June 29, 2016 By Fabian Odhiambo
I am not a fan of Mondays, I have to admit. But sometimes the universe throws twists at you that make you reconsider your stance on previous held onto beliefs, like this past Monday. Yes, of this very week. Oh, I tell you, it was a Monday to remember, a Monday to savour, a Monday to take a snapshot of and have it framed…hell, it was a Monday to have bottled and have it kept at the bottom of a vault of the most secure bank in the world. It was indeed, that glorious.
So it all begun with me waking up to the ‘shock’ that Lionel Messi and his Beard & Tattoo Inc. of the Argentine Albicelestes had somehow connived to let a thing as sure as a Copa America final victory slip from their grasp and into the arms of the grateful Chileans. It was staggering. This was a competition that was never supposed to be. One that was hatched in the CONMEBOL boardrooms as a tribute to 100 years of the competition. Normally it is held after 4 years and indeed it was hosted by Chile in 2015 and won by the hosts, beating, you guessed it, Argentina. Even then much had been publicized and documented about Leo Messi’s inability to win anything with his national team, in stark contrast to his ridiculous almost yearly collection of silverware at his club side, Barcelona. In essence, to suggest that maybe this year’s edition of the tournament in the United States dubbed ‘Copa America Centenario’ was in part in place to ensure Messi had a chance to finally win a title in international football (he would have been 32 years old at the next one in 2019) isn’t entirely that far-fetched.
And all was going according to script. Somehow Argentina’s eternal rivals Brazil basically decided to give the Centenario a wide berth, instead opting to focus all their energies on their assault of the Olympic Gold on home soil in August, so much that their talisman and captain, Neymar, was excused from this particular assignment. In Argentina’s first match they beat the champions and really, their most direct rivals Chile 2-1 and with that gaining an invaluable psychological edge which one would think would come in handy somewhere down the road, I don’t know, in a final against the same team, maybe?
You’ve got to love the gods of football (or indeed whatever you deem to oversee matters football) for that’s exactly what they served up: an Argentina v Chile final at the MetLife Stadium in the wee hours of Monday morning of June 27. Finals have a tendency of being cagey and tight, and this one would prove no different. It was full of drama and some level of South American violence disguised as passion with a sending off for each team; Marcelo Diaz and Marcos Rojo the culprits. The thing with finals is that given their aforementioned cageyness, all a team needs to win is a moment of brilliance, usually from their best player to win it. It’s no surprise that talk before the match was all about Leo seizing the moment and finally doing what has so far eluded him in his international football career – inspiring the Albiceleste with a blinder of a performance to get the Copa win over the line.
The two sides couldn’t be separated across 120 minutes and so came penalties. Arturo Vidal missed Chile’s first kick then up stepped King Leo to hand his side the advantage and put them on course to victory. Incredibly, he doled out a stinker, probably the worst shot he’s ever taken in his life – the ball went over the bar and with quite some speed, I don’t think they have found it yet. Francisco Silva would bury the final penalty to hand Chile back to back South American titles and consign Messi to a wretched three-peat of his own – three finals in three years, all lost. The tears came rolling down ruining whatever image he wanted to present with his new beard. It was over for him. He knew it. And he said it. It wasn’t meant to be. Which is funny, because how could it not be meant to be for the ‘greatest’ in the world? I loved it. I really, really loved it. My Monday was off to a flyer.
Later it was Italy v Spain at the Stade de France for the right to appear in the quarter finals of the Euro 2016. Now after Spain rolled back the years with an almighty display to beat Turkey 3-0 in the group stage everybody was oohing and aahing, terming the unprecedented treble of European titles a foregone conclusion. And in truth, they had been mesmerizing. But this was Italy, a team you should never write off. Still, people did, even despite the Azzurri having produced the best tactical execution of the competition to shock all and sundry in their 2-0 demolition of favourites Belgium. Maybe all everyone could think of was the 4-0 evisceration of the Italians by the Spanish at last edition’s final of four years ago. Maybe they had a right to, but I had a feeling they would be in for a rude shock.
And a rude shock is exactly what Spain was in for immediately the match kicked off. The Italians were relentless in their 3-5-2 set up, spurred on by their ever-animated touchline guru, Antonio Conte. All along the saying had been that if you give Spain an inch, they grab a mile, swarm you, suffocate you and bore you to submission and ultimately death. Well, Italy did not cede even half an inch. The blue shirts were all over the whites. Oh, it was brutal, and I was purring. When just after the half hour mark Giorgio Chiellini poked home a well worked Eder free kick straight from Conte’s set piece drill notes, you knew it was over. Italians seldom let leads slip. The era of Spanish domination was well and truly ending – though if you ask me, it ended when they were hammered 5-1 by the Netherlands in Brazil two years ago. There would be no more smug talk of La Furia Roja lording over Europe for four more years, making it 12 years at the apex. No. Not under the Italians’ watch. And the fact that they did it in the most un-Italian way imaginable (Graziano Pelle did score a late second to seal the deal), with pace, aggression, relentless pressing and none of that overhyped catenaccio was all the more satisfying.
You think a day can’t get any better, but then that’s just what you think, because it can. And it did. A part of me thought about going to bed early and skipping the England-Iceland clash but I guess before I could make a decision, it was already kick off. I mean, this encounter was supposed to be a foregone conclusion, if we are all being honest. The prevailing feeling was that Iceland had outdone themselves to get out of their group in an impressive second place above Portugal, but this is where they would be cut down to size. Oh, how wrong we were!
In the fourth minute even before I’ve settled in my duvet properly on the couch, Iceland concede a penalty, Wayne Rooney steps up and smashes it home and suddenly you start imagining how many more goals the Three Lions will score. But tarry a little. Seconds after the restart, there’s an Iceland throw in, but you know, there are bound to be tens of those during the game so you just stare and don’t pay much attention. But it’s a long throw, into the box, a header later the ball lands sweetly for Ragnar Sigurdsson and he sweeps home, 1-1! Wow! Ah, but then you say well, England will still win, I mean they’ll get two more goals and that will be it. The funny thing is that England don’t look like scoring. They are rattled. Iceland are so comfortable with and without the ball, and especially with it. Their passing is so measured, calm, easy…nonchalant even. Barely a quarter an hour later after neat interplay among the men in blue, Gylfi Sigurdsson slips in Jon Dadi Bodvarsson who tees up former Ajax hitman Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and he takes a few touches of the ball with the English defence somehow lining up in front of him, finds a gap and gently strokes the ball past a day-dreaming Joe Hart in goal and bam! 2-1! Oh, it’s on. It’s on till the break of dawn…or the break of England’s back. I find myself woohooing to that goal. Amazing scenes!
It’s not even 20 minutes yet at the Allianz Riviera in Nice, and the game has been won and lost. Iceland are growing into the game, and England, well, with each touch of the ball, they can’t believe they are losing equally as it is dawning on them that they are losing to the ultimate minnows, a 330,000-populated Iceland! Look, even though I knew England were overrated and were nothing much as a team, I cannot believe it! But it happens eventually as the referee blows the final whistle – the biggest upset of recent times. Iceland are through to the quarter finals of the Euros. England are packing up and can’t leave the scene sooner. Immediately after, manager Roy Hodgson, the highest paid head coach at the tournament, quits. I’m having a laugh.
Most Mondays are synonymous with Monday blues, but this one, this was a once-in-a-long-time Monday. This one was blessed as if the Lord made it. And yes, He actually did make it.