EURO 2020: Amidst the waning of the pandemic in the continent, some of the best players will put football back in the mindspace of fans.
It’s an eerie time for the world’s third-largest multi-team festival of sport, the delayed Euro 2020, to unfold. The continent is catching its breath from the ravages of the virus and is still clutched with fear of another imminent wave. Euro also comes on the back of the most back-breaking football season perhaps in the history of the game. Yet, it’s a victory for the game, even before the first ball is kicked at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
The overbearing tone is not of festivity, but austere and sombre. Along with scarves and banners, masks and sanitisers too would be rolled in Covid-19 conscious stadiums with 60 per cent unoccupied seats.
Euro2020 spans 11 cities, from Bilbao in the southwest of the Iberian peninsula to Baku on the edge of the Caspian, from Glasgow on the west of Scotland to St Petersburg on the shores of Neva Bay. The mumblings do persist. There is talk about the turgidity of a 24-teams event and the logistical nightmare of 11 host cities. The usual metaphors are also expected to roll out too: The championship that keeps the idea of Europeanism alive.
In football it’s the age of Europe reasserting its continental supremacy over Latin America. The last four World Cups have been won by European teams. Six of football’s top-seven are from Europe. This century’s radical footballing ideas were devised in Europe. From tiki taka to gegenpress, possession to pressing football, false nines to inverted wingers. From Pep Guardiola to Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel to Joachim Low.
It’s where the money too is and where the best footballing talent flocks to. From Lionel Messi to Neymar. Latin America might be the world’s talent factory, but they are packaged into world-beaters in Europe.
This time around It’s an open field. France, world champions and with a plethora of talented footballers, are slim favourites. There is a rejuvenated Croatia brimming to avenge its World Cup final loss, a recharged Netherlands and a restored Italy, who are unbeaten in 25 games. And there are always the determined Belgians. They are the top-ranked team and this might be their final shot at a silverware for their golden generation.
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Not to ignore defending champions Portugal, who are no longer a one-man army as they were in 2016, but a squadron of gifted midfield generals marshalled by Europe’s best player (ever?). Germany looks in shambles, but should never be written off by anyone with any sense. Spain is incrementally rebuilding, and some have them anointed as the dark horses. England, arguably, have the most explosive group of players in the last two decades.
Group of faith
Three of these are in the same group—Germany, France and Portugal—making group F the most intriguing of all. To define a clear favourite between them is less science and more whim – a Group of Faith.
But Euros is replete with stories of hares slipping and tortoises catching up. England would know, as they melted in the defensive iceberg of a bunch of anonymous Icelanders. And then enviously saw neighbours Wales galloping to the semifinals. Or the biggest underdog story of all, in the 2016 Portugal-France final, when a little-known forward with a bottom-rung English club flaying the one shot that made all the difference in the dying minutes of the match. Coming in as a substitute, the unheralded Eder stunned the home crowd and stupefied French players in 109th minute.
The Greeks in 2004 had stunned the world by winning the title. Before that in 1992, the team holding the Cup was Denmark, a team that qualified only because of the conflict in Yugoslavia. This time around the likes of Finland, North Macedonia, who have already beaten Germany in a World Cup qualifier, or Slovakia or Scotland are capable of keeping the grand Euros tradition alive.
The kind of Cinderella stories that Euros can throw up, the Champions League can’t match. Finland’s coach Markku Kanerva is a primary school teacher when there’s no football. Macedonia’s Elif Elmas bakes cakes between his football games in the once strife-torn town of Skopje. Hungary’s Kevin Barga was his country’s swimming champion and Denmark’s Martin Braithwaite was wheelchair-bound for two years in his teens because of a rare disease. Christopher Trimmel of Austria was a construction worker and used the wages to self-fund his degree in art history.
Aggressive scouting of clubs and widespread reach of television and internet have chewed some thrill out of a starlet arriving unannounced, yet there would be unpolished diamonds waiting to shine and sparkle. It could be the stage for Swede Dejan Kulusevski, the ‘next Zlatan’ or the ‘Messi in the making’ Pedri of Spain, or Sandro Tonali, the ‘Pirlo from Bresica’. Or Hungary’s Dominik Szoboszlai or North Macedonia’s Elif Elms. There, of course, is a raft of young and already celebrated stars, the clan of Kylian Mbappé and Phil Foden. The spread of talent is drool-worthy.
When new stars begin to twinkle, the old ones would fade into the twilight but not before hoping to dazzle for one last time – Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Luka Modric.
The text and subtext in this Euro are multiple and multilayered, but Euro 2020 will stand as a monument of Europe’s resistance against the pandemic. It’s a victory even before the first kick.
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