Neil Humphreys reviews Euro 2016
As France prepares to take down the banners after a long, long tournament, our columnist looks back at Euro 2016's highlights, lowlights and the Tom Jones sing-alongs with Welsh supporters
REPORTING FROM PARIS
1 RIGHT FINALISTS AT THE RIGHT TIME
Euro 2016 got the dream date at the Stade de France this morning (Singapore time).
Paris got the party its tired, jittery people deserved.
It's easy to elevate sport into something greater or make it insultingly simplistic. The host nation's appearance in the final didn't cure a country still in a state of emergency.
But all positive distractions were welcome. Les Bleus' euphoric journey to the final gave the country something to talk about other than strikes and political turmoil.
For a while, the football, their football, took precedence.
Of course, Les Bleus had to face an opponent and why not the continent's biggest player in the continent's biggest showpiece?
Cristiano Ronaldo against the host nation seemed almost unfair, casting a self-made colossus in the role of potential party-spoiler.
But France and Portugal, rather like the tournament itself, started slowly before peaking when it mattered.
2 HOSTS DID THEIR BEST
At the Paris Fan Zone, an idiot with firecrackers exposed the city's fragility.
The loud bangs triggered a stampede, as tens of thousands of people dashed for the exit and the Germany-Italy game no longer mattered. But most of the frightened spectators returned, slowly, apprehensively, to watch the penalty shoot-out.
That incident neatly summed up the tournament in France. Under the circumstances, the host nation did their best.
A country in a state of emergency shouldn't be burdened with the added security risk of hosting an international sporting event, where the risk of a terror attack is omnipresent.
But the security guards, police officers, soldiers, Uefa officials, volunteers and, most importantly of all, the weary general public conducted themselves impeccably under trying circumstances.
Euro 2016 wasn't perfect. It couldn't be. France suffered terror threats, political protests, strikes and a refugee crisis. Even the weather in northern France was mostly rubbish.
And yet, the courteous, patient French did themselves proud.
3 YOUTH AND EXPERIENCE UNITE
Julian Draxler. PHOTO: REUTERS
Ronaldo and Renato Sanches, Patrice Evra and Samuel Umtiti, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Julian Draxler, Italy's back three and Mattia de Sciglio - this was the tournament of transition.
The old and the new came together. As the established greats from Spain showed their age and England's young guns displayed their farcical incompetence, it was left to the nations who best blended youth and experience.
No country resembled the explosive German kids at the 2006 World Cup, nor looked like the old Spanish masters who churned out one last trophy at Euro 2012.
But the teams that successfully combined the two, acknowledging the dearth of superstars to prop them up with speedy youngsters, went furthest in the tournament.
4 COACHES COME TO THE FORE
For the most part, the tactics overlapped into something broadly consistent and familiar.
Possession football lost its relevance shortly after Euro 2012. Counter-pressing, via those swift surges from wingbacks, was the tactic of choice in France.
The framework was occasionally tweaked, but Portugal, France, Wales, Germany and, particularly Italy, all favoured a similar approach.
The only difference was how the coaches reacted when the strategy wasn't working.
Didier Deschamps, Joachim Loew and Antonio Conte (above) all tinkered successfully. Fernando Santos and Chris Coleman fashioned templates that made the most of their limited resources.
Roy Hodgson and Marc Wilmots, on the other hand, showed what happens when a manager sends out his best players on paper, crosses his fingers and hopes for the best.
5 UNDERDOGS HAVE THEIR DAYVIKINGS: The Iceland team and fans (above) win over the world with their fairtytale run. PHOTO: REUTERS
Everyone knows the stats. The population of 330,000, the 10 per cent of the country being in France and the lack of sunlight, pitches and infrastructure, those wonderful Icelandic Vikings were a series of Trivial Pursuit questions disguised as Euro 2016 underdogs.
Iceland has more volcanoes than professional footballers, for heaven's sake. And yet, they came, they saw and they clapped, thousands of them, giving the world the greatest fairy tale from a snowy country since Frozen.
Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson formed Iceland's unlikely coaching duo. The latter was a part-time dentist, which was rather apt. Sitting through some of the early group games was like pulling teeth, until the dentist's men showed up, spreading through the tournament like laughing gas. They left everyone smiling.
The same could be said for the Welsh, both on and off the field. Coleman's men exceeded expectations and so did their supporters. The night they crammed onto a metro station platform and serenaded Parisians with the Tom Jones classic Delilah will never be forgotten by those lucky enough to witness the surreal sing-along.
1 THE 'STUPID' FORMAT
Germany's Lukas Podolski said what most participants - and viewers - were thinking.
"The group stage was a little bit strange, because Uefa did some stupid things with the system," Podolski said. "You lose the first two games and you still have a chance to get through."
And he was right. Euro 2016 shuffled around for a fortnight while spectators clapped politely, like concert-goers enduring the unknown support act before U2 turned up.
Michel Platini's grand (and greedy) vision of an expanded, 24-team format succeeded only in proving that a 16-team tournament was the right size all along. Euro 2016 wasn't improved with the inclusion of Hungary, Ukraine, Sweden, Albania or Austria, among others.
The lack of jeopardy in the group stage saw too many low-scoring wins and draws, typified by Northern Ireland playing for a 1-0 defeat by Germany. The idea that lesser nations get a chance to shine in the spotlight is nonsense. That's what the two-year qualification process is far.
Such a tournament exists for the best teams to produce good football. In this respect, Euro 2016 succeeded in only the knockout stages.
2 THE ENGLAND OBSESSION
Raheem Sterling. PHOTO: REUTERS
The Three Lions headed into their last-16 clash with Iceland with only six knockout wins at major tournaments since 1966.
And still, it was all about England. The hype, the hope, the inept management, the abject performances, the excess hysteria in the media, the call for sackings, beheadings and bankruptcies - it was all present and incorrect. (The maddest story criticised those spoilt brats for asking for head rests on planes. The outrage!)
Euro 2016 was the latest example of a tournament being better off once the England bandwagon trundled towards oblivion. The Brexit referendum, which went down about as well as Raheem Sterling in France, along with the sunburnt knuckle-scrapers singing songs about terror attacks, only added to the irritation.
3 THUGS NEARLY KILLED THE FOOTBALL
First, the English clashed with locals in Marseille and were rewarded with tear gas.
Then the Russians turned up, well drilled, organised and professional in their violence.
And finally, the Croats demonstrated their political grievances towards the country's football authorities by letting off flares and fighting with each other.
Collectively, the street fighting and stadium riots threatened to overwhelm the tournament, until arrests, punishments and deportations took effect. In the end, the countries were knocked out of the tournament, taking their bloodied fists and broken bottles with them.
Football won, but only just.