None of the favourites were totally convincing in the first round of matches at the European Championship, England and Portugal even had to settle for a draw. The surprises were the 2-0 wins for Italy against Belgium and Hungary against Austria.
At the end of the first series of matches in all six groups, of all the teams it was one of the co-favourites that had an off-day. A totally frustrated superstar Cristiano Ronaldo moaned and kept remonstrating with the Turkish referee Cüneyt Cakir. It was all to no effect. Ronaldo also had to accept his Portuguese team’s 1-1 (1-0) draw in Group F against the European Champs debutants Iceland. The outsiders had “parked the bus in front of the box” said the grumpy Ronaldo and was obviously talking about the opponent’s four muscular defenders.
Fernando Santos, the coach of the 2004 European Championship runners-up, was far more self-critical saying, “It’s our own fault that we didn’t score more goals.” 66 per cent possession and 27 to 4 shots on goal were only enough for a point in Saint Etienne. Iceland, accompanied by thousands of blue and red fans celebrated the draw like a famous victory. Sensationally heading the table ahead of the second round of matches in Group F is therefore Hungary, who only hours earlier caused a major upset by beating Austria 2-0 (1-0) in Bordeaux. “How could that happen?” asked the headline in the Austrian tabloid, the “Kronenzeitung”.
The favourites had their troubles in the opening matches at the 2016 European Championships. World Champions Germany won fairly comfortably 2-0 (1-0) against Ukraine but did not really impress. The highly-rated Belgian team came undone against Italy in Lyon when losing 2-0 (1-0) whereby the “Azzurri” confounded the sceptics and now have to be taken very seriously by future opponents. Spain, the 2008 and 2012 European Champions, made hard work of beating the Czech Republic 1-0 (0-0) in Toulouse. Another highly-rated team, England conceded a goal in added time against Russia in Marseille to come away with only a point after a 1-1 (0-0) draw. And hosts France had to wait until the 87th minute of the tournament’s opening game before finally scoring the winner against Romania (2-1, 0-0) to bring relief and ecstasy to the home fans in the stadium in Paris.
The two four-time World Cup winners Germany and Italy made the best impressions. And they were involved in two matches that deserved the best marks of all the first 12 matches of the tournament. However without the emotional highlight that substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger supplied after a long sprint to score the second goal in added time, then the match would certainly vanish from the minds of footballs fans everywhere in the next few weeks. “It was a real opening match. The most important thing was that we won and didn’t concede. As for the rest, we have to improve,” said Sami Khedira. In the other Group C encounter beforehand, Poland beat tournament newcomers Northern Ireland 1-0 (0-0).
Italy surprised Belgium in Group E with goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pellè, who clinched the win in the exciting match in added time. Italy picked the oldest team ever at the European Championships as the average age totalled 31.5 years. “For our part it was a very good match. The team has 23 great guys and the chemistry within the team is spot on. We have to stay down to earth. It’s a steep path but the team-spirit is there,” said coach Antonio Conte. In the first Group E match, Ireland and Sweden drew 1-1 (0-0) in Saint Denis.
Dimitri Payet, a man from the overseas department of Réunion in the Indian Ocean who is on the books at West Ham United, saved France from getting off to a bad start. Without the winning goal scored in the 87th minute by the offensive midfielder in the 2-1 victory against Romania, the “Equipe Tricolore’s” performance in the opening match of EURO 2016 would have been very disappointing indeed. Switzerland came away with three points after beating Albania 1-0 (0-0) in Group A. The goal in Lens was scored by Hoffenheim’s Fabian Schär.
In Group B, Wales overcame Slovakia 2-1 (1-0) in Bordeaux. Gareth Bale from Champions League winners Real Madrid opened the scoring with a goal from a free kick just outside the box and added a bit of spice to the duel against England by answering cheekily “none” when asked which of the English players were good enough to make it into the Welsh eleven. England played impressively when kicking off their tournament in Marseille and took the lead with an Eric Dier free-kick but were then undeservedly pegged back by defender Vasili Berezutski’s header in added time (90th +2).
More headlines were produced by the serious disorders before the match and directly after the final whistle in the stadium when Russian hooligans charged the English section of the crowd. UEFA has reacted with a clear signal: Russia will play the rest of EURO 2016 with a suspended sentence hanging over its head. Should there be a repeat of the incidents, the hosts of the 2018 World Cup will be banned from the competition in France.
In Group D, Spain won 1-0 (0-0) against the Czech Republic. In Toulouse, the all-important goal again came late in the game. Barcelona defender Piqué sealed the deserved win in the 87th minute with a header against the defensively-oriented Czechs. The match between the two other group rivals in the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris was also decided by a single goal. Luca Modric from Champions League winner Real Madrid struck to hand Croatia a 1-0 (1-0) win against Turkey.