making the best out of John Stones and Ross Barkley) there are more than a few members of the squad who came here with the chance to confirm themselves on the wider consciousness, yet have singularly failed to seize the opportunity.
Northern Ireland (world No 25), by contrast, have played way above themselves, their close defeat to Germany a model of effective belligerence, characterised by a quite brilliant performance from goalkeeper Michael McGovern, a player who with every save against the world champions furthered his chances of finding himself in a Premier League club by the end of August.
Underdog players like Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley, too, have perfectly seized their chance to shine. This is what a continental tournament like this can do: Give little-known players the real chance to enhance reputations.
And after watching O’Neill’s Irish minnows triumph over Italy on Thursday morning, it was, to put this into words, just impossible. Those scenes, the passion was incredible, grown men were crying! Now the Irish (world No 33) have set up a dream date against host France and, believe, they want to go on and do even more, and that’s quite remarkable.
And, let me say this, holding my head high. Nowhere has it been more apparent than in the Wales squad. The Welshmen (world No 26) came to France with the absolute collective determination that they were not simply there to make friends and enjoy themselves.
THE BALE FACTOR
Salutes to manager Chris Coleman, who made it manifestly clear from the moment they set up camp in Brittany that the mere act of qualification was not in itself sufficient. Having got to a major championship for the first time in 58 years, he was insistent they were going to do justice to themselves.
And indeed, the fiery lead has been set by Gareth Bale, probably one of the outstanding men of Euro 2016. How his approach to this tournament contrasts with that of Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden), the two other millionaire world-class practitioners, representing less than stellar national sides.
While for both Ronaldo and Zlatan, everything has revolved around them – from the way their country plays to the focus of the lenses at training, Bale has utterly subsumed his ego into the wider group.
Note spiritedly that when he scores, he heads straight to the bench to share the celebrations with the backroom staff. The great thing for Bale is that the mood of togetherness into which he has so readily bought has elevated those around him.
Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen both played against Russia as well as they ever have done in a red shirt. Admittedly the Russians, who will host the next World Cup Finals in 2018, have been pitifully ineffective, but Ramsey and Allen were still clearly making the most of their moment, seizing their chance to excel on the international stage, recognising that it is in the nature of representing a small country that opportunities like this do not come round.
What a befitting British cracker now: Wales will play Northern Ireland in the next round, which is another mouth-watering clash and guarantees at least a British team in the quarterfinals!
Yes, it should have been England, but Bale and chums now have an utterly superb chance to reach the quarter-finals. And would you really bet against them beating a shaky, stuttering Belgium in the next round?
RISING TO OCCASION
In their own unique way, the ability of the Welsh and Northern Irish to rise to the occasion rather than be cowed by it is something that England’s players have routinely failed to do over the years. But, thanks to their qualification, there is still time to do more giant-killing acts.
At this most open of competitions, with a new format for 24 teams to play for the first time, in which no one has yet looked like champions in waiting (apart perhaps from the brilliant, belligerent Croats), something tells me that England, still my beloved childhood favourites, may yet surprise us all. I pray that they might actually play above themselves at this knockout stage or Hodgson will surely face the instant boot.
For England, perhaps, they got a charming draw against Iceland, Euro 2016’s smallest country with a population of 330,000 people, on Monday in Nice. If they’re complacent against the “Icemen”, Hodgson and company will almost certainly return home with rotten tomatoes slammed at their faces.
Now or never: The “Three Lions”, in my opinion, must wake up from a cocky mood and seriously take the lead from the Welsh and their vigorous esprit de corps, if they want to advance further by showing the real fire in their bellies.
Round of 16 knockout draw (Starting Saturday, June 25):
Switzerland v Poland (Stade Geoffroy Guichard, St Etienne)
Croatia v Portugal (Stade Bollaert Delelis, Lens)
Wales v Northern Ireland (Parc des Princes, Paris)
Hungary v Belgium (Stadium de Toulouse, Toulouse)
Germany v Slovakia (Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille)
Italy v Spain (Stade de France, Paris)
France v Ireland (Parc Ol, Lyon)
England v Iceland (Allianz Riviera, Nice)
Northern Ireland 200-1
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who (sometimes foolishly) believes that England, his beloved childhood favourite, may yet surprise at this knockout stage. Or Roy Hodgson, Euro 2016’s highest paid manager, will get the instant boot, if they’re not the “best of British”.