EURO 2020: A comprehensive review
16th European Championships ended up being just what the doctor ordered
Celebration after Italy's victory over Spain
Four years can be a long time in football. If you don’t believe me, ask the Italians.
2017 saw the Azzuri lose out on qualification for the 2018 World Cup after a 0-0 draw in the second leg against Sweden. A matter of national shame and embarrassment, especially for a nation that considers football an integral part of its culture. Veteran defenders Chiellini and Bonucci might remember the time they walked out of the San Siro pitch looking dejected and crestfallen. That is if they haven’t erased the memory already.
Fast forward to 2021 and as fate would have it, both found themselves stood side-by-side on their night of redemption, surrounded by their teammates and coaching staff as Chiellini himself lifted the Euro 2020 trophy in Wembley.
The veterans had played a pivotal role in turning the team’s fortunes around and helping them to a 34 game unbeaten run, lifting the European Championship in the process. Manager Roberto Mancini had his work cut out when he walked in in 2018 and the shake-up that followed saw the birth of a new-look Italian outfit - one that rarely ceded possession of the ball but instead kept pushing and probing from all corners until the opposition gave way. This transformation however didn’t come at the cost of experience as both Chiellini and Bonucci were made the defensive lynchpins through which Mancini kept the Italian tradition alive.
The former Sampdoria man put together a team that stayed true to the fundamentals but were capable of the extraordinary. Insigne’s long-ranger against Belgium could well have been the goal of the tournament if it wasn’t for the worldie by Czech Republic’s Patrick Schick. Meanwhile, Federico Chiesa, for whom this was somewhat of a coming of age tournament, propped up with a moment of magic against Spain when the game was in deadlock. The most remarkable individual feat however belonged to none other than goalkeeper Gianluigi Donarumma. At the age of 22, he kept his composure to save a total of 3 penalties in Euro 2020, seeing his team through against Spain in the semi-finals and repeating the heroics for his tournament-winning penalty save against England. UEFA’s team of Technical Observers at EURO 2020 recognised his brilliance by naming him the player of the tournament and adding another feather to his golden cap.
All was not golden about Euro 2020, however. In fact, it has rarely been smooth sailing for UEFA’s biggest international tournament ever since its announcement.
Back In 2012, UEFA and their president Platini came in for considerable flak following the decision to have 12 cities across Europe co-host the tournament in 2020. The idea was to have multiple cities share the economic burden of hosting a tournament instead of one. “Euro for Europe” was supposed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first European Championships.
The format meant several problems. From a fans’ point of view, travelling to multiple countries during the length of the tournament wasn’t appealing. Moreover, Climate Change was a growing concern among people and such a decision taken by a leading organisation like UEFA despite knowing the potential carbon footprint left behind had fans and the wider media perplexed.
To quell some of the eco-fears, UEFA announced they’d look to offset the carbon emissions caused by the tournament. The organisation promised to plant 50,000 trees in each of the 12 host cities. A step in the right direction, but one, you’d argue, shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.
The group stage draw in 2019 made it clear the environment-related concerns were just the tip of the iceberg. Looking at it from a sporting sense, it was unreasonable to ask a few teams and their fans to travel thousands of miles to cities like Baku while others had days of rest and the chance to play in their own countries. Sure enough, both Italy and England, who enjoyed significant home comforts throughout the length of the tournament ended up making their way to the final, providing further evidence that the idea failed spectacularly.
It is not fair to fans, who had to be in Rome one day and in Baku over the next few, which is a four and a half hour flight
"I would not support it anymore," the current UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin admitted to BBC Sport two days before the final. "In a way, it is not correct that some teams have to travel more than 10,000km while others have to only travel 1,000km. He also went on to express regret at how the format made it hard for fans. ”It is not fair to fans, who had to be in Rome one day and in Baku over the next few, which is a four and a half hour flight.”
