Ken Early: Blindsided by a glorious day of Euros football

Return of fans to stadiums has inspired players to produce the best football of year

Hungary players congratulate team-mate Attila Fiola  after he scored against France at the Ferenc Puskas Stadium in Budapest. Photograph: Laszlo Balogh/Pool

Hungary players congratulate team-mate Attila Fiola after he scored against France at the Ferenc Puskas Stadium in Budapest. Photograph: Laszlo Balogh/Pool

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It’s been a humbling weekend for those of us who spent the build-up to the European Championships warning of dull football and exhausted, half-interested players. Saturday was a glorious technicolour day of tournament football – probably the best day of football played anywhere in the world this year.

It blindsided us, much as that mob of celebrating Hungarian players blindsided Edit Szalay, the pitchside announcer who took her eye off the action in the moment immediately after Attila Fiola’s goal against France. She seemed to be looking for something in a bag when suddenly Fiola and Laszlo Kleinheisler were right on top of her desk, screaming and sweating and scattering papers and plastic water bottles, as team-mates rushed to join the ruck and ecstatic fans reached down from above.

After the initial instant of astonishment, Szalay smiled and raised her arms, half in celebration and half in self-defence. Order had been engulfed by chaos, and it felt . . . pretty good?

If the players are wearied by the rigours of a long season, and many of them undoubtedly are, it seems they are also inspired to be playing in front of crowds again after a year in silent stadiums. Even more than being athletes, footballers are creative performers who respond to the energy of the spectators, and that, for all we talk about coaches and tactics and strategy, in the end so many matches come down to which of these performers is inspired to seize the moment and bend it to their will.

The atmosphere of the day was established by the shots of the huge Puskas Arena in Budapest full with 60,000 spectators, a once-familiar sight that now seems thrilling and strange, like some futuristic barbarian colosseum at the end of the world. Hungary had played it safe against Portugal and lost 3-0. They decided this time they would die with their boots on and surprised France by attacking them in swarms. France missed enough chances to win three games. Hungary had one chance and Fiola made it count. Used to playing within themselves, France struggled to go up the gears when they needed to.

Big-match atmosphere

The stadium in Munich at 20 per cent capacity did not have quite the Thunderdome intensity of Budapest, but it turns out that when it comes to generating a big-match atmosphere the first 15,000 spectators are the most important.

In their defeat to France last week Germany had been tame and tentative, meek and mild. Imagine Portugal’s shock when this time the Germans rolled in like an out-of-control motorcycle gang intent on destruction.

Only a couple of minutes had passed when Robin Gosens arrived at the far post contorting his body to smash in a volley that looked like something out of a Matrix movie. The goal was chalked off by VAR, but the moment served notice of Gosens’s bad intentions. Over the following hour he would emerge as Germany’s wrecker-in-chief.

Portugal’s success in the last Euros was all about defensive organisation: few teams are as compact without the ball. Their ability to close the gaps, so effective against teams that try to pass through Portugal’s lines, proved redundant against a team that went over them.

Germany’s method was as simple as it was devastating. They fanned out across the pitch, penned Portugal in, and lofted the ball to the far side for Gosens to apply the hammer. With a goal and in effect two assists, the left wing-back was the man of the match, but his was only the most spectacular of several brilliant German performances.

Toni Kroos has been controlling top-level football matches for a decade but he surely cannot have given many better performances than this. He hit 85 passes of which 83 found a team-mate, and when he was not passing it himself he was pointing to where it needed to go, shaping the play, choosing the point of attack. With Kroos organising everything from the centre, the German attackers can move forward confident he will find a way to get the ball to them at the right moment.

Kai Havertz also produced an outstanding performance. When Gosens was firing cannonballs against the walls of Portugal’s defence, Havertz was on the inside picking up the pieces. A 6ft 2in forward with the balance and quickness of a smaller man, he was equally adept at ghosting away from defenders or kicking them to the ground, and whether he was scoring or fouling he did it all with the same cold unsmiling ruthlessness. An indication of the irresistible forward momentum of Germany’s attacks was the way Havertz kept ending up in the Portugal net, as though washed in there on a wave.

Astonishing

These German performances were ennobled by the presence in the opposition ranks of Ronaldo, who lit up the match in defeat. Portugal’s captain made it 1-0 with a classic counter-attack, his sheer desire to score spurring him to sprint clear of the cover before anyone else had realised a goal was on. Although the ball went to Bernardo Silva and then to Diogo Jota, Ronaldo was always in control of the move, the game momentarily forced to obey the gravitational field of his will. He assisted Portugal’s second with an astonishing Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon move to cut the ball back for Jota, and along the way he found time to taunt Rüdiger, Germany’s meanest defender, with a double showboat.

Ronaldo lost but he had showed us what he is all about, as Gosens, Kroos and Havertz had done, as Robert Lewandowski would do later in Seville – knocking Aymeric Laporte out of the way to save Poland with that far-post header – as even the Spanish Hamlet, Alvaro Morata, did in his self-doubting, self-defeating way. And ultimately, watching these performers show us who and what they are is the whole thrill of the thing.

The sight of Kroos and Ronaldo embracing at the end was a reminder that although there had been a winner and a loser, we were all the better for that experience we had just been through. In that moment you could forget about what it means for the tournament, the permutations of qualification, all the what-happens-next we spend most of our lives worrying about – and instead feel simple gratitude that they had put on the show, and we had been lucky enough to watch.

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