In Good Conscience

Early or late, much to ponder on both sides of the Pond

The Euro or the Copa? I guess that in a neutral country, and given the complexity of time zones in which you might follow either tournament in real time, the question is coloured by whether you prefer to view football with your cornflakes or as a nocturnal feast.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the outstanding games over the next few days and nights kick off as follows:

•Croatia v Portugal (3am tomorrow Singapore time)

•France v Ireland (9pm tomorrow)

•Argentina v Chile (8am Monday)

•Italy v Spain (midnight Tuesday)

•England v Iceland (3am Tuesday)

That spirit of the underdog might even be seen again if Iceland, population 330,000, can eliminate England, population almost 200 times greater, in Nice.

Whether the global game is worth insomnia is for all of us to decide.

But, unlike Mr Diego Maradona, who is courting self-promotion by his pronouncement that Lionel Messi and company should not bother to return home if they lose the Copa America Centenario final, we might try to judge by what we see on the fields of play.

One man who is in the perfect position to judge is Jurgen Klinsmann. The German-born coach of the United States national side said this before the events began on both sides of the Pond:

"If you compare this Copa America with its 16 nations to the Euros, then I almost think you have more quality in this Copa than you have in the diluted 24-team version of the European Championship."

Point taken, Herr Klinsmann.

However, after his Americans fell 0-4 to Argentina, the coach had to admit: "After the early goal, I think our players could feel that, probably in every position, they were just better than we are."

Not probably, but certainly. Argentina completed 625 passes to America's 191. And the US did not muster a single shot on goal.

Yet all in all, if you measure entertainment by the end-product, the Copa has rattled along at three goals per game. The Euro compares with less than two on average, even with that sparkling 3-3 draw between Hungary and Portugal in which, at last, Cristiano Ronaldo stopped sulking and showed his magnificent shooting and heading ability.

Why was the striking of so much of Europe so subdued? Because the format, "diluted" as Klinsmann observed from afar, encouraged dullness. The fact was that only the eight weakest teams out of 24 were going to be eliminated - and as Portugal demonstrated, you could progress to the second stage by not even winning a game, just draw the three matches.

Europe's expansion (at least in football if no longer in politics after Thursday's Brexit vote) was designed to help France rebuild 10 stadiums, and ended up with a bloated first round of 36 games, so many of which were played with the handbrake on.

You cannot blame the players. Some of the pitches cut up rough after heavy rain and too many games. And some of the coaches, like Italy's, changed their players wholesale once they had qualified to save some freshness for the coming knockout phase.

It's called tournament savvy, and Italy are the masters of it.

But back to the European/South American debate.

Diego Latorre, a player who was touted in his teens as the "New Maradona", is now a TV commentator and he wrote a column in the Buenos Aires paper La Nacion this week.

In it, he claimed: "On this side of the Atlantic, most players think firstly about dribbling, and top strikers in the Copa America have this in their soul."

A generalisation. Most of us can think of some dark destroyers from the Latin continent, but it's certainly true that Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez, Dani Alves bring a beauty to Barcelona that, combined with the likes of Andres Iniesta is the most compelling football on earth.

There again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Countless fans around the world, and not in either the European or South American camps, found Leicester City's capture of the English Premier League title just about the most thrilling thing in sport this year.

That spirit of the underdog might even be seen again if Iceland, population 330,000, can eliminate England, population almost 200 times greater, in Nice.

I'm not forecasting it, but it would be fascinating to be in the shoes of Jamie Vardy, who was part of the Foxes' triumph, and will at least be on the bench against Iceland.

And Scandinavia has produced this kind of shock, this romance even in the European Championship. Think back to 1992, when there were only eight teams in the Euro and when Denmark, given only 11 days' notice to play in the tournament after the United Nations banned Yugoslavia, went out and won it.

Team spirit won that tournament. Denmark had just voted in its referendum to stay out of Europe's political and financial union. In Copenhagen (the place where fairy tales happen) I shared dinner this month with Kim Vilfort, whose goal won the '92 Euro, and with other members of the team.

They all, still, have that bond, that unity which helped them to beat England, France, the Netherlands and Germany along the way.

At whatever hour you or I watch any of the coming games going into next week, we may not see a Denmark or a Leicester shock of those proportions.

We might settle for an Argentinian display that finally puts Messi up there as a major winner with his country as he has been with Barcelona.

And we might see a most intriguing example of just rewards if Ireland get any kind of recompense against France. They say what goes around, comes around, and a group of Irish supporters carried a banner this week reading: "Even Henry couldn't handle us now."

The words reflect Irish hurt from seven years ago when Thierry Henry's deliberate, deceitful hand-ball set up the goal that eliminated Ireland in the 2010 World Cup play-offs.

He is paid now as a TV analyst for the BBC on these European games. He is French, so he loves justice. Wouldn't it be fun to hear him say bravo to the Irish if the hand of fate goes against his own country tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'Early or late, much to ponder on both sides of the Pond'. Print Edition | Subscribe