It would be too definitive to declare that Monday, June 28, 2021, was the greatest day of tournament soccer in history. Over the last 90 years, after all, there will have been days that have brought an even grander torrent of jaw-dropping drama.
But none of them immediately leap to mind.
A year late, its span diminished and its carnival atmosphere doused, Euro 2020 had been ticking along quite nicely until Monday.
Its group phase, always something of a slow burn, had been illuminated by Italy’s adventure and Denmark’s remarkable courage, by Spanish neurosis and Dutch energy. There had been lots of goalsand lots of spectacular ones, too: Patrik Schick’s vision, Luka Modric’s invention, Cristiano Ronaldo’s unruffled brilliance.
On Day 1 of the knockout round — a day that feels like the distant past but was, in fact, Saturday — Denmark swept past Wales, and Italy edged out Austria. On Day 2, the Czech Republic stunned The Netherlands in Euro 2020’s first real shock, and Belgium beat Portugal in the tournament’s first consequential meeting of heavyweights.
What followed, on Day 3, could — at a considerable stretch — be presented as a natural extension of all that, as if the tournament had been building to this, in much the same way as the works of Shakespeare are a natural extension of the accounting ledgers in the city of Ur, or the way the miracle of human life is a natural extension of the anaerobic reproduction of single-celled organisms.
Perhaps the best way of phrasing it is this: Twenty minutes into Spain’s meeting with Croatia, the prodigiously gifted Spanish midfielder Pedri scored an own goal — through no fault of his own — from just inside his own half. Eight hours later, that was not anywhere close to being the most remarkable thing that had happened.
What followed — 14 goals, two extra-time games, one penalty shootout, one overwhelming favourite (France) endangered, saved and then eliminated on the final kick of the day — at times defied belief.
Spain recovered from its setback to lead Croatia 3-1, with just a few minutes to play. As the clock ticked down, though, Mislav Orsic pulled a goal back, Luis Enrique’s team wobbled, and Croatia scented blood. As the game entered injury time, Mario Pasalic tied the game at 3-3, his great gift to the world an additional 30 minutes of the game.
Spain, eventually, pulled through to win 5-3, thanks to a quite brilliant strike from Álvaro Morata, its striker who does not score goals.
At that point, it should have been blindingly obvious that strange things were happening.
The day’s second game, France against Switzerland, did not seem likely to be much of a follow-up act. France, the reigning world champion and the overwhelming favourite to win this competition, had played beneath itself for the tournament’s opening phase. The assumption was that it would have too much for a well-drilled, but limited — and also quite uninspiring — Swiss team.
Haris Seferovic’s giving Switzerland the lead, then, seemed like a rookie mistake: the last thing anyone wants to do is get France angry. Switzerland braced for the surge, but it never came. Early in the second half, Ricardo Rodriguez might have doubled his nation’s lead from the penalty spot, but he seemed reticent.
Hugo Lloris saved his attempt, and France, all of a sudden, sparked: within five minutes, Karim Benzema had scored twice, and order had been restored.
Paul Pogba’s artistic curling strike put the game beyond doubt.
Or, rather, it didn’t. Seferovic scored again and, for the second time in the day, injury time brought a twist: Mario Gavranovic equalised. Once again, extra time loomed.
This time there was no resolution.
Penalties always bring drama; there is no such thing as a dull shootout. But some are more memorable than others. The first nine players to take a shot scored. The 10th was Kylian Mbappé, world soccer’s blossoming star, the jewel in France’s crown. He stood. He waited. He shot. He failed.
The world champions were out, in the round of 16, toppled by Switzerland.
There will have been more absorbing, more compelling, more breathtaking days in a major tournament previously, ones that have brought more goals or more twists or more iconic moments. There have been a lot of tournaments, after all.
But it is entirely possible that none of them have ever brought a day quite like this.
New York Times News Service