The 2016 European Championship finals were held in France, the third time the country has hosted the tournament after 1960 and 1984.
The month-long tournament saw the number of participating nations increased from sixteen to twenty-four, with the teams being divided into six groups of four with the top two teams from each group progressing into a knock-out round of sixteen along with the four best third-placed teams – a similar setup to the 1986, 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cup tournaments held in Mexico, Italy and the United States. The expansion of the tournament also meant that the total number of matches was increased from thirty-one to fifty-one.
With hosts France qualifying automatically as hosts, the twenty-three qualifiers for the final tournament were the best out of fifty-three initial participants – arguably making the entire qualification process a bit of an overcooked circus. In all, two-hundred and sixty-four matches were played across the continent just to eliminate just over half of the countries involved; the top two teams in each of the nine groups qualified automatically along with the best third-placed side, with the winners of four further play-off matches between the remaining third-placed teams completing the lineup.
While many commentators – including myself – suggested that this was little more than a rubber stamp for the leading teams, the qualifying round produced a number of surprises – and with it a couple of notable absentees to go with the inevitable clutch of tournament debutants. The Netherlands – European Champions in 1988 and third-place finishers in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – were arguably the biggest name to miss out as they finished fourth in their group behind the Czech Republic, surprise package Iceland and Turkey, while Euro 2008 winners Greece also failed to make the fairly generous cut, finishing bottom of a group that saw unfancied Northern Ireland secure top spot ahead of Romania and Hungary.
Before the tournament I suggested that the process was geared to ensure that only Europe’s worst would miss out – never would I have imagined that this would include the Dutch and the Greeks. Of course, as a Germany fan it is somewhat funny to be looking forward to a major international tournament knowing that the Oranje are going to be at home watching things unfold on their television sets. (Though in truth, they’ll probably be on holiday wanting to ignore it all).
Qualifying Campaign and pre-tournament build-up
When the draw was made for Germany’s qualifying group, nobody was complaining about the opposition: Poland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Georgia and UEFA’s newest member, Gibraltar. It was on paper a fairly easy group for the recently-crowned World Champions, but the reality was in stark contrast to both the form book and expert predictions.
Although Joachim Löw’s men eventually finished in top spot to guarantee their place in France, things were far from decided right up until the last set of fixtures. Not since the qualifying round for Euro 1984 – also in France – had Germany been beaten twice in qualifying competition, first by Poland – who finally broke an eighty-one year duck against the Nationalmannschaft – and then the Republic of Ireland, a team that had shipped six goals at home against the Germans just two years earlier.
The two games against Scotland were at times far too close for comfort and could easy have gone the other way, while Georgia provided some stiff opposition and the expected shooting in a barrel exercises against out and out group minnows Gibraltar also provided their moments of frustration. Until the match against the part-timers in Nürnberg, I had never seen a Germany team being whistled when 4-0 in front before.
The buildup to the tournament was far from ideal, and were inconsistent at best. The team threw away a two-goal advantage in Berlin against England before recording a resounding 4-1 win over Italy, and a dismal 3-1 defeat in a soggy Augsburg against Slovakia was followed by a workmanlike two-goal win over Hungary. Confidence was far from where it had been in 2014, but Germany once again would show just why they have acquired their reputation as a tournament team.
Germany’s Tournament in brief
The qualifying campaign may have been less than perfect and the warmups far from convincing, but Germany came into the tournament among the favourites. The change in the tournament format meant that there was little or no fear of early elimination, which allowed the team to start slowly and find their rhythm.
The opening group phase match against Ukraine in Lille had its hairy moments – notably when defender Jérôme Boateng heroically hacked the ball off his own goal line – but a first half-goal from centre-back Shkodran Mustafi settled early nerves. The result was made slightly flattering right at the end when Bastian Schweinsteiger came off the bench to score a second, but nobody could doubt that the Turniermannschaft were starting to crank up the engine.
