This has been a tournament of upsets. The highlight so far, without question, was Iceland’s 2-1 victory over England in the second round. A country with a total population of 330,000 is not supposed to defeat a major footballing power that boasts some of the wealthiest players in the world. But at the same time, given England’s recent history at international tournaments, its exit in the early stages was always a distinct possibility. Its defeat, then, gave double the satisfaction: the triumph of the underdog combined with the rubber-necking spectacle of a ritualized humiliation.
The other upset of the Round of 16 was less dramatic, but for neutral soccer fans it was almost as exciting. Antonio Conte’s Italy played brilliantly against Spain, proving two things: that Spain’s golden era has definitively come to an end, and that you can never write off Italy, even when it is without Andrea Pirlo, even when it is supposedly boasting its weakest team in years. As the site FourFourTwo put it, after Italy’s first-round victory over newly minted powerhouse Belgium: “Worst Italy team in history is still full of Italians.”
Nevertheless, there were signs that the sport’s reigning powers were exerting their dominance. Germany, which will face Italy on Saturday, looks near unstoppable. Belgium, which will take on lowly Wales on Friday, easily defeated Hungary, fueled by a time-and-space-bending performance by Eden Hazard. And host France, which plays Iceland on Sunday, came from behind to prevent the Irish from pulling off a historic upset of their own.
Tomorrow, Poland faces off against Portugal. If we get Cristiano Ronaldo crying face by the end of the game, it might be a sign of which way the tournament is headed.