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On Soccer: A Wild Euros Group Stage Whittles the Field Down to 16

On Soccer


PARIS — Over the first 13 days of the European Championships, we saw 36 soccer games and 69 goals. We saw relatively good behavior on the field (only two red cards) and relatively bad behavior off the field (everything from flares to smoke to full-on, in-stadium fan attacks).

On Wednesday, one of the great stories in sports kept rolling: Iceland, with a population roughly the size of Corpus Christi, Tex., beat Austria by 2-1 to advance to the round of 16. Estimates are that about 8 percent of Iceland’s 330,000 residents are in France for this, the country’s first major tournament, and the team’s run is, incredibly, not over yet.

The group stage, however, has come to an end. And while it might seem strange that it took this long to whittle 24 teams down to 16, so it is, and so it was. Starting on Saturday, then, are the knockout rounds, but before they begin, here is a look at what has happened and what is yet to come.

The minnows are still swimming

It is not just Iceland making magic. Northern Ireland, Wales, Hungary and Ireland all advanced to the second stage of the tournament, which meant more than a quarter of the teams in the round of 16 could qualify as surprises.

The less auspicious nations have not done it with smoke and mirrors, either: Northern Ireland beat Ukraine; Wales ran all over Group B; Hungary defeated Austria and tied Portugal; and Ireland capped the final match day by beating Italy, 1-0, on a late goal from Robbie Brady that sent the Irish through and their fans on to a party that does not figure to stop for quite some time.

Scoring is still down

If the fallback criticism for those who do not like soccer is that “no one ever scores,” this year’s group stage may be known in the future as Exhibit A. While the games have been good on balance — 20 goals were scored in the 76th minute or later, and seven came in stoppage time — the goals-per-game average of 1.92 has been the lowest at a World Cup or Euros since 1996. There have been three 0-0 draws and only two games with more than three goals (which made Wednesday’s 3-3 tie between Hungary and Portugal an outlier).

Why the drop in goals? As is often the case, many explanations are possible, including a combination of poor weather and sloppy fields (much of France has been flooded); the ever-lengthening seasons for clubs, which sent hundreds of weary players to France; and, as many have speculated, the expansion to 24 teams, which watered down the talent and reduced the incentive to press for goals.

Having four of the six third-place teams advance made things a bit weird … but also wild

Here is something that does not happen very often: Albania finished its Group A round-robin on Sunday night. The team’s players and staff members then hung around northwestern France for three days until they learned, on Wednesday, that their tournament run was actually over. The results of the early games had rendered Albania’s 3 points and minus-2 goal-differential inferior to all its rivals for a third-place qualification spot. But at least they got a few extra days of practice.

The Albanians’ experience was the downside to the tournament setup. The upside was the fast-changing scenarios that made the last day of matches fascinating. Consider this: In the space of just a few minutes on Wednesday, Portugal went from eliminated to facing England in the knockout stage to, after Iceland’s late goal against Austria, going up against Croatia this weekend instead.

The bracket for the knockout rounds is remarkably top-heavy

Or, if you prefer, side-heavy. Because of several unexpected results in the group stage, one side of the bracket now features England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy. The other side has a profile so much lower that even before a round-of-16 match has been played, we know that at least one of the finalists on July 10 will be a team that has never won a major tournament.

So congratulations to Hungary, Switzerland, Poland, Croatia, Portugal, Wales, Northern Ireland and Belgium. One of you will have a chance to make some history.

We are all Zlatan

He would no doubt be upset to see this item so far down this list, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish star who very much enjoys telling the world all about himself, made his last appearance for his national team on Wednesday when Sweden finished off a woeful tournament with a 1-0 loss to Belgium. Ibrahimovic is expected to continue his club career, most likely with Manchester United, but he announced this week that he planned to retire from international play after the Euros.

It was not a particularly beautiful farewell; Ibrahimovic did not score in his team’s three games (two draws and a defeat).

Some weird stuff happened. Really weird, actually.

Russia almost got itself kicked out. Croatia’s fans almost blew up a security guard. Cristiano Ronaldo threw a reporter’s microphone into a lake. And Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon fell off a crossbar while celebrating. (No, seriously — here’s a closer look.)

More to come after a short break

After rest days on Thursday and Friday, the round of 16 begins with Switzerland facing Poland on Saturday. Wales and Northern Ireland also play Saturday. France faces Ireland on Sunday, and Spain goes against Italy on Monday. And don’t forget about England and Iceland. With the Copa América final mixed in on Sunday night, this weekend could be the pinnacle of a month of great soccer.

Correction: June 23, 2016

An earlier version of this article misidentified the winner of the 1938 World Cup. It was Italy, not Hungary.

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