The Nationaltrainer had started with Mario Götze as a false nine against the Ukrainians, and stuck with the same plan against group rivals Poland – a plan that could easily have backfired had the Poles been more clinical in front of goal. An insipid performance from both teams made a goalless draw inevitable, but it was clear that the tactics and personnel had to change.
The final group game against Northern Ireland saw striker Mario Gómez return to the starting lineup, a move that proved an immediate success. Gómez scored the winner and ensured top spot for the Mannschaft, and were it not for Irish keeper Michael McGovern Germany could have racked up an even bigger score.
Germany had been beaten 3-1 by second round opponents Slovakia less than three weeks earlier, but within ten minutes that was all forgotten. A cracking first goal for Boateng got the show on the road, and a sparkling performance from the recalled Julian Draxler – in for the the disappointing Götze – fired the Nationalelf to a convincing 3-0 win. Gómez netted his second goal in as many games, at it looked as though Jogi Löw had found the right formula.
Cue the tactical changes for a quarter-final against old foes Italy, bringing up bad memories of what had happened four years earlier in Warsaw. This time however, the coach got it right – well, just about. Nobody knows what might have happened had he kept the same starting eleven, but after years of pain again the Azzurri in major tournaments the hoodoo was about to come to an end.
The attacking threat of the Italians had been largely neutralised, and when Mesut Özil finally broke the deadlock after some great approach play from Gómez and Jonas Hector it looked as though they would cruise through to the last four. But this was Italy, and things were never going to be that simple. An inexplicable handball from the otherwise flawless Boateng opened the door for the Italians, and after a nervy thirty minutes of extra time it was the inevitable Elfmeterschießen.
Germany had not lost a penalty shootout for forty years, and had not even missed a single spot-kick since 1982 – but in what was a crazy ten or so minutes all of this history was thrown out of the window. Germany missed no few than three penalties – more than in every other shootout combined – but had to thank the Italians for missing four of theirs. Of course, they had goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who pulled off the save of the shootout to keep out Leonardo Bonucci – whose kick in the ninety minutes had kept his side in the contest.
Jonas Hector joined the likes of Horst Hrubesch, Pierre Littbarski and Andy Möller as he scored the winning penalty, and the Italian curse was finally broken.
Things were not getting any easier though, with hosts France standing in the way of another tournament final. The French had been beaten 1-0 two years earlier in Brazil, but despite history being on the side of the Mannschaft things were far from rosy coming into the game. 2014 scorer Mats Hummels was out suspended, midfield linchpin Sami Khedira was unable to play, and Gómez was also out of the tournament. With no back up number nine and a piece missing from every component of his starting eleven, the coach had to improvise.
For most of the first half, it looked as though the Germans would breeze through. They were dominant in every respect, with the hosts looking skittish and short of ideas. However, a contentious penalty awarded on the cusp of half-time allowed the French to take a lead they hardly deserved. Germany tried almost everything in the second half, but the lack of a target man up front, missed opportunities and an excellent show from French ‘keeper Hugo Lloris made it clear that it was not going to be Germany’s night.
An injury to Boateng simply compounded matters, and as a new and untried back four tried to get things together, a succession of mistakes gave Les Bleus the opportunity to put the game beyond doubt. Unlike in 2012, there wasn’t even to be a consolation.
One never wants to make excuses, but everything just seemed to go against the German team after the quarter-final victory. Hummels’ suspension, the injuries both before and during the match, the French penalty, and then the unfortunate mistakes which led to the one and only goal conceded in open play. The Mannschaft had been the better team, but their bluntness in attack had ultimately cost them. The coach had done everything possible to turn the tide, but it was not to be.
v Ukraine, First Phase Group C, Lille, 12.06.2016 Summary »
v Poland, First Phase Group C, Paris/Saint Denis, 16.06.2016 Summary »
v Northern Ireland, First Phase Group C, Paris, 21.06.2016 Summary »
v Slovakia, Second Phase, Lille, 26.06.2016 Summary »
v Italy, Quarter-Final, Bordeaux, 02.07.2016 Summary »
v France, Semi-Final, Marseille, 07.07.2016 Summary »