Euro 2016

French finally serve up tie to behold

Fans in Lyon watching host nation France put world champions Germany to the sword.
Fans in Lyon watching host nation France put world champions Germany to the sword.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MARSEILLE • To travel round France at times this past month has been to wonder if this is a reluctant host nation, but on Thursday the party came alive - Antoine Griezmann turning up the volume - just in time for last orders.

It took until the 50th of 51 games at this new, expanded European Championship but finally there was a humdinger of a game; two powerful teams, a see-sawing battle and a home crowd with passions ignited.

France pulled off a victory which had seemed so improbable until they took the lead on the stroke of half-time.

They are now pitched into a climax against a Portugal side looking for their first major trophy.

The challenge for that denouement is to live up to the levels of intensity present on Thursday when the hosts toppled Germany.

Many went longing for a classic, feeling they were owed one by a tournament that has relied too heavily on the bark of underdogs.

Wales and Iceland were the uplifting stories, the unexpected romances of the summer, teams that everyone could cheer (and did), unfamiliar heroes to most of Europe.

But tournaments are remembered for teams propelled by great players, or epic clashes.

There was one in the Stade Velodrome, real, heavyweight football.

The belief is we can now have a memorable final to what has not been a classic Euro tournament, although do not tell that to fans in Reykjavik, Cardiff, or Tirana.

If the point of expansion was to spread the joy of tournament football, then Albania went home with their first victory. Hungary were involved for the first time since 1972.

But the Scots and Irish must be blamed for proposing the expansion to 24 teams - and former Uefa president Michel Platini for taking up the baton - and allowing a sense of dilution that was inevitable.

With three teams progressing from most groups, there were bound to be average sides eking out draws. With more countries, it was bound to feel more slack, less urgent.

It felt longer to get to an epic battle like Thursday's.

It summed up a group stage notable for being the lowest-scoring in history that Portugal's 3-3 thriller with Hungary provided the most drama. And that only for Portugal to squeeze through, third in their group, before reaching the final on the back of one win in normal time.

Good luck to minnows.

This championship has thrown up some quirky winners - Denmark in 1992, Greece in 2004 - but fans also want the strongest teams to be challenged.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'French finally serve up tie to behold'. Print Edition | Subscribe