“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
- Lewis Carrol, Alice in the Wonderland
Two years back, the odds of Welsh dragons as serious Euro contenders were 500-1. A year ago, Leicester City had not even begun their stunning march to the top of the Premier League. Just a month back, 30,000 of the Iceland’s 300,000 residents wouldn’t have even imagined cheering on their team as Europe’s best battled it out for continental glory. A week back, Lisbon’s streets were not bursting with fans, welcoming their first European title home.
It has been a phenomenal football season. The word ‘fairytale’ has been used in abundance to describe how jabberwocky football has been the last season.
It was at the end of 2015 when we finally conceded that a storm was coming. Leicester’s meteoric rise from the bottom of the English Premier League was no longer a fluke. It was reality, impending doom for the monopolistic six. Arsenal attempted to halt Leicester’s £23-million starting XI with a 2-1 last-minute win in February but it was in vain -- the unlikely champions ‘dilly donged’ their way to the big prize without losing nine games (7 wins, 2 draws) after the match. Arsenal, on the other hand, settled for second-slot finish.
Ironically, it were Tottenham Hotspur who came the closest to waging a war against Claudio Raneiri’s boys. Gunners were second but the first first-time winners in 55 years deservedly marked their territory before Arsene Wenger’s team went rolling down the hill.
London’s remaining royals together with Manchester rivals and Liverpool were lost in the playing field, reduced to slugging it out for a Champions League position.
Who would have thought the rough and tumble had just begun.
With the exception of Wales and Iceland, a lacklustre Euro with mediocre performances -- even from undisputed world leader Germany and defending champions Spain -- unfolded as Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal etched their names in sporting history on July 10.
Uefa’s expanded format for Euro 2016 may have catapulted a third-placed Portugal in group stages to the next round but it was only in the final against France that Fernando Santos’ boys commanded respect. Unlike Leicester, Portugal weren’t consistent or even convincing, scraping by group stages without a win and an unimpressive three wins in the seven games they played in the tournament. It were wonder-kid’ Renato Sanches, the six-goal thriller against Hungary and Ronaldo’s now-famous tears after being injured eight minutes into the final that pulled Portugal out from the ditches of the condemned.
German midfielder Philipp Lahm, in an open letter to Goal.com, described Portugal’s victory as: “It is not the hardest-working team that wins but the luckiest.”
He went on to say, “And I like that.” Well, we can’t complain either.
There are victors and there are heroes. An invincible Achilles humiliated Hector but it was the just and kind loser protecting his brother who was venerated in the Trojan War.
Wales and Iceland upheld these values. The obscure, first-time Euro competitors turned the championship into a battle of national pride and team spirit; the same can’t be said of Belgium and England.
Wales bowed out gracefully in the semifinal against France after toiling admirably and Iceland’s thunderclap celebrations resounded gleefully through Euro 2016. The Nordic nation carved a niche for itself as the “small-mentality” blues upset champions and fuelled England’s misery in the knockout round.
The unforgettable gem was, however, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale who directed Welsh attack on and off the pitch and dominated headlines for baiting English rivals into an avoidable toxic banter that spiced up the otherwise insipid competition.
Luckily, it isn’t over as far as miracles go. A pattern is emerging in other competitions too.
In late June, Chile devastated Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the Copa America Centenario in a replay of the 2015 final.
In Europe, under the stewardship of Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid have challenged Spanish kings in the past few years. Tossing away the largely two-sided competition between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Atletico were crowned La Liga champions in 2014 and climbed their way to the Champions League final, setting up a Madrid derby for two consecutive years including last season. They lost both, meritoriously.
On the German front, Borussia Dortmund have bravely duelled with Bavarian conquerors and snatched the Bundesliga title from Bayern Munich twice – in 2011 and 2012.
If these fairytales are to be counted, it’s seven impossible things. And just like the Cat tells Alice, “It doesn’t matter which way you go” -- as long as the path leads somewhere.