Euro 2016 has drawn to a close with Portugal defeating France to win the title. The tournament has been decidedly hit-and-miss, with many criticizing it for lacking attacking quality. While expansion to 24 teams greatly benefitted programs like Northern Ireland, Iceland and Wales, many other sides like England, Belgium and Austria performed far below expectations. There have been scintillating upsets like Iceland’s triumph over England, while there have been absolutely brutal slogs like Portugal's round of 16 game against Croatia.
With the tournament behind us, we’ve decided to look back at what we consider the three best matches of the tournament. Our criteria is certainly subjective, but we think we hit all the notes football fans ask of great games: Technically brilliant football on both sides, individual heroics and/or heart-stirring narrative. We think these three games each fit one of these categories.
1) Best Pure Soccer Category
Croatia 2, Spain 1 (Group D), June 21
The holders entered the tournament with question marks and mostly answered them. Álvaro Morata didn’t bring the pedigree of David Villa with him to France, but he more than answered his critics, scoring three goals in the group stage.
Croatia, meanwhile, had to deal with chaos throughout the group phase, thanks to a collection of ultras determined to embarrass the national federation and expose what they viewed as corrupt practices on the part of the federation’s leadership. Those ultras tossed flares onto the pitch during Croatia’s match with Czech Republic, one of which nearly blew a steward’s face off. Luka Modrić picked up an injury in that game and was unavailable to face La Roja.
The chance to win Group D was on the line when both teams took the pitch in Bordeaux, and Spain came out firing. Cesc Fàbregas threaded a deflected pass to David Silva in the seventh minute, who cut back toward the middle while Fàbregas made a defense-splitting run into the box. Silva served up Fàbregas while Morata floated near the penalty spot. Fàbregas’s shot chipped over keeper Daniel Subašić, and Morata was left all alone to tap the ball into an empty net. It was as quintessential a Spain goal as there is: incisive one-touch buildup from midfield, two smart runs, and collective credit for the goal. Spain was in control.
Spain unsurprisingly held the majority of the possession all game, but Croatia would not be deterred. Their midfield was put to good use, particularly Ivan Perišić working the flanks and causing problems for Spain’s fullbacks. It was Perišić who got Croatia back in the game just before halftime, drawing the Spanish defense out to the left and serving up a cross on a dime for Nikola Kalinić to knock in on the half-volley. It’s difficult to make defenders like Juanfran and Sergio Ramos look stupid, but that’s exactly what Perišić and Kalinić did.
Spain now entered the second half determined to get back in it. They created six chances in the final 45 minutes, none of which found the net. David Silva drew a penalty call in the box on barely any contact from Šime Vrsaljko. Ramos stepped up to deliver the spot kick. You know what happened next.
Croatia created only one chance in the second half, but it was all they’d need. Boy, was it a chance. Marko Pjaca threaded a perfect ball to Kalinić in the 87th minute, who countered all the way down the field before dropping off for Perišić. Perišić launched the ball on the ground and beat David De Gea handily.
Both of these teams showed up to play, and play they did. There was no reactiveness, no defensive shells into which either team retreated. They threaded passes, caught defenses unawares, and launched gorgeous counterattacks. Croatia handed Spain’s first Euros loss since 2004 and won the group. It was the best pure soccer game in the tournament.
2) Total Chaos Plus CR7 Category
Hungary 3, Portugal 3 (Group F), June 22
You wouldn’t have been crazy to assume that Austria and Portugal were going to waltz through the group stage. Instead, Austria imploded, Cristiano Ronaldo took a ludicrous 20 shots without scoring against Iceland and Austria, and Hungary went on a ridiculously lucky streak. By the time Portugal squared off against Hungary in the final group round, Ronaldo’s men were fighting to just advance to the round of 16.
It looked like Hungary was going to stop them dead. In the 19th minute, 37-year-old former West Brom midfielder Zoltán Gera collected a half-volley after a corner kick was headed out of the box and launched a low strike from 30 yards out. It was the kind of magic Hungary had been riding throughout the group stages. Gera’s goal was declared best of the group stage by UEFA. You suddenly got the feeling that Portugal was done for.
