It will go down in the annals of football as the perfect example of what sporting hubris can do to one. As a quartet of Icelandic players sprinted down the pitch to score what would be the winning goal against Austria, England’s scouting staff got out of their seats and punched the air in jubilation. Instead of what they had assumed would be a second-round clash against Portugal, they would now be playing a country with a population less than the average London borough.

But, as Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote more than two centuries ago, “The best laid schemes of mice and men, Go often askew, And leave us nothing but grief and pain…"

Last Sunday in Nice, France, the pain was all England’s. Iceland didn’t just beat them 2-1,they embarrassed them, creating the better chances and controlling the game despite ceding most of the possession. At the end, Gudmundur Benediktsson, the Icelandic commentator who has lost his day job as assistant manager of KR Reykjavik while becoming a cult figure worldwide, came up with a stanza of emotion that was as memorable as the team’s performance.

For England, who now haven’t made the semi-final of a major tournament since Euro 1996, there was not even a crumb of comfort. Experienced players like Joe Hart, the goalkeeper, let the team down badly, and young hopefuls like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling offered just wan imitations of the players they can be.

“That was the worst performance I’ve ever seen from an England team," said Alan Shearer, the goalscoring hero of the 1996 campaign who has now put himself in the running for the coaching job. “Ever. From start to finish. We were out-fought, we were out-thought, we were out-battled and we were totally hopeless for 90 minutes."

The worrying thing for European football is that England were hardly an exception. The Netherlands, winners of the tournament in 1988 and semi-finalists in 1992, 2000 and 2004, didn’t even qualify, despite the finals being expanded to 24 teams from the previous 16. Iceland beat them at home and away, and the Czech Republic, who finished winless at the finals, and Turkey, whose sole success came against the Czechs, both finished ahead of the Dutch as well.

The struggles of the Czechs, the best team in the competition in 2004 when Greece felt the full embrace of Dame Fortune on their way to the title, epitomized the state of football in the former Iron Curtain nations. Romania, who eliminated Argentina from the 1994 World Cup, and beat England four years later—with Gheorghe Hagi inspirational in midfield—mustered a solitary point. Russia, beaten by Spain in the 2008 semi-final, did no better.

Scandinavia’s representatives, Sweden, were pitiful, not even managing a shot on target in their first two games. Their tactics seemed to consist of little more than hoofing the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and hoping for the best. And he, for all his presence, offered the mobility of a sleepy tortoise.

Euro 2016 has seen some stunning goals, from Luka Modric’s volley against Turkey to Dimitri Payet’s curler in France’s opening game. But the standard of play has been consistently disappointing. In 44 matches before the quarter-finals, only 88 goals were scored. The ratio is the lowest since 1980, when 14 matches featuring eight teams produced just 27 goals.

Not one team has managed to capture the imagination like the great sides of the past. Belgium were stunning in their dismissals of Ireland and Hungary, but woeful in a 2-0 loss to Italy. Germany impressed in their 3-0 thrashing of Slovakia, but were way below their World Cup-winning standards in matches against Ukraine and Poland.

For the first time that most of us can remember, it’s hard to think of a single major side that compares favourably with its predecessors. Spain huffed and puffed, with Andrés Iniesta summoning up flashes of the old magic, but without the metronomic passing of Xavi Hernández, they weren’t a patch on the team that was victorious in 2008 and 2012.

As for England, Shearer’s frustration was understandable. England may have lost on penalties to Germany in the 1996 semi-final, but there were so many moments to savour from their tournament—not least the 4-1 evisceration of the Dutch and Paul Gascoigne’s spectacular goal against the Scots.

France have few players who would have challenged for a place in the legendary team of 1984. Antoine Griezmann, who has scored thrice, would have been a shoo-in, since Michel Platini’s side lacked a great centre forward, but Payet and maybe Hugo Lloris, the goalkeeper, aside, it’s hard to think of anyone who would have displaced titans like Maxime Bossis, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Platini.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

“I have said on many occasions that in terms of going forward, Italy had to be a club," said Conte after seeing off Spain. “We have to play like a team faced with a league season because we cannot rely on outstanding individuals as we have done in the past. We have to be a team and I think we are getting there."

No Gaetano Scirea or Franco Baresi in defence. No inventiveness to compare with Roberto Baggio or Francesco Totti, and certainly no striker in the class of Paolo Rossi or Christian Vieri. What Italy continue to have is the goalkeeping excellence of Gianluigi Buffon, and the attention to detail and organization that has been the hallmark of their finest sides.

More than the World Cup, it’s the European Championships that have traditionally showcased the best of football on the continent. West Germany may have won the World Cup on home soil in 1974, but it’s the side that won Euro 1972 that’s remembered with far greater fondness, prompted as they were by the midfield brilliance of Günter Netzer.

“He was a playboy off the field and a playmaker on it; an heroically decadent individual who had a different concept of exercise to everyone else," wrote The Guardian in its assessment of the best teams in European football history. “In short, Netzercise involved other people doing his running. It was stunningly arrogant and entirely justified. His performances should have permanently obliterated the joyless tripe about not picking luxury players. In that form he was essential, and elevated a great side into possibly the greatest international side of all."

Germany reached the final again in 1976, only to be denied on penalties by Czechoslovakia, for whom Antonín Panenka produced a chip of such impudent genius that it came to be named after him. The tournament in 1980 may have thrown up dire fare, but the West Germans were again worthy winners, with Bernd Schuster magnificent in midfield and Horst Hrubesch living up to his nickname of The Header Beast.

Platini’s great side of 1984 scored 14 goals in five matches, while the 2000 version, boasting of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, managed 13 in six games. Both set benchmarks that the moderns will struggle to match. The same was true of the Dutch in 1988, with Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Arnold Mühren to the fore in a tournament that finally saw Rinus Michels, the renowned coach of the 1974 Total-Football side, laying his hands on a trophy that had eluded stars of the quality of Johan Cruyff, Piet Keizer, Johan Neeskens and Johnny Rep.

Even without Michael Laudrup, the Danes provided the dynamite in 1992, seeing off a fine Dutch side in the semis before defeating Germany in the final. Four years later, there weren’t too many goals, but England and Germany showed in their semi-final for the ages, which finished 1-1, that goals aren’t the only currency with which to measure quality.

In 2004, though they had no luck in the semi-final against Greece, the Czechs boasted of an attacking six as good as any football has seen, and little needs to be said about the excellence of Spain, who bossed over the next two tournaments with some performances of breathtaking quality.

We can still hope that Germany, France, Belgium and Italy—maybe even Portugal— will prove us wrong and create memories comparable to the ones left by the Germans of 1972 and the French of 1984. Some might swear by the Vince Lombardi dictum of winning being the only thing, but millions of football lovers are much more influenced by the words of Jock Stein, who led Glasgow Celtic to European Cup glory in 1967. “We don’t just want to win the European Cup," he had said. “We want to do it playing good football, to make the neutrals glad that we won it, pleased to remember how we did it."

Amen to that.

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India.

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