This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
As the wind whips across the barren, depopulated nuclear wasteland of Euro 2016, only two teams are still standing. Despite their courageous efforts, Wales and Germany were fatally irradiated in the semi-finals, and now only France and Portugal remain.
Before the remaining sides fight each other for the precious resource of international silverware, let's look back at the last couple of matches. Here's our take on the penultimate round of the competition, with a smattering of insight into the final, too.
RAMSEY, RAMSEY, WHEREFORE ART THOU RAMSEY?
From the very start of Wales' heartbreaking semi-final against Portugal, it was obvious that something was missing. While the Welsh had been hugely dynamic against Belgium in the previous round, their pressing, harrying midfield seemed deadened and deflated. Chris Coleman's men struggled to get a consistent hold on the ball, and Portugal dictated the play accordingly. In the end, the Seleção's dominance became too much. So, what went wrong from a Welsh perspective?
Well, in short, the team failed to cope without Aaron Ramsey. His suspension cost Wales dear, which makes it seem all the more harsh.
While Gareth Bale has grabbed the headlines over the course of the tournament, Ramsey must surely be considered one of the standout players of Euro 2016. His energy in the middle of the park was a huge part of Wales' run to the semis, with his ability to deftly link attack and defence the crucial factor in their surprising success. Centre-back Ben Davies was also suspended for the Portugal match, and Wales certainly missed his quiet assuredness. Still, they might have survived without him. It was Ramsey whose absence proved decisive, and Ramsey who Wales couldn't live without.
While he must take some of the responsibility for his two cautions – his yellow card for handball in the Belgium match was utterly needless – the consequences of Ramsey's ban should compel UEFA to change their disciplinary policy for the Euros. Suspending a player for two yellow cards in five games is excessive, and it would be far more sensible to see out the group stage and wipe the slate clean. Nobody can claim that Ramsey has been guilty of consistent gamesmanship at this tournament, and yet he has been punished severely. Had the powers that be changed the rules back when they decided to expand the tournament – who knows? – Wales might have been in the final, and Portugal the ones heading home.
FIRST EUROPE, THEN THE WORLD
While Wales' Euro 2016 dream is over, the tournament has laid firm foundations for the future. First and foremost, their run to the semi-finals has earned the Football Association of Wales around £15m, a full £9m of which is set to be invested in the infrastructure of Welsh football. That will doubtlessly benefit the national team in the long term, but there's something rather more immediate to be considered.
Wales are about to embark on a crucial World Cup qualifying campaign, and Euro 2016 must serve as the springboard for further success.
Gutting as their semi-final defeat was, Wales should take massive pride in what they've achieved at the Euros. They have no rivals when it comes to former incarnations of the Welsh national team, while no British side has gone so far at a major competition since 1996. Now, though, it is imperative that they continue their progress. They have been bumped up to 11th in the FIFA rankings in the aftermath of their run to the semis and, as such, they are officially the best side in their World Cup qualifying group.
With Austria, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland also contesting Qualifying Group D, finishing top won't be easy. However, Wales have proved that they are capable of mixing it with the best that international football has to offer. Maintain their forward momentum, and there's no reason they can't repeat their European heroics on the world stage.
THE ELEVENTH HOUR
In the battle of the easy media narratives, valiant Welshman Gareth Bale was defeated on Wednesday evening, while preening, peacocking Cristiano Ronaldo won the day. Now, Ronaldo will preen and peacock his way into the final at the Stade de France, and we'll have to find someone else to serve as a convenient individual nemesis. What about Paul Pogba? He might sign for Real Madrid, right?
Whoever we choose to be Ronaldo's chief antagonist at the weekend, it is yet to be seen whether he can overcome himself. He has looked burdened by the weight of, well, being Ronaldo for most of the tournament. It's understandable, really, considering that the responsibility for Portugal's success seems to fall directly on his shoulders, despite the obvious shortcomings of the team as a whole. The Seleção may have dispatched Wales relatively comfortably in the end, but they will find the France match a rather different proposition. If they struggle collectively against the hosts, Ronaldo will inevitably take the blame.
If that isn't pressure enough for the permatanned front man, he'll be acutely aware of the ticking clock. Having laboured for over a decade in his desire to drag Portugal to the top, Ronaldo is still without major international silverware, and this might be his last chance to win something for his country. He will be 33 years of age by the time Russia 2018 comes around, and unlikely to have the same talismanic influence as he does now. The chime of the eleventh hour has sounded, and he knows that it is now or never if he wants to fulfil his ambition, and make Portugal proud.
While they'll doubtlessly be wary of a fired-up Ronaldo, France are now clear favourites to win the tournament. They produced a magnificent performance to down Germany in the other semi-final, and have paced things perfectly, gaining impetus game by game. However, their win over Die Mannschaft was not without controversy.
Was it a penalty? Wasn't it a penalty? Ultimately, it's very difficult to say.
On the one hand, Schweinsteiger does appear to have his arm in an incriminating position. He has thrown his forearm upwards, the ball has struck him, and there's a clear case for pointing to the spot. On the other hand, it's almost impossible to tell whether the handball is intentional, which should really be the deciding factor. As with all handball infringements, it's essentially subjective, and the referee must decide in the blink of an eye.
Then again, it's hard to feel too sorry for Germany. Despite being the most successful side in the history of international football, they don't half moan on. If they had their way, the third goal of the 1966 World Cup wouldn't have counted, and Patrick Battiston would probably have been sent off for clattering into Harald Schumacher's kneecap with his severely broken jaw. They'll probably win the next World Cup anyway, the mardy bastards, and so we say: get over it Germany, and boo bloody hoo.
LE NOUVEAU PLATINI
As the teams step out onto the pitch on Sunday, one man will have a chance to emulate a true great. Antoine Griezmann has struck six times over the course of the tournament, and is now three goals away from emulating Michel Platini's all-time scoring record at the European Championships. Platini famously scored nine goals at Euro '84, a total which has never been topped.
Griezmann requires a hat-trick in the final to match that achievement. In his current form, it's far from out of the question.
Despite his small stature, Griezmann has made a monumental contribution to France's campaign so far. His goalscoring is only one element of his game, and he can also pick a pass, beat a man and use his pace and power to tear open the field of play. Though he's a very different player to Platini, his flair and elan make him a fitting heir to Le Roi.
That said, Cristiano Ronaldo can also top Platini's scoring record in the final. There's an easy media narrative in here somewhere, methinks.