In the annals of major soccer tournaments, which are long and storied, there have been few games to match the sheer awfulness of Portugal's recent victory over Croatia at Euro 2016.
It was unspeakable. Two teams intent on crushing the spirit of the opposition and blithely crushing the spirit of neutral observers all over the world. Croatia, a team of enormous skill, was maniacally obsessed with stopping Cristiano Ronaldo from getting the ball. Portugal, a team of dullards without Ronaldo, was fiercely busy ensuring that Croatia never got possession in midfield, lest Luka Modric exert his sublime passing skills. A stalemate from the get-go.
I went out for groceries in my 'hood during the second half, expecting the stalemate to be continuing when I was back thirty minutes later. It was. If I'd gone to Vancouver for groceries, it would have been going on when I returned days later. Such was the black hole in which it seemed to unfold. There were two shots on target through normal and extra time. Ricardo Quaresma finally scored Portugal's scrappy winner three minutes from the end, and the whole watching world rolled its eyes.
On Thursday, Portugal plays Poland in the first quarter-final match. Nobody cares much. Apart from supporters of both countries, obviously. Neither team is a brave underdog. Both teams have non-performing superstars.
Poland's underperforming star is Robert Lewandowski. One of the deadliest strikers in Europe – 42 goals in all competitions last season for Bayern Munich – he has only scored at the Euro in a penalty shootout with Switzerland. That was a game that almost reached the mind-numbing dullness of Portugal's turgid win over Croatia. He works hard, it's true. Knowing that he will draw the attention of opposition defenders, he's been bustling about more as decoy than striker and getting Poland's other attacking players into good positions. But he has yet to ignite and in general he's been disappointing.
Listen, I have nothing against either country. I have history with both. I admire the passionate support of both teams and I've enjoyed lengthy periods covering soccer in both countries.
Euro 2004 in Portugal was the first Euro tournament I covered. It was a fraught few weeks for the host team. I was there when Portugal was beaten by Greece in the opening match in Porto and the country seemed to dissolve into an instant depression. I was there when Luis Figo, then leading Portugal's so-called "golden generation," took the team by the scruff of the neck and led it to a winging shootout against England. I was there when Portugal beat arch-rival and neighbour Spain, and Lisbon went into collective ecstasy. I saw Greece defeat Portugal again, in the final, and knew their pain.
Four years ago, a month in Warsaw for Euro 2012 meant admiration and sympathy for the co-host team. So much expected as co-hosts, so much fervour in the country. An opening tie with Greece, those regular disruptors of Euro tournaments; a tie with Russia and a defeat when facing the Czech Republic meant Poland went out early. The local wisdom was that it was a couple of years too soon for this rising Poland squad to truly challenge the top teams in Europe.
Well, it's two years later and Poland is more solid but failing to entertain or impress. A narrow 1-0 victory over a nervous Northern Ireland and a 0-0 draw with Germany gave every indication that Poland can play the sort of smothering game that both Portugal and Croatia played. But little else. Unless Lewandowski finds the space and the confidence to start scoring as he can.
Poland's strengths are teamwork and determination, merits that don't capture the imagination, unless you're a Poland supporter. Portugal's strengths, such as they are, amount to a canny approach to each game as a separate, unique battle to be won. That, and the diminishing skills of Ronaldo. He still runs like a gazelle, but is easier to take out of a game and much less proficient at set pieces than he once was.
A likely outcome is a 2-0 victory for Poland. They have confidence and simply await Lewandowski's goal-scoring skills to explode. German coach Joachim Low has said that Poland impressed him deeply with their counterattack, and Germany faced Poland both in qualifying and at the tournament proper.
Statistics say Lewandowski is the most-fouled player at Euro 2016. Ronaldo would probably argue with that stat and bang his fists on the ground in protest, but if the referee in Thursday's match is strict about harassment of the Polish striker, that will benefit Poland immeasurably.
One hopes, as a neutral, for a match as crazy and goal-filled as Portugal's 3-3 draw with Hungary. One dreads another dreary, cagey game similar to Portugal's laboured victory over Croatia. Not another one for the annals of monotony.