As those of us glued to France 2016 take a breath, avoid watching the news and mentally pixelate the image of the nation’s most visible unelected one-time fascism-curious teenager beaming like a vampiric little pug that’s just laid a great steaming mess in the middle of your antique Aubusson rug, there is, as ever, some solace to be taken in the football.
It was, lest we forget, just getting good. Not only off the pitch where the benevolent engagement of the Irish, Northern Irish, Welsh and English (in Saint-Étienne) supporters was helping to defrost some of France’s chillier extremities. But also on it, where the football had shown some signs of shedding its group stage caution.
Perhaps future historians poring over Euro 2016, the last great tournament before the Dark Times, will divide the action up into pre- and post splash. Certainly something seemed to shift on the final day of group matches, around about the time Cristiano Ronaldo threw an interviewer’s microphone into a lake in Linas-Marcoussis, resembling in that moment a kind of spray-tan King Arthur, tortured by his own curdled powers, hurling his fuzzy-tipped Excalibur into the waters.
A few hours later Ronaldo finally blew his load against Hungary in the tournament’s most riotous match so far. Pre-splash the goals-per-game rate had stood at just under two. Post-splash the last round of group action brought 11 goals in four, plus last-minute thrills, Icelandic death-metal commentary hysteria and a decisive advance for cajoling, tyre-changing, sing-songing aggressive imperialist Irish bonhomie.
Really, though, the most significant thing about that mic-chuck was its graceless but still welcome sense of mischief. This was, let’s face it, pretty much the first spontaneous thing Ronaldo had done since he got to France. Against Austria three days earlier he was almost a parody of new‑era Ronaldo, so intent on applying himself as a reduced, distilled presence, high-grade footballing plutonium, that for long periods he barely seemed to move at all.
Against Hungary he was more animated, demonstrating that he is still a physically inventive athlete, just in miniature form, creativity poured almost exclusively into high-precision movements near goal. In this sense Ronaldo is the gold standard of modern attacking play. Gone are the long-dead frills and jinks, the sense of trying to invent the game on the run, create his own imaginative patterns. Tough guys don’t dance. Ronaldo doesn’t dribble.
But then who does these at these Euros? Apart, that is, from England. In perhaps the most curious stat of a curious group stage, England were the most prolific dribblers in the competition, with a total of 85 attempted over 270 minutes. This is, for the avoidance of doubt, the same England whose possession‑based play has been criticised for its lack of thrust. But who have, according to the website WhoScored, 12 outfield players with more successful dribbles than Ronaldo, once the master of the fast-twitch shimmy, the slaloming surge.
The first thing to take from England’s spot on the dribble list is the generally risk-averse nature of much attacking play elsewhere in the early matches. The tone has been cautious, every team in that bloated first round balancing on a raft from which only a few will fall, the trick being to lurk in the centre and just keep scuttling away from the very edges.
The second thing is the basic change in the idea of what constitutes a dribble. The power-running of the modern game is one thing, using speed and athleticism to ferry the ball into unoccupied space. It isn’t the classic definition of a dribble, for which a defender must be engaged and beaten by some element of trickery, taking the space your opponent was protecting rather than simply surging off elsewhere.
Gareth Bale has been the top individual dribbler and a genuinely destructive runner in the surging modern style. Bale’s talent is to make the game look suddenly as though it has stopped, a rugby league-ish ability to see a gap and slingshot through it, all power and balance and purity of movement, seeing a running lane the way others can see a channel for a pass.
There are more traditional dribblers around. Nolito has an almost indecent feathery touch on the ball. Dimitri Payet will always slalom and jink. But the more bolshy ones start to edge out toward the fringes. Leroy Sané hasn’t had a kick yet. Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who had a Brazilian crowd on its feet at his malandro trickery two years ago, has been dispossessed more than any other player at this tournament. Oi. Xherdan. No. Hold it, mate.
We are unlikely to experience a sudden wave of matadorial dribbling from here on. This has not been an expressive, chancy tournament. And yet the optimist likes to hope that, post mic-splash, as we edge out of the grapple of the group stage, a little high-end risk will begin to find some reward.
Something somewhere will have to give to separate this well-matched field. How refreshing if it could be the odd moment of improv, if coaches and players could find the boldness to take that calculated chance. The past two weeks have been steady and feverishly contained. Who knows, it might just be the moment to dance a little.
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