Midweek Muse: Race for the Prize – Why are finals of international tournaments always so dull?

Sunday’s damp squib of a Euro 2016 final between hosts France and Portugal settled in the visitors’ favour. Eder’s extra time strike was all too familiar to Tom Simmonds, who knew what to expect.

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The final, in which Portugal laid a 12-year-old ghost to rest by doing to France what Greece did to them in the final of Euro 2004, was never going to be one to break the trend for finals of major tournaments making for dreadful spectacles. Pitting the ultra-defensive approach Portugal have adopted all tournament against a France side playing with public expectation weighing heavily upon them, was always a recipe for the flat affair we got.

The problem is we nearly always get them.

Of the 14 World Cup and European Championship finals we have had since the 1990 World Cup, a tournament in which defensive football also held sway, there are not many that will live long in the memory. Denmark’s 2-0 win over Germany in the Euro 92 final does: only because it gave us the opportunity to gloat at an unpopular behemoth being cut down to size. Greece’s aforementioned 1-0 win over Portugal in Euro 2004 was memorable for the same reason, though not for the quality of the game.

The 2004 Greece side who prospered playing the sort of football that Portugal have this time around – though they had more reason to play that way, given Otto Rehhagel had no players as bounteously gifted as Cristiano Ronaldo and Renato Sanches. However, what is as true of the teams who failed to stop Greece in 2004 is equally applicable of those who failed to beat Portugal in 2016: the more highly fancied outfits should have had the wit to beat them.

Perhaps it is too simple to put the low quality of major finals down to a kind of paralysis that grips players once what is at stake really hits home. Looking at the way these 14 finals have gone, they tend to fit into three categories:

a. The one-sided procession. Spain’s 4-0 thumping of Italy in the Euro 2012 (or, indeed, the 1970 Brazil team’s evisceration of Italy in Mexico) final is an example of how you can admire one side’s superiority despite the lack of intrigue. Brazil’s 2-0 stroll against a weak Germany in the 2002 World Cup final and France’s 3-0 win over Ronaldo-less Brazil four years prior are prime specimens of games where the result was never in doubt.

b. The stalemate. The 1994 World Cup final between Brazil and Italy in the fierce early afternoon Los Angeles heat is perhaps the worst of all of these showpiece games. That ended goalless but even finals of this type settled by a single goal (Germany’s two World Cup wins over Argentina in 1990 and 2016) leave the memory bank almost as soon as they have concluded.

c. The game where the football isn’t centre-stage. Who remembers the 2006 final for anything other than Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt? Or the 2010 final for Howard Webb’s failure to dismiss Nigel de Jong for his karate kick on Xabi Alonso? Not many.

As well as looking at whether players tend to freeze and revert to either risk aversion or savagery when in sight of the big prizes, it’s also up to us as fans to ask if what we demand from these occasions is unrealistic.

The stakes that the teams are playing for is one factor to consider, but tournaments generally get finals that reflect them as a whole. As France coach Didier Deschamps failed for the seventh time out of seven to give Paul Pogba a coherent role in their midfield on Sunday night, it was entirely predictable that a well-drilled Portugal would ride their luck and nick a pragmatist’s victory. It serves as a counterweight to the sun spots that Iceland and Wales, but nobody else, were able to cast upon it.

Do you agree with Tom that finals are always liable to be anti-climactic due to their very nature? What finals have stuck in your memory?

Read more from Tom here

Follow Tom on Twitter @TallulahOnEarth

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