I like flags – they look good, and they mean stuff. The nationalist sentiments they might represent, I can leave. But I like the flags. They’re handsome things.
I like sport, too. It’s like real life, but pretend, and better. So while you probably haven’t wondered, what would Euro 2016 be like if it was a flag contest?, I have. And I didn’t stop at wondering, I went and did it – a football tournament, played out between flags. Does it make sense? Is it logical and internally consistent? Was it worth my time and yours? The answers to these questions (no) and more (what are this idiot’s favourite flags?) will be revealed, only in the crucible of competition.
We begin, in part one, with the group stage.
France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland.
- France 3 – 2 Romania — A pulsating opener. Both sides bring a lot to the clash, but the cleaner and more accurate French edge it.
- Albania 2 – 2 Switzerland — Another back-and-forth affair between two of the tournament’s more distinctive participants. Plenty going on, but these two bold sides cancel each other out.
- Romania 3 – 0 Switzerland — Romania, with a traditional formation enlivened by a dynamic combination, are too much for Switzerland. Their hopes hanging by a thread already, the Swiss must be wondering if their unconventional approach can ever work.
- France 1 – 1 Albania — Hosts and traditional powerhouse, France, are held to an unlikely draw by Albania. I certainly didn’t see it coming. Their unorthodox style is faring better than that of the Swiss, and Albania remain very much alive.
- Romania 0 – 1 Albania — The vibrant Romanians fall victim to their own ambition, and Albania have it. Unbelievable.
- Switzerland 0 – 2 France — No upset here, though, as the clinical French make no mistakes.
The French do what is expected of them, while Albania come out of left field to join them in the next round. Romania face an anxious wait, while Switzerland are left to wonder where they go from here.
England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia.
- Wales 3 – 1 Slovakia — With strong fundamentals and a dash of invention, Slovakia land an early blow. But Wales surge back quickly and decisively, and justify their pre-tournament hype. They’re here to win – believe it.
- England 0 – 1 Russia — A dire match-up, with very little to recommend it. Russia edge it, but it’s hard to see either side going far here without the kind of sweeping changes that are so hard to implement in vexillology.
- Russia 0 – 3 Slovakia — Seemingly so much alike, but Slovakia have just a little extra. They press their advantage ruthlessly en route to a surprisingly dominant win.
- England 0 – 5 Wales — Just a rout. Wales are rampant, and the English have no answer.
- Russia 1 – 4 Wales — Russian resistance lasts marginally longer than England’s did, and they even sneak a late consolation goal. It’s of little consequence, though, as the Welsh are irresistible in the end.
- Slovakia 2 – 1 England — England exceed expectations by even registering a goal, but their goose is well and truly cooked. The surprisingly effective Slovakian outfit comes through more comfortably than the final score would suggest.
Wales progress with a flourish and put the competition on red alert, while nobody will relish a knockout clash with the previously unfancied Slovakia. A third place finish gives Russia a slim and frankly unwarranted chance to progress. For that, they owe a debt to England’s wretched effort – they go home early yet again, and surely the time has come to tear it down and start over.
Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland.
- Poland 0 – 0 Northern Ireland — An unwatchable affair. Frankly, both sides deserved to lose. Best not to dwell.
- Germany 2 – 3 Ukraine — Much better – one of the contests of the tournament so far. Both sides boast solid foundations, illuminated by an abundance of flair, but with such differing approaches. Ukraine strike late to win it, but Germany can hold their heads up too. A joyful credit to vexillology.
- Ukraine 4 – 2 Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland actually land a couple of blows unexpectedly, though replays show that the second was clearly knocked in by the red hand. Make no mistake, though, they’re outclassed by Ukraine, who now have one foot in the next round.
- Germany 4 – 1 Poland — A clash with a lot of history behind it, but let’s not talk about that … anyway, it was ages ago. Here in the present, and speaking only in terms of flags, the Poles have no answer, and it’s another crushing win for Germany. Sorry, not another. Or crushing. Just a win. Here and now. In a flag contest … it was ages ago.
- Northern Ireland 0 – 6 Germany — The Germans are well past their opening defeat and really firing now, and this one is an absolute shellacking.
- Ukraine 3 – 0 Poland — While they deploy identical formations, Ukraine fill theirs with a combination full of energy and verve while Poland can only respond with a pairing as tired as it is unbalanced. It’s Ukraine’s by three, but it could have been much more.
Ukraine turn some heads by topping Germany, but both will progress as real threats. With their own feeble draw their only source of points, Poland and Northern Ireland go home. They will not be missed.
Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia.
- Turkey 2 – 1 Croatia — Turkey bring a distinctive look to the tournament, while Croatia’s is perhaps the most perfectly average. There’s value in average, but the steady Croatians are outdone by Turkish flair in a close contest.
- Spain 0 – 3 Czech Republic — Spain come in with a unique combination and high hopes, but their campaign is in trouble early. Red, white and blue in a simple geometric pattern – it’s a common premiss, but nobody does it like the Czech Republic. They might be the class of the tournament.
