Football, bloody hell!
The greatest day ever of knockout football?
Football is much more than a beautiful game that Bob Marley immortalized with his memorable quotes. When it is at its best, it has an astounding, chaotic quality that inspires awe.
Our experience of this beautiful game on 28th June 2021 was one of its best. It is arguably the best two knockout games to have played on the same night. On the 18th day of the Euro 2020, by the end of two amazing matches, there were some indelible moments of beauty in the form of Simon’s redemption after his unfortunate error, Alvaro Morata’s rasping volley, Hugo Lloris emphatic penalty save, Karim Benzema's sublime touch and slick finish or any one of those countless artistic strokes of genius from the prodigious Pedri, Luka Modric, Paul Pogba, and even the frequently criticized Granit Xhaka. Contrary to what we've been accustomed to during this pandemic, these games oscillated between frenetic, exuberant atmospheres we haven't experienced for so long. In addition to the restrictions on fans and other challenges being posed by COVID-19, there is a growing sense of hope that Euro 2020 could be just what Europe needed after such a dreadful year. Moreover, it emphasized how unpredictable the game will always be, which was another welcome reminder at a time when there is still talk about creating new competitions like European Super League that will only be open to the most powerful and influential football clubs.
Monday night began with a textbook manifestation of inherent Spanish tactics. Spain had almost 80% of the possession. Croatia was forced deep by the Spanish fullbacks. Quite a bit of passing was done sideways. At least twice, Spain should have been in the lead. Koke sunk his shot into the goalkeeper's outstretched right boot after seizing on Pedri's clever pass. Then Alvaro Morata, whose misses have drawn a flurry of social media abuse, missed a header from a Ferran Torres cross. As this familiar pattern of Spanish persistence and wastefulness was settling in, Croatia exploded onto the scene. During the group stage, only 12 shots were conceded by Spain, and they still conceded the same number of shots when Croatia took the lead when Unai Simón stood still and allowed Pedri's backpass to slip past him. It was the ninth own goal of the tournament, equal to all of the previous Euros combined.
Despite a blip, Spain had returned to control by the end of the half and was level after Pablo Sarabia scored on the rebound after José Gayà's shot was saved. In the second half, Croatia suddenly changed its way of playing and began pressing more which meant there was space behind its defensive line, and immediately Spain was able to exploit it. Rather than passing in front of the defence, Spain was able to pierce it. César Azpilicueta headed his first senior international goal from a Torres cross, and Torres himself added the third from a quickly taken free-kick.
The game appeared to be over at that point, but when Spain holds the ball high up the pitch, it is vulnerable at the back due to its creaking offside trap. Panic erupted as balls heaved into the box. As a result of a scramble in the 85th minute, Croatia's Mislav Oršić managed to force the ball across the line, and then two minutes into stoppage time, Mario Pašalić converted Oršić's cross to send the game into extra time.
As a result of an exciting game characterized by chaos, Oršić's shot went wide, and then Simon atoned his earlier blunder by pulling off an extraordinary save from Andrej Kramarić's effort to preserve the match. Missing those opportunities was critical. Spain again dominated with Dani Olmo at the helm. It became a game of character rather than style, and Morata exemplified that more than most despite being criticized for his wastefulness and consistent offside goals. Having controlled his ball expertly with his left before striking it with ease from close range, he put Spain in front after 100 minutes.
Three minutes later, Mikel Oyarzabal scored their fifth goal, and it was all over. Spain won the match and two players who had come up short had an opportunity to redeem themselves. For an hour or so, Spain-Croatia was the game of the tournament. However, the twists and turns involved in the second game of the day added a special element to its allure.
Haris Seferovic headed a Steven Zuber cross past Hugo Lloris for a shock lead against the Euro favourites just before the 15-minute mark. The rest of the first half was a boring affair for France as the Swiss took control with a 1-0 lead into halftime. There was nothing good about France for 55 minutes as they were on the brink of elimination. In the space of just over four minutes, Hugo Lloris saved a penalty and Karim Benzema, whose recall to the France squad was so controversial, scored twice. A brilliant touch from himself was the catalyst for the first goal, and Mbappe's assist came from a back-heel flick. A brilliant third goal from Pogba, who was flourishing in midfield, made it seem that a 20-minute purple patch was enough for the world champions.
However, Switzerland, driven on by Xhaka, refused to give up. With five minutes left to play, Seferovic headed in his second goal, and Mario Gavranovic snatched an equalizer in the 90th minute, just after France’s Kingsley Coman hit the crossbar. Although Olivier Giroud twice came close to a winner in the extra-time, the match was decided on penalties, where Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer saved Kylian Mbappe's penalty shot after five Swiss players had scored to earn their first win in a tournament shootout. Hence, an eventful day of football ended in a spectacular way with the exit of Euro 2020 favourites, France in a penalty shootout to Switzerland.
Since lockdown was lifted last June and clubs and national teams have begun playing catch-up, fatigue has been expected to play an important role in this tournament. Does fatigue reduce excitement, or does it bring more? Were tired legs and tired minds causing mistakes, leaving Croatia and Switzerland vulnerable to the pressure they applied in the latter stages of the game, with nothing to lose? or Did the type of wild fluctuations resulting from a move away from rigid, safety-first football produce victories in previous UCL knockouts for Barcelona, Roma, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, amongst others? Certainly, the quality of the defending has left much to be desired.
What happened that night will be engraved in Switzerland’s footballing folklore, including those TV images of one Swiss fan who immediately became a social media phenomenon as he appeared to be transformed from Bruce Banner to Incredible Hulk over the course of 90 seconds as he went from mourning imminent elimination to celebrating that equalising goal.
This is what football can do, lifting people out from the depths of despair and propelling them into the heights of that unexplainable feeling that drives them to rip off their shirts and scream with primal ferocity.
All logic said that should not have happened, but this was not a day on which logic played a huge role. But if these games underlined one thing, it was the futility of looking too far ahead. Where Croatia had fallen narrowly short against Spain in extra-time, Switzerland’s unwavering spirit won the day against the world champions.
These moments were enthralling, filled with thrill and excitement of the highest order. In a way, it was beautiful.