Portugal glory, England failure headline special Euro 2016 Heroes & Villains
So that's it. Euro 2016 is over and Portugal -- yes, Portugal! -- are champions. We asked Iain Macintosh to summarise the entire tournament in a special international football edition of Heroes & Villains.
Dignified, warm and communicative to the last, Fernando Santos leaves this tournament with his reputation enhanced immeasurably. Few had tipped Portugal for success this summer even as dark horses, and there was not exactly a long line of people eager to change their mind after Portugal finished third in their group, having stared elimination in the face by trailing to Hungary. But with canny tactical switches, good man management and an admirable sense of calm, Santos led his nation to an unlikely victory. "Throughout the tournament," he said late on Sunday night, "we are as simple as doves, and wise as serpents." Yes. Exactly.
OK, so he spoiled it a bit when he boldly announced to the world's media that he "deserved this," but some praise is due for Cristiano Ronaldo on the night he broke his international duck. This man had to be carried from the field of play. This man insisted on getting back out there to rally the troops. This man went into the tournament battling intrusive headlines, unwisely took his temper out on the nation of Iceland, faced the full force of football karma against Austria and then burst into life against Hungary and, critically, against Wales. OK, so, once again he peeled off his shirt in front of everyone, but you can't have everything.
Conquerors of Austria, conquerors of England, irritators of Cristiano Ronaldo ... the Iceland cometh then went awayeth again. But what a legacy they left. They have given us the Viking Clap, which really isn't as weird as it sounds. They have given us a detailed knowledge of their national demographic, which should set us up well for any future quiz night. But most of all, they reasserted the fact that a well-trained team working in harmony can always beat a witless collection of supposedly superior individuals. The world waits expectantly for their next adventure.
Speaking of well-trained teams, Chelsea fans will be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of Antonio Conte's arrival in West London. If the Italian can win over the dressing room (and that's a big if), Chelsea's absence from European football is likely to be a brief one. Conte was so unlucky to lose to Germany on penalties, having made the maximum of the relatively meagre resources at his disposal compared with great Azzurri sides of the past. Everyone worked, everyone ran, everyone did their job. If he can do that at Chelsea, he'll be doing better than the last bloke.
What were Wales' expectations before the tournament began? Honestly? To qualify, certainly. To beat England, absolutely. But to top the group? To go further still? To beat Belgium, the No. 2 team in the world? To reach the semifinals and hold Ronaldo's Portugal at bay for half a game before their resistance was finally broken? This was above and beyond the hopes of even the most optimistic supporter. Chris Coleman and his team should be proud of what they achieved this summer.
Oh, France. It was up for grabs. Stripped of their talisman, Portugal were there for the taking. The Euro 2016 hosts had dominated the opening exchanges and now their victory seemed inevitable. But something went wrong. Didier Deschamps' men lost their grip on the game, and the chances that had come so freely in the early stages simply dried up. The home support meant nothing; their superior players meant nothing; the bookmakers' odds meant nothing. They were neutralised and eventually defeated. They should have done far, far better than this.
Even by England's murky standards, this was a disgraceful showing. Elimination is not the issue: After all, England always get eliminated. Sometimes it's because they've been swept aside by a better team, like Germany in 2010. Sometimes it's after penalties, like in 2012, 2006, 2004, 1998, 1996 and 1990. But there was no honourable discharge this summer. They were incompetent, spineless, gutless, clueless and hopeless. Their plans collapsed, and they were incapable of basic motor skills. Iceland were better in every department. Make no mistake: This was as bad as it has ever been. Good luck to the new manager. He'll need it.
When they returned home, the English players were castigated for anything from buying their mum a house to checking their mobile phone. Imagine what would have happened if they'd behaved as some of the Russian players are reported to have done. Aleksandr Kokorin and Pavel Mamaev were part of a team that was eliminated in the group stages with a whimper but are alleged to have gone straight to Monaco to party and spend six-figure sums on champagne. That, as you might expect, has gone over very badly with fans back home.
In an alternative reality, Spanish flags are hanging from every lamppost in Paris and Vicente del Bosque is bowing out with yet another major trophy. It seemed so plausible. All Spain had to do was not lose to Croatia in their final group game, brush past a Portugal team that had barely scraped a point from Hungary and then plough through Wales to the final, pinging passes and dominating possession all the way. But they did lose to Croatia. And they ended up falling to a shrewder Italy. This is no way for del Bosque to leave.
It is to Thomas Muller's credit that he made no attempt to disguise his disappointment in himself this summer, describing his Euros with a very rude word that we can't reprint here. The Bayern forward is a prodigious goal scorer in World Cups, but for some reason it never happens for him in Europe. Germany were the better side in their semifinal with France but didn't take their chances, and, as the stand-in striker, Muller must shoulder the blame. It really doesn't help that Germany seem to have thousands of exciting attacking midfielders but no out-and-out goal scorers.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.