On the face of it playing a 24-team finals tournament using 12 different venues spread across a continent in June and July 2020 was always going to be logistically challenging. However, factor in a global pandemic which brought the world as we knew it let alone international travel and football to a halt from which we are only just beginning to tentatively recover, and things are even more complicated than they might have been in the old normal.
The Coronavirus pandemic not only saw the tournament postponed for a year, although presumably our friends at UEFA resisted the need to rename it Euro 2021 due to the loss of revenue they faced from all that wasted merchandise, and eventually reduced the number of host cities to 11 after Bilbao and Dublin dropped out / were removed depending on who you listen to, replaced by Seville. So, what have we made of the opening rounds?
Of course one of the first decisions that had to be made was which of the 11 co-hosts would be selected to perform the opening ceremony, in the end it turned out to be Rome as Italy were “hosted” by Turkey (be calm this is only the start of the vagaries of the schedule!) but it was the Italians that were still responsible for the opening ceremony which seemed spectacular enough from what I remember, the standout moment being a woman hoisted high into the air by a collection of oversized balloons in a scene akin to a cartoon made real. Seemingly undeterred by the bizarre show, the Italians got off to a decent enough start with a 3-0 victory which they then followed up with another 3 goals without reply against the Swiss and a 1-0 win over Wales, although the final whistle and qualification for the knockout phase sparked celebrations for the vanquished Welsh.
In a similar vein to their exploits in 2016 the Welsh have proven a breath of fresh air in the tournament. Being consigned to the far-flung outpost of Baku (believe me I know what it feels like to have to go out there for a match!) for their first two matches the draw against the Swiss and then the win over Turkey brought back memories of their adventures in France 5 years ago. While despite my first name I am not even in the slightest bit Welsh it looks to be really good fun following the Dragons in these major tournaments, even if technically First Minister Mark Drakeford had advised fans “not to travel”, the 400-500 or so who made the expedition to Azerbaijan looked to have a whale (pardon the pun!) of a time.
If Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey & co somehow find a way to recreate that journey of 5 years ago, there is the possibility that they might meet England in the semi-final. In reality though with England meeting Germany next and Denmark and the Netherlands/ Czech Republic barring Wales’ route we better not start counting our chickens just yet- Germany v Wales at Wembley anyone?
It is impossible to mention the Danes without reflecting on the almost beyond tragic events at the Parken Stadium on the first Saturday of the tournament when we all watched on as the Danish players formed a makeshift screen around their stricken teammate Christian Eriksen who had suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch, while captain Simon Kjær and the goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel comforted his distraught wife on the touchline. It brought back harrowing memories of Fabrice Muamba and Marc-Vivien Foé and provided a stark and vivid reminder that football is most certainly not more important than life or death.
UEFA in their infinite disregard for anything other than the commercial implications offered the Danish players the chance to finish the game that evening with Eriksen in hospital or come back at noon the following day. Thankfully it seems that Eriksen is on the way to recovery and the Danes won through to the knockout phase with an emotionally charged 4-1 win over Russia in their last group game.
Coming into the competition on the back of 10 wins out of 10 with 40 goals scored and just 3 conceded, once again the world’s top-ranked nation Belgium went into the tournament as one of the highly favoured teams. However, having gone out of the last two major tournaments at the quarter and semi-final stages respectively, it feels like we might be approaching the last chance saloon for Belgium’s golden generation to reach a final and secure a trophy.
So far this time around progress through the group stage has been comfortable again with 3 wins out of 3 and Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, in particular, looking very much in the mood having scored 4 of their side’s 7 goals so far. If Roberto Martínez’s men really are to deliver on their undoubted promise this time then they will likely have to overcome the major obstacles of Portugal, Italy and then France to reach the final.
Ask anyone Dutch including a good friend of mine, Erik, and they will tell you that ambitions for the Netherlands are at an all time low despite having secured qualification to a major tournament for the first time since Brazil 2014. The main reasons seeming to be: a lack of faith in Frank de Boer who himself has admitted that “We are between the fourth and eighth [strongest team]. We are good enough to reach the semi-final, but of course we aim to win the tournament”; the loss of defensive rock Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool fans will of course tell you how much of a difference his absence can make; and the lack of a bona fide striker.
Albeit in an easier-looking group the Dutch have made simple enough work of getting through the first round and have found goals from captain Gini Wijnaldum, the previously much-maligned Memphis Depay and the excellently named Denzel Dumfries. The Oranje now face the Czech Republic in the Round of 16 and will be eyeing up a very intriguing-looking possible semi-final clash against England or Germany.
While flirting with the potential disaster of elimination at the group stage for the second successive tournament Joachim Löw’s Germany found a way to get through thanks to a late equalizer from Leon Goretzka against Hungary, ensuring the long-serving coach’s tenure will continue a little bit further at least. This tournament’s group of death did little to show us the potential of the 3 favoured protagonists France, Portugal or Germany all of whom managed just 1 win out of their 3 matches and to a large extent cancelled each other out other than Germany’s 4-2 win over Portugal. Credit however must go to underdogs Hungary who secured hard-fought draws against France and Germany and came oh-so-close to eliminating the Germans.
Spain have continued to look a shadow of their former selves and the team that won 3 consecutive major tournaments ever since elimination at the group stage in Brazil in 2014. They have also struggled to find a reliable striker since their glory days. The 5-0 destruction of Slovakia helped in no small part by goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka’s clangers, hinted that Luis Enrique’s men might be starting to click into some cohesive form. Sweden for their part have looked functional at best but have got the job done by topping the group and securing what looks like a fairly winnable 2nd round clash with Ukraine which might lead to a quarter final reunion with England.
So, to England. 2 wins out of 3, 7 points in the bag and top of the group, what’s not to like? While we knew the Scots would come to Wembley accompanied by the Tartan hordes even if they didn’t have a ticket, and play with passion, spirit and make it difficult for England ultimately securing a goalless draw, it is the less than inspiring 1-0 wins over Croatia and the Czech Republic that have caused the media and nation to start fretting that football might not be coming home again. Despite having a glorious array of attacking talent to choose from, Gareth Southgate’s team have looked lacklustre and short of verve in attack, other than that first half against the Czechs when Jack Grealish and teenager Bukayo Saka were let loose.
Of course, it is the old enemy Germany at Wembley on Tuesday evening and the sort of game that England have always blown since their one day in the sun a mere 55 years (of hurt) ago. If the Three Lions are ever to truly blossom into the top team we all hope they can be, then beating the Germans, even on penalties, feels like an essential step on the way. We can only hope that for once the players rise to the occasions, they shake off the inhibitions that always seem to hamper their play and that cruel luck has no part to play this time around. The country certainly needs the lift!