What we learned from the Euro 2024 group stage – Ronaldo, Hala Madrid and big-man denial

Our team of reporters has been at the European Championship for the entire group stage and the very lucky ones will be there for the knockouts, too.

So as the tournament pauses for breath for a couple of game-less days and before we move on to the agony and ecstasy of win-or-go-home football, we thought we’d ask them: what have you learned?

This is what they said.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s pulling power is as strong as ever

In Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday, I was struck by the enormous number of fans holding cardboard signs with messages pleading for someone — anyone — to sell them a Georgia vs Portugal ticket, even if it meant them paying way beyond face value.

I wouldn’t underestimate the number of Georgian fans who were in attendance — and what a night they had — but so many of those holding the cardboard signs were wearing Portugal No 7 shirts… or Real Madrid No 7 shirts… or Manchester United No 7 shirts… or Al Nassr No 7 shirts.

The demand to watch Cristiano Ronaldo is as great as it has ever been, even at age 39 and after — or perhaps especially after — spending the past 18 months playing his club football in Saudi Arabia.

But it has gone beyond that. There has been a spate of issues with fans trying to run onto the pitch, both during Portugal’s matches here and at their training camp in Gutersloh, near Dortmund, in the hope of getting near him.

Even his most ardent fans would concede that his powers are on the wane as he nears his fifth decade (actually, on second thoughts, no, they wouldn’t), but we are talking about one of the game’s all-time greats, whose profile has not just transcended the sport but caused a revaluation of words such as fame and celebrity.


Cristiano Ronaldo is raging – at referees, his luck and maybe time itself

People are truly desperate to see him up close. In some cases dangerously close. He is a phenomenon. How on earth will they react if he actually scores a goal at this tournament?

Oliver Kay

Everyone is in denial about their big men

It’s big-man summer. Look deep into your heart and you know it to be true. Everyone knows it. Everyone, except the coaches at Euro 2024.

Niclas Fullkrug, Wout Weghorst and Olivier Giroud haven’t started a game between them yet at these Euros. Ivan Toney, the closest thing England have to a target man, has been kicking his heels because he hasn’t kicked one in anger. Hungary’s Martin Adam, perhaps the biggest man of them all, was limited to three relatively brief cameos off the bench. Even Scotland favoured the 5ft 9in (175cm) Che Adams up front over 6ft 1in (185cm) Lawrence Shankland.

And yet look what happens when those big lads come on.

Fullkrug has two goals from his meagre playing time, including the face-saving 92nd-minute equaliser against Switzerland that meant Germany won Group A instead of finishing second. Weghorst got a winner against Poland after being summoned from the bench, without which the Dutch would have really been in the soup (and going home). Giroud is yet to score, but France looked much more balanced after he came on — look me in the eye and tell me they are better off with Ousmane Dembele in the team.


Big lad strikes again (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Some have kept the big-man flame alive. Romelu Lukaku has led Belgium’s line well. Cristiano Ronaldo is essentially a target man these days.



Uncomplicated, normal, a bull of a centre forward – Fullkrug is Germany’s unlikely hero

This isn’t just a whimsical/old-fashioned/facetious point, attempting to get a guest spot on Sam Allardyce’s No Tippy Tappy Football podcast (which is a real thing). Having a big man up front doesn’t mean you’re going to hoof it towards him all the time in every game, but they do provide what former Italy, Chelsea and Inter Milan (among others) manager Antonio Conte calls a “point of reference” for the team. Surround your big man with skill and running and you’re away.

So come on, coaches of Europe, set loose your big men.

Nick Miller

The 24-team format has brought some great football adventures

When Klaus Gjasula scored a stoppage-time equaliser for Albania in their 2-2 draw against Croatia, the Volksparkstadion lifted off.

When the goal went in, the Albanian journalist I was sitting next to leapt into the air in ecstasy and began to look for someone — anyone — to hug. The joy of watching his national team earn their first point in Euros history was so overwhelming he needed someone to share it with.



Ranking every team in the Euro 2024 group stage – England 13th, Georgia 5th, Austria 2nd

He spread his arms out before squeezing me like I was a near-empty tube of toothpaste. He called it the best day of his lifetime watching football and promised that his countrymen would party all night long in Hamburg. It’s best if I don’t print what occurred that evening, but he was right about that second bit.

Georgia’s 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic three days later in the same city provoked a similar feeling.

The Slovakians took over Frankfurt twice, as their boys played two of their group games there.

The 24-team format introduced for Euro 2016 has its flaws but — combined with the invention of the Nations League — it has seen smaller football nations thrill with a gutsy footballing spirit.

Carl Anka

Hala Madrid

When Luka Modric appeared for his post-match press conference in Leipzig on Monday night, some journalists applauded him up to the desk.

I didn’t expect one of Italy’s most famous commentators to open the line of questioning with a thank you to Modric, who turns 39 in September, for the football he’s played, or a plea with him to keep playing forever. I didn’t expect a Spanish colleague to then shout, “Hala Madrid.”

Maybe their tributes made Modric feel a little less cold inside. Humanity, however cringe, got the better of their professionalism. Mattia Zaccagni’s 98th-minute equaliser for Italy had just brought the chill wind of international retirement as Croatia contemplated a group-stage exit from Euro 2024.



Croatia’s Euro 2024 exit marks the end of an era – even for immortals like Luka Modric

“I’ll keep playing on,” Modric said. “But I don’t know for how much longer.”

