Portugal and Croatia cap woeful day at Euro that should anger any football fan
LENS, France -- There is no gentle way to put it, and we shouldn't be gentle about it anymore besides: Saturday was a wretched day of football, wounding for the sport we love. It was made worse by the fact that it was Euro's first day of elimination matches, when the drama allegedly begins to peak in one of the game's grand tournaments. If this was the best the continent has to offer, no wonder the United Kingdom's leaving.
It's almost too boring to bother reliving again here. Honestly, I already feel like I wasted a day of my life. Being forced to reflect on it, so soon after it finally finished, seems like a special brand of torture. But we need to remember, because we need to stop being surprised when we're let down once again.
Let's start with the worst, which should have been the best: Croatia and Portugal and their shocking display.
A little over a week ago, a lifetime ago, Sweden and Italy played a group-stage match in which Sweden did not manage a shot on goal. Italy won with a late strike, 1-0, but nobody won, really. There are great, nervy contests of tight football, and then there was Sweden and Italy trying to out-tie each other's knots for 90 minutes. It was awful.
We were told that such matches were a function of this summer's expanded group stage, when teams played for points rather than wins and smaller sides parked themselves in front of their goals to escape more complete humiliations. With only eight of 24 sides eliminated, it made sense in some ways to play to the middle.
Now we were in for something more.
"This is a totally different match," Portuguese coach Fernando Santos promised only yesterday. "This is the knockout stage. We can't draw. Playing for points is one thing. Playing the knockout stage is another. This is a final."
The final stake in my heart, maybe. This time around, not one but both teams failed to record a shot on target for the first 90 minutes. There were disagreements about how long it had been since that had happened in tournament football, nearly four decades at least, but everyone agreed that it was too soon to have seen it happen again.
The first frame of extra time, both remarkably and expectedly, also did not feature a single shot on target.
In the 116th minute, Croatia hit the post. There was probably a vote taken in a back room somewhere to decide whether that was close enough.
In the 117th minute, Portugal counterattacked. Cristiano Ronaldo fed Renato Sanches, who galloped up the spine of the pitch, Ronaldo bolting along to his right. He put the ball left instead to Nani, who crossed it back to Ronaldo, who managed the night's first shot on target. Danijel Subasic made a top reflex save to stop it. But Ricardo Quaresma was standing in front of the open goal, and he headed the easy rebound into the back of the net.
If there were any mercy, the second shot of the game looked as though it would decide it.
Only then -- ONLY THEN -- did Croatia, one of the few real group-stage bright spots, decide to press. And they did! Domagoj Vida, who had already played the game as though missing the net were the object of it, missed the net yet again.
Then the whistle blew.
The Portuguese were ecstatic. The Croatians, including a tear-streaked Luka Modric, were devastated. Because the game ended so dramatically, we might be tempted to overlook how bad it really was. We shouldn't. That was the dirty trick of the group stage, when 27 of the 36 games ended either in draws or one-goal victories. Like Saturday's finale, those games were made to seem better than they were because of their number of late, fate-changing goals. Seven were scored in second-half injury time alone, including two in the 96th minute.
Those goals, like Portugal's against Croatia, might have changed the result, but they didn't change the fact that the hours of football that preceded them were often unbearable to watch. In hindsight, those last-minute eruptions proffered only the illusion of greatness.
Even before Saturday's torturous finish, Wales and Northern Ireland had played an equally yawn-inducing match, their scoreless draw broken only by Gareth McAuley's own goal. The best part of that game had been the singing.
Before that, Poland and Switzerland had unknowingly provided the best entertainment of the day, a 1-1 draw that was ultimately decided in Poland's favor by penalties. Xherdan Shaqiri had done us the great favor of scoring perhaps the goal of the tournament, but its brilliance was in its own way a distraction. That game's second half, when Poland backed up to protect their lead, had not been very good, either.
It still seems like genius in retrospect. There is something so maddening, so cynical, about some of the best players in the world choosing to play down to the worst. When the continental consensus seems to be that it's better to try to survive than to win, it's hard to feel much sympathy for the losers when we see their tears. By then we're all cried out. Only for us it's out of boredom. And for the football that might have been.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.