French people deserve Euro 2016 praise; tournament format does not
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.
It must be quite a thing to have your country taken over by waves of foreign fans for a month and so you could forgive the French people for being thoroughly sick of it. But in every city, the often hard-drinking, loud-singing hordes were, in general, offered the warmest of welcomes. There were exceptions -- the handful of Marseille locals who attacked England fans with bottles will not be easily forgotten -- but overall, France put on a heck of a show and made plenty of new friends in doing so.
And the vast majority of the supporters played their part. Though there were problems, the overriding feeling was one of fraternity and respect. Largely unsegregated, fans mixed freely throughout, teaching each other their songs. A personal highlight came in Lyon after Republic of Ireland's exit to France. Over many, many beers, the Irish taught locals their songs and then, at ear-popping volume, lent their voices to La Marseillaise, earning rapturous applause from the locals.
This was a major international tournament held in a country still traumatised by terrorism and working under an official state of emergency and mercifully the worst of our fears were not realised. The men and women of the French armed forces and law enforcement acted calmly and with courtesy under enormous pressure; not just at the games, but at railway stations, airports and bus stops all over the country.
No other nation complains about trains quite like the English, so you can imagine their surprise when they came across a transport network that, after an initial period of industrial action, quickly impressed. Tickets were logically and sensibly priced, trains were clean and comfortable and, by thunder, they were quick. Paris is more than 400 miles from Marseille, but you could do the journey in just over three hours. Whooooosh!
Within stadiums, credit to a large team of red-shirted, unpaid volunteers. Male and female, young and old, they were a constant presence, patiently guiding supporters to their seats and, even more patiently, putting up with the demands and egos of the international press corps. Indeed, perhaps their most daunting task was restricting each journalist to a single bottle of complimentary beer after every game, a challenge I wouldn't have undertaken without a lion-tamer's whip and a riot shield.
The group stage was an absolute mess, filled with anomalies such as Albania beating Romania, only to wait three days to learn it wasn't enough to secure a place in the round of 16. Or Ireland having to play France after just three days' rest, while the hosts enjoyed double the recovery time. And, as the final games ticked over, teams with the good fortune to play towards the end knew exactly what they had to do to qualify. It was a dog's dinner of an opening stage and the knockout round couldn't come quickly enough.
And with such a low threshold of success, there was little intensity in the 36 group games that were required to trim 24 teams down to 16. In the old, 16-team system, every game counted and there was no margin for error. Here, as Northern Ireland showed, it was possible to lose twice and still secure a place in the next round. Football should be about tension and excitement. It shouldn't be about contriving a bloated structure purely to ensure an increase in marketing and television revenues.
There were some curious logistical issues around France, particularly concerning transport options to and from the grounds. English and Russian fans were left marooned at the Velodrome, two miles from Marseille, on the opening Saturday because the metro was shut and taxis were nonexistent. In Nice, supporters had no option but to walk a mile to the stadium, often in blistering heat. Surely there had to be a better way?
When the Icelandic fans executed their Viking Clap, it was like a seismic event. It wasn't just the noise and it wasn't simply the timing. It was the use of silence and stillness. It was the jutting jaws and burning eyes. It was like a mass demonstration of primal defiance, one nation's furious refusal to accept that the odds were against them. When the French supporters copied the Viking Clap, it was like watching Justin Bieber singing Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Unforgivable.
In the great scheme of things, their numbers were few but it would have been nice to enjoy this tournament without bad people doing bad things. From the Russian hooligans who filmed themselves on GoPro cameras, through the English element that can't seem to visit France without throwing bottles or singing about World War II, to the small groups of French "ultras," who sought to cause trouble in the opening week. Thanks for nothing.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.