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Modric is among those saying farewell (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

Major tournaments are a new dawn for some and a sunset for others. As the pale night engulfed Modric, it served as a reminder to savour his long-time Madrid team-mate Toni Kroos, who will hang up his boots for good once Germany’s participation at these Euros ends.

Whether the reserved German press pack clap him into his final press conference remains to be seen.

James Horncastle

The hosts have an outstanding (accidental) sense of humour

Picture the scene. Scotland have just been knocked out of the European Championship after a late defeat by Hungary, with Kevin Csoboth’s winner coming in the 99th minute. With half the population of Scotland’s central belt seemingly in southern Germany this summer, faces were long, drawn, and tear-stained.

Clearly, the people at Stuttgart’s tourist board were preoccupied with being good hosts.

Scrambling together a plan of action, they organised a send-off for the Scotland squad and a goodbye to a fanbase who have helped light up this tournament’s group stage.

This is how we arrived at the scene of Steve Clarke miserably leading his players onto a waiting coach, soundtracked by surely the jolliest oompah band that the local government of Baden-Wurttemberg could find.

Watch the video. It’s like your coffin being carried along to the theme tune from The Benny Hill Show.


The contrast between the Scotland players’ dejection and the sheer frivolity of the music made the scene border on the degrading.

It would have been funny enough if this was some sort of cruel revenge for a perceived slight. That it was a genuinely well-meaning gesture by Scotland’s friendly hosts of the past few weeks makes it my moment of Euro 2024 so far.

Jacob Whitehead

Everyone is quite good now

Snide jokes about England aside, there has been something to admire in every team to have taken part — in a football sense.

It was not so long ago that European Championships had no-hopers and countries who were glad just to be taking part. The great fear when the tournament expanded from 16 to 24 eight years ago was that those problems would increase. But not on this evidence.



Why Euro 2024’s group stage was the best of the 24-team era

Some nations have found it tough, certainly, but all of them have ideas and they all managed to be competitive in their own way. Slovenia, Georgia, Slovakia, Romania, Albania; there has been a level of accomplishment to those sides that, most likely, many people did not expect to find.

Why? That would have to be a deeper study and a much longer article, but the quality has been even and the lack of thrashings throughout the group stage testified to the growing wisdom in the game across the board. Every game, with the exception of Germany against Scotland, has had a competitive period and the tournament has been rich for that.

Sebastian Stafford-Bloor

A tournament for the supporters

Germany loves football. So do many of the countries within a reasonable flight time of Germany and many of them converged in 10 beer-soaked German cities for a festival (a word you heard time and again when speaking to fans at this tournament).

After fears of a frosty welcome in Russia in 2018, the higgledy-piggledy pandemic-delayed and limited Euros of 2021 and then Qatar 2022, this was the first Euros or World Cup for far too long where the average travelling fans could really enjoy themselves.


Supporters have flocked to Germany (Peter De Voecht / Photo News via Getty Images)

At the games I’ve attended in Berlin and Leipzig, there was barely a flashpoint to speak of, let alone actual disorder. Opposition fans have enjoyed mixing, in pubs, on trains, even sitting next to each other in the stands, with friendly patter at every turn.

Croatia endured one of the lowest, most devastating moments in their modern football history when Italy equalised in the eighth minute of stoppage time… but the Italians in amongst them celebrated without fear of reprisal, despite the fact most of them were eight pints deep.

Hard to imagine that in the Premier League.

Tim Spiers

Wild rides

I’ve learned it’s not a good idea to get a taxi at Euro 2024 when there is an important match underway. Picture the scene: Turkey are playing the Czech Republic yesterday in their final game of Group F.

And the cabbie who has picked us up in Stuttgart has his phone perched on the steering wheel so he can watch the entire game. This guy’s a Turkey fanatic. He is shouting and screaming, banging at the wheel. It’s all good fun, apart from one key fact — we are also dodging in and out of traffic, bumper to bumper, swerving across junctions on a three-lane highway.

His eyes are absolutely fixed on the screen — his phone screen, not the windscreen — and it culminates in some wild and quite frankly terrifying celebrations after Turkey’s opening goal. I’m filing it in my Top Five Scariest Taxi Rides Ever. And I do hope, for their sake, nobody was in the back seat when Cenk Tosun scored Turkey’s 94th-minute winner.

Daniel Taylor

It’s all about the memories

I don’t think I have learned anything completely new from the group stage, but I have had several very useful reminders of things I had forgotten. Ralf Rangnick knows what he is doing, Spain will always be able to put out a decent midfield, watching England is hard work… that type of thing.



Ralf Rangnick has transformed Austria – victory over Netherlands shows exactly how

To be honest, it is getting harder and harder to turn up at one of these biennial gatherings and be completely shocked by something or someone. If I haven’t seen or heard about Dutch football’s next star boy or Slovakia’s hipster playmaker from European club football, my kids have from a computer game.

But it is seeing all of these stars together, on the same stage, under the same bright lights, that makes these occasions so special. You get to see who really has it, who nearly does, who used to and who definitely does not.

Can I boil that down to one thing that I have learned? No, I can’t, but as I look up from typing this sentence, I can see Georgia’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia dribble past four players in his own half to earn his team a free kick and I remember, ‘Oh yeah, he is bloody amazing, isn’t he?’.

Matt Slater

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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