- Czech Republic 3 – 1 Croatia — On similar foundations, these two sides have built radically different houses. Croatia’s is sound, but little more, and the Czechs win at a canter.
- Spain 2 – 2 Turkey — End-to-end and full of cut and thrust, these two vibrant entries play to a highly watchable draw. But that will be slim consolation for Spain as they stand on the brink of a disappointing early exit.
- Croatia 1 – 1 Spain — Desperately needing a win, Spain instead get pulled into an arm-wrestle, and ultimately stalemate as Croatia, despite their own needs, show little ambition. A dour draw sends both home.
- Czech Republic 3 – 0 Turkey — After chalking up the results they needed against unimaginative Croatia and over-aggressive Spain, Turkey are put in their place by the Czech Republic.
Croatia, so solid but lacking anything to really get the fans out of their seats, probably couldn’t have found themselves in a worse group. They’re made to look tired by opponents full of energy and vigour, and look in need of a refresh. On the other hand, Spain came in doing so much right, but things just didn’t go their way. Turkey will go forward as dark horses, while the Czech Republic move on with a perfect record and seemingly plenty still in the tank.
Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden.
- Republic of Ireland 0 – 2 Sweden — In a fairly homogeneous group, Sweden offer a serious point of difference – keep an eye on them. This one becomes a 2 – 0 thrashing, as they have far too much for a Republic of Ireland setup that comes into the tournament not looking quite right.
- Belgium 4 – 3 – Italy — Two classic European tricolours, but these flags have next to nothing else in common. In a clash played with reckless abandon, Belgium win it with a late, late score. Italy will be crushed, but they should hold their heads high. What. A. Game.
- Italy 3 – 3 Sweden — Maybe it’s Italy you should keep an eye on, because for the second time in a row they’re involved in one of the games of the tournament. It’s another outburst of all-out attack between sides with plenty of quality and nothing in kind. This time it’s Italy who strike late to raise the spirits in their camp and keep their hopes alive.
- Belgium 4 – 0 Republic of Ireland — Another all-tricolour match-up, but this one is completely one-sided. The Republic of Ireland came in quietly confident, but whatever they’re trying to do is just not working. Belgium, irresistible, are out of sight by half-time.
- Italy 3 – 0 Republic of Ireland — Seemingly so much alike, yet the gulf in class is obvious. Italy finally get the result they both need and deserve, while the Republic of Ireland are out without even scoring.
- Sweden 2 – 2 Belgium — Despite being well-placed to progress already, both sides show laudable ambition only to arrive at a draw anyway. It suits them both, but they raced towards it when they could as easily have strolled. Bravo.
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Belgium and Sweden surge into the next round – their attacking intent will impress (and frighten) everyone, but they’re vulnerable at the back with it. Italy deserve better, but four points should be enough to send them through as one of the best third-place sides. The Republic of Ireland came in looking different and just a little dangerous, but their distinctive approach utterly failed to produce.
Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary.
- Austria 0 – 1 Hungary — Former members of history’s least interesting empire produce a scarcely more interesting match-up. Hungary have just enough extra to edge it, but it wasn’t pretty.
- Portugal 4 – 4 Iceland — This one looked fascinating on paper, with contrasts all over the show, but nobody saw the game of the group stages coming. It’s an eight-score classic, a thrill to watch, and the kind of contest that sees opponents embrace in shared joy and mutual admiration at the final whistle.
- Iceland 2 – 1 Hungary — While never hitting the heights of their opening draw, Iceland get the win they deserved second time out. Better opposition brings more out of Hungary, but it’s not enough.
- Portugal 0 – 0 Austria — By contrast, Austria drag Portugal down to their level. Nobody looks good in this one.
- Hungary 1 – 2 Portugal — It’s not emphatic, but Portugal finally get their win. For Hungary, who’ve looked better since moving on from the dour Austrians, it’s harsh but fair.
- Iceland 3 – 0 Austria — Not to be held down by their opponents, Iceland win to progress in style.
Iceland and Portugal move on, with the former looking particularly dangerous. Though their only win came against Austria, Hungary looked better in the games they lost. They’ll have to wait for the third-place shakedown. Austria came in looking limited but potentially effective, only to end up an unexpected drag on the whole group.
There are the third-place rankings, with the top four – Italy, Romania, Hungary and Russia – joining the top two from each group in the next round. Not making it are Poland, who are third only by virtue of Northern Ireland being even worse, and Spain, who seem worthy of progressing but have only themselves to blame for being overwhelmed by the Czech Republic in their opener.
And that’ll do it for the group stages. Eight flags – Switzerland, England, Poland, Northern Ireland, Spain, Croatia, the Republic of Ireland and Austria – are out. 16 yet remain. Seems like a lot of work to shed only eight competitors, but just think of the television deals.
Come back soon for part two – the knockouts.