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Ken Early: It’s all about the football as England bring the firepower and Portugal bring Cristiano Ronaldo

Euro 2024 is a chance to get a break from the endless legal and financial drama of club football – it’s like watching a purer version of the game

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring Portugal's second goal against Republic of Ireland during their international friendly on Tuesday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

International tournaments used to mean a rare chance to see the best players all playing against each other. Now the best players mostly play for a dozen top European club teams who play each other all the time. Something has been lost.

But something has also been gained. The new charm of tournaments is that they give us a break from the interminable legal and financial disputes of club football.

Manchester City suing the Premier League to stand up for the rights of trillionaires; Real Madrid and Barcelona suing over the Super League; the players’ unions suing Fifa over the Club World Cup ... club football has become a game where everybody sues everybody and whoever can afford the best lawyers and accountants wins. Internationals have come to feel like the purer form of the game. At tournaments, football can still be about football.

The relative technical and tactical simplicity of the international game has also surprisingly emerged as a virtue. The concentration of playing and coaching talent at the top clubs has made it impossible for international sides to keep up – but less coaching also means less choreography and more spontaneity.


Didier Deschamps has coached France since 2012 and in that time he has watched the game evolve almost beyond recognition. High pressing and deep build-up play have saturated all levels. Many coaches are now demanding their team control the ball in all phases of the game, with goalkeepers taking more touches and executing more dribbles and passes than the libero-sweepers of the past.

These trends have led to the normalisation of risks that would have seemed crazy to past generations of footballers, as goalkeepers and defenders play five-a-side in their own box against a swarm of attackers.

Deschamps winces at the cheap goals he sees teams giving away when playing out from the back goes wrong. Many coaches now accept these bloopers as the cost of doing business. This makes no sense to Deschamps, for whom not conceding goals is the base for everything else.

France's head coach Didier Deschamps during a training session in Paderborn, Germany on Thursday. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

“I’m interested in the balance between risk and simple, well-done play,” he told El País last week. Instead of choreographed multi-pass build-ups, Deschamps often asks his goalkeeper to go long, trusting his team can seize control of what happens next. If you’re going to take a risk, take it in the opponents’ half.

“The top level is not about scoring goals,” he says. “You have to be able to defend – 40 per cent of the time? 30 per cent? What matters is efficiency and having a balance of different options ... You have to react quickly to changing circumstances.”

France’s matches are often not as exciting as their teamsheet might lead you to expect. But they are the dominant side in international football this decade, reaching three of the last four finals. Across those four tournaments they have played 13 knock-out matches and have not lost any inside 90 minutes. Their only defeat not via penalties was against Portugal, who stunned them with a long-range goal in extra-time in the Euro 2016 final.

Focusing on the defence and letting the attack take care of itself is easier when you’ve got great attacking players, but France aren’t the only Euros contender who can say that. England go into this tournament as the bookies’ favourites and it’s not hard to see why. Four of the seven most productive attacking players in the last edition of the Champions League were English: Harry Kane (12 goal involvements), Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden (nine each) and Bukayo Saka (eight). The only other European player with a comparable record in 23-24 is Kylian Mbappé (eight).

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Such a startling array of firepower is sure to lead to an intensification of the traditional cries for Gareth Southgate to release the shackles and go hell-for-leather. But Southgate has become the most successful England coach since Alf Ramsey by peeping over Deschamps’ shoulder and copying his template. He will surely feel he should stick to the principles that have got him this far – but will the players? When England played France in the 2022 World Cup quarter-final, Southgate told his right back Kyle Walker not to cross the halfway line. The one time Walker ignored the instruction and ran into the French penalty area, France broke down his wing and scored on the counter.

Hosts Germany are the last team to win a tournament with a game that resembled the best contemporary club sides. The 2024 squad even has three members of the team that won the 2014 World Cup in Manuel Neuer, Thomas Müller, and the Real Madrid icon Toni Kroos.

A cult of hero-worship has grown up around the 34-year old Kroos, who will retire from football after the tournament. In Germany they hope he can sprinkle some of that Real Madrid magic on their team, which has produced some of the worst performances in their history over the last three tournaments.

Toni Kroos of Germany during a training session in Herzogenaurach, Germany. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Kroos had retired from the international set-up until the new coach, Julian Nagelsmann, persuaded him to return in time for the March friendlies. His message to his team-mates: “If you have doubt, if you don’t know what to do with the ball, give it to me!” Germany have won each of the three friendlies in which Kroos featured, against France, the Netherlands and Greece.

Of course, Kroos actually played in the 2018 World Cup and the last Euros and the Madrid magic wasn’t much in evidence then. The reason Germans believe this time could be different is that in Jamal Musiala and Florian Wirtz they have two of the best one-on-one attackers in the tournament and Nagelsmann inspires more confidence than did late-stage Joachim Löw or his former assistant Hansi Flick.

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But potentially the most enthralling story involves one of Kroos’s old Real Madrid team-mates. The 2016 champions, Portugal, send a powerful squad which again features Euro 2004 survivor Cristiano Ronaldo, still grimly determined never to stop playing international football. Could this, his 11th tournament, be his last?

We all thought that in Qatar, when he was humiliatingly dropped for Gonçalo Ramos in the second round. So why should he stop after this one when there’s a World Cup in the US only two years away, and Peter Shilton’s world appearance record still to break?

How long can he keep this going? Two years ago it was obvious to everyone that Ronaldo was making Manchester United and Portugal worse. But he has never been one to accept something just because it appears obvious to everybody else.

At the time, his departure to Saudi Arabia seemed like he had settled on the most lucrative way to retire. And yet, it’s been interesting to see footage of him in Saudi Arabia joyously celebrating setting a new league goalscoring record and weeping after a recent Cup final defeat – as though these prizes really meant something.

To Ronaldo they still do. His passion for the game is almost a pathology. You keep dismissing him – he’s 39! it’s over! – then you see him score a goal like his first against Ireland on Tuesday – classic Ronaldo, the blurring feet, the top-corner finish. Gonçalo Ramos can’t do that. Even for the many sceptics and haters, there is an undeniable fascination in waiting to see if Ronaldo can do it again.