June 10 – Better late than never. One year after its original date, Euro 2020 finally kicks off in Rome on Friday but with a very different feel to anything we have experienced in the past.
Twenty-four teams battle for supremacy across 11 cities one fewer than the original concept devised by former UEFA supremo Michel Platini to mark the 60thanniversary of the tournament.
With almost all host cities having to manage vastly reduced stadium capacities because of the Covid-19 pandemic that has ravaged football across the continent, it won’t quite have the kind of look Platini envisaged.
But despite Dublin being ditched and Seville replacing Bilboa at the 11th hour, the 51-fixture competition is still going ahead pretty much in its original pan-Continental guise.
If truth be told, Platini’s successor, Aleksander Ceferin, has never been comfortable with the one-off format and recently admitted he lost sleep over whether the competition could go ahead at all. It would have been hard enough putting together a Europe-wide event of such magnitude at the best of times. Having to cope with a killer pandemic that has caused travel, health and logistical mayhem has stretched UEFA’s organisational capabilities – and those of the host cities – to the limit.
But in a way, the excitement and anticipation has never been greater given the highly unusual circumstances. Only Budapest is likely to have a full stadium while the traditional fan zones will be subject to strict protocols. But at least fans will be present at every game, the first major international tournament to allow them since the pandemic struck in March 2020.
France, the defending World Cup winners with a plethora of match winners, and Portugal, the reigning European champions, are among the usual suspects in terms of favourites. So are in-form Italy and star-studded Belgium, the world’s no. 1-ranked team. Spain as usual will be expected to go far into the tournament as will Germany, who have blown hot and cold in recent months but will be desperate to give Joachim Loew a fitting send-off in his final tournament in charge.
Optimism is strong in the England camp too, not least because of home advantage most of the time and a dangerous-looking forward line. But the semi-finals, which Gareth Southgate’s team reached at the 2018 World Cup, may realistically be the ultimate achievement.
While the Euros have produced some high-profile shocks, notably Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004, ever since the Danes’ triumph every winner apart from Greece have been among the four highest-ranked European nations.
Yet this is no ordinary competition, staged from Scotland to Azerbaijan and culminating in a month’s time at Wembley. It’s an old cliché but literally anything could happen.
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