The problem with that feeling, though, is that Portugal had one of the best players in the world in their midst. While finishing skill is hotly debated among certain analytically inclined soccer writers, there’s no denying that when Cristiano Ronaldo takes 20 shots and scores none of them, something weird is going on. That something isn’t likely to last, either. So it was against Hungary. Ronaldo came alive, assisting Nani’s 42nd-minute equalizer, shifting momentum toward Portugal.
Hungary pounced as the second half opened, with Balász Dzsudzsák putting his side on top in the 47th minute. Ronaldo then decided to go Super Saiyan, netting a brace in only 12 minutes. The first was this. I have no words for it.
That equalized the score, which Hungary would immediately answer five minutes later with the second goal of the night from captain Dzsudzsák. Naturally, Ronaldo came storming back seven minutes after that to make the score 3-3. And so it stayed. Hungary still won the group, but Portugal did just enough to earn a third-place berth to the round of 16.
Make no mistake: This wasn’t a team effort on Portugal’s part. Sloppy defending let a vastly inferior Hungary get on the board three times. Meanwhile Ronaldo took 10 shots and created all of Portugal’s goals. The Galáctico put his team on his back and continued to do so all the way to their appearance in the final against France. Chaos + world-class individual brilliance = a six-goal thriller.
3) The Romance of the Underdog Category
Wales 3, Belgium 1 (Quarterfinals), July 1
Don’t think I didn’t freak out about this game.
The Dragons were, along with Iceland, the great story of the Euros. It didn’t hurt that they actually played some pretty damn good soccer, too. Coach Chris Coleman’s 3-5-2 gave a rock-solid defensive platform on top of which Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale had plenty of space to roam, and their counterattacks were things of beauty.
Belgium, on the other hand, were the stacked team and one of the favorites to go all the way. Coach Marc Wilmots struggled to create a balanced side, slotting in Kevin De Bruyne in the No. 10 role only at the end of the group stage. It worked, and Belgium crushed Hungary 4-0 in the round of 16. On paper, Belgium should have walked away with this game.
They didn’t. In fact, they got trounced. Wales played cohesively and solidly at the back all tournament and in fact looked more comfortable ceding possession, knowing that Ramsey and Bale would be there on the counter. Belgium fell into that trap in Lille. De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were stymied by Wales’s back three when they tried to play through the middle, while Ramsey and Joe Allen worked their asses off winning balls in midfield and working counters. Radja Nainggolan’s golazo aside, Belgium was anemic in the final third, Romelu Lukaku a ghost.
Ramsey may have been the team’s best player on the day, creating six chances and assisting two goals, but it was man-with-no-club-and-also-I’m-a-winger-why-am-I-playing-as-a-center-forward-but-hey-it-works-anyway Hal Robson-Kanu who put himself in contention for goal of the tournament. With the score level in the 55th minute, Robson-Kanu made a Cruyff turn in the box, clowning no less than three Belgian defenders before blasting the ball past Thibaut Courtois. I mean, good god.
Wales was pegged as a team who would only go so far as their superstar, but the rest of the team continually disproved it. Joe Allen was a revelation shielding the back four. The entire defense moved together, closing gaps and setting the stage. Ramsey was Gareth Bale’s equal throughout the tournament. Bale, of course, checked his ego at the door. They played team football, and their fans repeatedly made their games feel like home fixtures. Lille is only just over the border from Belgium, and the Red Devils’ fans overwhelmed the stands. You would never have known it during the match. Wales eventually fell 2-0 to Portugal in the semifinal, but the team’s rout of Belgium was undoubtedly the greatest moment in the program’s history. They were the tournament’s best story.
Two class performances, one chaotic mish-mosh of world-beating skill, and one heartstring-pulling underdog. That’s what these three games offered fans during the Euros. You may have different opinions on what were the best matches over the last four weeks, but you’d be hard pressed to find three more representative examples of what still makes international soccer so compelling to watch.