Here we go then. Get ready for – well, what exactly? Six years, one dethroned Uefa president,€2bn costs and a thoroughgoing tournament expansion programme in the making, France 2016 is finally upon us.
Not quite in a haze of unbound, horn‑tooting glee; more with a sense of hopeful, cautious excitement that will with any luck begin to rev up through the gears as France and Romania take to the field at Stade de France on Friday night for what seems likely to be a bravura tournament opener.
There is much to savour here. From the moment Michel Platini stood behind his plinth in Geneva six years ago and announced France had won the bidding process, edging out Turkey by a single vote, there has been a genuine frisson of authenticity about this tournament, Europe’s own Coupe des Coupes to follow Brazil’s wild, glorious, wasteful Copa das Copas in 2014.
For Uefa there is even a neat narrative circularity in a return to the place where the modern Euros were effectively born at France 84. That tournament was both a revelation on the pitch, led by Platini’s own brilliantly charismatic champion team, and a point of ignition for the idea of the European Championship as a commercially vibrant eight-team affair.
If Platini has been the constant at either end of this 32-year round trip, the sense of homecoming has of course soured. Until April last year France 2016 still seemed likely to be the final stage in Platini’s own journey from skinny-legged artiste to reformist administrator, still on track to follow Sepp Blatter into the cockpit of the Death Star. Instead Platini will be present as a grudgingly tolerated guest, banned from “football activities” but admitted to his own tournament under licence, like a ne’er do-well dad shunted out to the furthest tables at his daughter’s wedding.
Beyond the familiar back story France launches its third home tournament assailed by wider forces. “We asked ourselves whether we wanted to be candidates in the middle of a crisis,” Nicolas Sarkozy said during his original bid presentation in Geneva. “But sport is the answer to the crisis. It is because we are in a crisis that we need sport.”
Sarkozy was talking about financial crisis. The world has shifted a little since then, France’s responsibilities as host narrowed to a different kind of existential threat. Last November’s terrorist attacks on the Stade de France and other parts of Paris will colour to some degree every moment of this tournament.
If France has a duty here to protect and secure, there is also a shared duty to carry on, to savour the moment, to party like it’s 1984 whatever the lurking chill. France is still in the official state of emergency imposed last November. The police presence on the streets is visible and assertive. Paris will take a deep breath on Friday night. But the games must go on.
On the pitch the hosts are convincing favourites to win the tournament. And yet even here it has been an oddly troubled phony war over two years of friendlies during which Didier Deschamps’ main challenge on the pitch has been bedding down a rare flush of midfield talent. The accusations of racial preference in the selection for these Euros have been scornfully dismissed. Still, though, it is a bruising episode. Deschamps was the stand-in captain for the World Cup final when the melting-pot team of 1998 brought France together after similarly strident noises off, this time from the opposite direction as far-right politicians sniped at the multiracial makeup of the team. Either way football once again sits at the centre of an essentially irresolvable debate, results over the next four weeks cast as a ludicrously reductive gauge, balm and temporary distraction from what are much wider social tensions.
For all that France look settled and ready. Deschamps’ team has thrummed through the last year, winning nine of 10 friendly internationals, keeping five clean sheets, and losing only to England at Wembley in a match the players strolled through in a daze after the killings in Paris.
The defence will be seriously weakened by the absence of the excellent Raphaël Varane. The likely presence of Olivier Giroud as a starting centre-forward might also seem baffling to anyone who watched Arsenal’s title congealment from January through to April. But Giroud has hit a golden seam with France, scoring five goals in his last four starts and acting as a steady, muscular focal point for Deschamps’ real ace, that extravagantly gifted set of players behind the striker.
France may yet go with a five-man midfield of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Blaise Matuidi, Kingsley Coman and Dmitri Payet. It is an almost laughably mouthwatering blend of muscle, speed, flair and pure aristocratic talent. Pogba is of course the real star, linked on the eve of this match with a €120m move to Real Madrid. Deschamps was phlegmatic on the subject in his pre-match press conference, noting that during his time in Italy barely a day passed without an outrageous transfer rumour ot two.
It is, though, a significant stage for Pogba who seems best placed among the coming talents to make France 2016 a springboard, Platini-style, into outright generational ascent. He seems certain to have the stage, with the favourites, France, Spain and Germany likely to push on late in the tournament.
The Premier League season may have spawned underdog champions, but elsewhere Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain are league champions, Real Madrid are kings of Europe and even Sevilla in the Europa League count as more of the same these days.
Of the outsiders Italy, as ever, make a compelling tournament case. Belgium have some wonderful players. Portugal boast the newly enthroned world’s richest athlete and this tournament’s all-round Speedo-posing standout star (plus a decent supporting cast).
England are England: hopeful, angsty but also surprisingly unsettled.
Beyond this the hope is simply that the tournament itself can stand up. For all the sense of a return to one of the sport’s historic superpowers there are still knots in the new-look format to be teased out. How will the spectacle stand up to 51 matches, 36 of those taken up simply with getting rid of eight teams?
Star players will be rested in the churn, squads rotated, the intensity of purpose that is so essential to tournament football diluted. Just ask anyone who’s ever watched the early movements of a cricket or rugby World Cup, where the group stages stretch on endlessly like a lone furrow ploughed across some vast Soviet plain. Long and drawn-out may be good for the pocket, but short and sweet is good for the soul.
This is a Euros to be savoured for other reasons too. Among Platini’s many gifts to tournament football is a kind of built-in obsolescence of the format itself. The same man who gave us France 2016, who sparked this championship as a player, also helped give us Qatar 2022 and the bizarre shemozzle that is Euro 2020, a wretched revenue-squeezing exercise designed simply to rope in as many favourable territories as possible.
With this in mind the tournament world after France 2016 suddenly looks a little strange, a horizon filled with oddities, bodges, hopeful leaps into the unknown. All the more reason then to wring the juice out of France this summer and an epic-scale, oddly nuanced, oddly tender tournament that feels for now like both the start and the end of something.
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