Euro 2020 was supposed to be an international tournament like no other. And so it will prove, though not in the way it was envisaged.
“Romantic” was how Michel Platini, president of UEFA, described his idea of playing 51 matches across 11 cities when he revealed it on the eve of Euro 2012’s final in Kiev.
It always appeared a triumph of idealism over logistics, though its scope undoubtedly warmed the hearts of airlines, hotels and travel companies alike.
Can Harry Kane lead England to Euro 2020 glory?Source:Getty Images
But then Covid-19 delayed Euro 2020 by 12 months. The threat of the virus still hangs heavy. Two host cities, Dublin and Bilbao, withdrew when local governments could not guarantee the safety of crowds in their stadiums.
The opening match, which is scheduled for early Saturday morning (EST) in Rome between Italy and Turkey, will be played in front of a much-reduced Stadio Olimpico crowd. Covid positives within Spain and Sweden’s squads this week reminded that the virus retains its capacity to bring everything to a halt.
When planeloads of fans of Manchester City and Chelsea were forced to self-isolate following positive tests after last month’s Champions League final in Porto, the difficulty of herding people across Europe was further revealed.
“The great party” planned by Platini, in exile after his role in FIFA’s ethical meltdown, will be muted at best.
Still, the show must go on, from Baku in Azerbaijan in the east, to Glasgow, the furthest westerly point, a span of more than 5000km. Hopefully the tournament is not played out in the zombified, procedural fashion of much of the European club season.
Having even reduced crowds in stadiums can establish something approaching normality. Adding actual atmosphere can reinvigorate players who flagged behind closed doors during packed domestic schedules that left no time to rest.
For those watching on TV, the sound of faked crowd noise will be not missed.
In England, where London’s Wembley Stadium hosts eight matches, including the semis and final, expectations are, as ever, high. Though hand-in-hand with England’s dreaming will always go pessimism.
England will be hoping the highly-touted Jack Grealish can make his mark.Source:AFP
Gareth Southgate’s squad drips with young attacking talent, tyros such as Manchester City’s Phil Foden and Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish pushing hard against the more established claims of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling to play alongside Harry Kane in attack.
Another taste of normality is provided by England entering the tournament with injury doubts surrounding key players. It has become an English tradition. Just as with David Beckham in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in both 2006 and 2010, a nation obsesses over fitness tests.
Manchester United captain Harry Maguire’s ankle ligaments forced a rejig of Southgate’s squad selection, while Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s captain, has not played a club match since February due to a thigh problem. Which leaves Kane of England’s totems, himself no stranger to injury. What could possibly go wrong?
But while the English worry, there is little doubt Southgate commands one of the strongest squads of the 24 nations competing. Perhaps only France have greater depth, with a midfield containing Champions League final MVP N’Golo Kante alongside Paul Pogba behind forwards Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and the recalled Karim Benzema.
The latter’s return, though, did suggest doubts from coach Didier Deschamps in his attack and is controversial since Benzema remains implicated in a long-running blackmail case involving former France international Mathieu Valbuena.
Cristiano Ronaldo is closing in on a pretty impressive record.Source:AFP
‘GROUP OF DEATH’
Much of the intrigue in the group stages, after which just eight teams head home, should centre around France’s Group F, a classic “Group of Death”. Portugal are defending European champions, and with Cristiano Ronaldo chasing further immortality in the all-time international goals record of Iran’s Ali Daei – he is six short of 109 – have a more talented squad than five years ago.
Liverpool’s Diogo Jota and Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes add attacking quality, but coach Fernando Santos must find a way for them to flourish around Ronaldo’s fading mobility while simultaneously polishing the legend’s ego.
LACK OF FAITH
Germany are another possessing depth but the suspicion is their coach, World Cup winner Jogi Loew, set to step down afterwards, has little idea how to structure his team.
Recalls for Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels hinted at a lack of faith in young bucks Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Serge Gnabry in attack and also the defence.
Of the rest of Europe’s traditional powers, each of Italy, Spain and the Netherlands have freshened up. The Italians, having not qualified for the 2018 World Cup, are revived by Roberto Mancini, whose achievements at Manchester City were lost in the haze of Pep Guardiola’s subsequent successes, but he remains one of Europe’s foremost coaches.
Veteran Thomas Muller is back to lead the German frontline.Source:Getty Images
Luis Enrique adopted a scorched earth policy in omitting every single Real Madrid player, including Sergio Ramos, and then, perhaps symbolically, selecting just 24 players of the allotted 26 before a Covid outbreak forced a late rethink.
Also absentees in 2018, a number of the Dutch squad, including Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong and Juventus’ Matthijs de Ligt, had indifferent club seasons, while Frank de Boer was once labelled by Jose Mourinho as the “worst manager in the history of the Premier League” after his short spell at Crystal Palace. The absence of Virgil van Dijk is unhelpful.
Which leaves the wildcards, for whom Euro 2020 could be fruitful. That gruelling club season can open windows of opportunity. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to see a shock winner like Greece in 2004, or something like both Turkey and South Korea reaching the semis of the 2002 World Cup. Both occurred while the elite succumbed to fatigue.
Wales attempt to repeat their 2016 ride to the last four with rumours of Gareth Bale’s retirement growing.
It is Scotland’s first tournament finals since 1998; they face England on June 18.
And watch out for Robert Lewandowski carrying Poland, and first-time qualifiers North Macedonia. Turkey, fired by 35-year-old striker Burak Yilmaz, could prove the wildest card of all.
A Cinderella story wouldn’t go amiss to lift a continent still burdened by the pandemic. A good, competitive tournament, while played amid such uncertainty and constraints, can help Europe feel something like normal again.
Greece pulled off a huge shock in 2004.Source:Getty Images
Originally published asRonaldo, romance, revenge: why these Euros will be like no other
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