It was impossible to watch this match without filtering it through the prism of England’s abject non-performance against Iceland. Little Iceland (pop. 330,000) have been charming football fans at these Euros with their plucky displays (and annoying certain Portuguese megastars with their obdurate defending), fuelling romantic fantasies of Leicester City-esque success against overwhelming odds and rational predictions.
On Monday, England’s humiliatingly impotent display against them in the last 16 had made Iceland look like tactical masterminds. But up against genuine title contenders in France, Iceland were brought back down to earth with a big bump. Perhaps they were tired after their exertions against England, or they are a limited, though well-organised and brave, team punching above their weight who were finally overcome by an excellent footballing side.
Either way, France destroyed them in the space of 45 sublime minutes with a breathtaking display of creative, attacking football. Where England had met a brick wall, against the attacking might of France, the Icelandic defence was as porous as a sieve. It had taken France a mere 12 minutes to break through, and by half time, they were 4-0 up. Game over. Though Iceland never gave up and scored 2 goals of their own in the second half, the match had long since ended as a contest at half-time, and the French were even able to add a 5th goal to their tally, to reinforce the gulf in class. Had France found it difficult to break down Iceland, then maybe there might have been some consolation in the thought that Iceland had been underestimated and England were made to look bad by a good team. Instead France were rampant. Heaven knows what that makes England.
Undoubtedly France would have learnt from England’s mistakes. How not to get caught out defensively from very long throws for a start. France also have the benefit of a proper midfield as opposed to an ex-striker and a crock, which usually helps in creating chances for forwards. But ultimately, France are simply a better team and they dispatched a lesser, limited side with the aplomb of potential champions.
Up next for France, bitter rivals Germany. No encounter between these two old foes can escape reference to the horrific foul committed by West Germany’s goalkeeper Harald Schumacher on diminutive Frenchman Patrick Battiston in the 1982 World Cup semi-final, known hauntingly as the ‘Tragedy of Seville’. Battiston still bears the physical scars from the shocking assault, a reckless shoulder charge which left him unconscious, with two front teeth knocked out, three broken ribs and a permanently cracked vertebra. Astonishingly, Schumacher wasn’t even booked and remained insouciant about the life threatening damage he had inflicted upon a fellow player. To compound their misery, a tiring France relinquished a 3-1 lead to draw 3-3 and lost to the Germans on penalties (when do Germany not win on penalties?). Unsurprisingly, even 34 years later, it is an incident that still rankles with the French.
Although France got some semblance of justice when they went on to win the 1984 Euros with Battiston in the side, they have never beaten Germany in a major tournament (except for a meaningless 3rd place play-off win in 1958). France will never have a better opportunity to gain belated revenge in front of their home fans. Just so long as they make sure the match doesn’t go to penalties!