Speaking of regret, England manager Gareth Southgate might look back at the tournament wondering what could have been. The former Middlesbrough captain had played all his cards exceptionally well right until when it mattered the most. Southgate, known for his understated and calm personality, proved he wasn’t afraid to make the tough calls when it came to team selection throughout the tournament. He opted for substance over style, with the only notable scoreline being their 4-0 win against Ukraine and the rest of the wins being measured performances that reminded you of a club playing away in Europe, except that England were mostly based at home. There were a few complaints about his reluctance to feature more of the stars boys in Grealish and Sancho but for the most part, the fans were right behind him. When the time came for the young squad to put things right and end the long wait for silverware, they failed to capitalise on their dominance in the first twenty minutes and were left wanting on penalties against Italy.
Picture Courtesy of : Bex Walton
Mural of Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling
England weren’t the only team that went down against Italy on penalties in Euro 2020. Spain knew how it felt to fail from the spot, but I doubt they’d share the same regret looking back. Luis Enrique’s men (boys) weren’t one of the favourites going into the tournament, unlike England. The former Barcelona boss’ decision to leave out star man Sergio Ramos along with others including Nacho Fernandez and Iago Aspas, taking with him what would be the youngest team in the Euro 2020 was met with raised eyebrows. If there were already question marks regarding Spain’s chances, drawing their first two games didn’t help. It took La Roja until the third game for the pieces to fall into place, but when it did, it was worth the wait. Enrique’s patience and belief were repaid with a 5-0 thumping of Slovakia. 18-year-old Pedri expertly pulled the strings from the centre of the field. The young midfielder was both inventive in his use of space and fearless in his pursuit to win back the ball. Spain had finally clicked and it looked like it would take something special to stop them. They found themselves facing Croatia in the Round of 16.
While Croatia had a tournament to forget, their game against Spain was one of the best. A Pedri own goal meant Spain didn’t make matters easier for themselves but weirdly, it helped take the shackles off and play their own game. Spain began to assert their quality on the pitch. They came back to lead 3-1 but Croatia scored twice in the last five minutes, including added time to take the game to extra time. Unfortunately for them, Spain’s quality on the bench shone through in the end to find the net twice. Spain were through to the quarter-finals where they faced Vladimir Petkovic’s Swiss warriors.
Switzerland travelled a total of 15,485km (9,622 miles), the highest of Euro 2020. Despite having no real time to rest and relax, their performance remained as professional and committed as any under manager Vladimir Petkovic. Their campaign began with an otherwise uneventful 1-1 draw against Wales in Baku, an unpopular choice of a city among the public due to the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community by the Azerbaijan regime, but took off when they caused the biggest upset of the tournament by knocking out world cup winners France on penalties. After taking the lead themselves, the Swiss had to come from two goals behind to force France to extra time. The game went to penalties where Yann Sommer proved to be the hero, saving Mbappe’s penalty. Spain vs Switzerland was a relatively tight affair, with a Xherdan Shaqiri goal cancelling out a Zakaria own goal early on in the first half. The Swiss held on till the penalties despite the red card in the second half but goalkeeper Unai Simon made two saves and Spain scored thrice to reach the semi-final.
Wales-Switzerland match at Euro 2020 in Baku
The showdown against Italy for a place in the final ended up being a spectacle. What would normally have been a clash of the opposites, turned out to be attack vs attack. Forward Dani Olmo was rewarded for his impact from the bench against Swiss with a start up-front. He repaid the faith by putting in a fine showing in the false-nine role, combining well with his teammates and getting an assist in the process. Italy drew the first blood through a sumptuous Chiesa strike but Spain kept coming back and got their deserved equaliser through an Alvaro Morata finish. Spain looked arguably the better side since as the momentum shifted but the famous Italian nerves held on till the penalties and finally won it to book a place in the final. The young Spanish squad look like a mouth-watering prospect once they gel further and it wouldn’t be unfair to expect big things in the world cup.
Like Italy, there was another European heavyweight who had arrived at the tournament looking to right their wrongs. The Netherlands had failed to qualify for the 2018 world cup and were without their captain Van Dijk. They flew through the group stages, committing men forward and transitioning quickly from defensive to attacking football. Unfortunately for Oranje, the red card against Czech Republic in the round of 16 was too hard to recover from and found themselves on the back foot. Soon enough, the inevitable Czech goal came and The Netherlands crashed out of yet another international tournament.
The group of death (Group F) looked full of promise before the tournament began but ended in an anticlimax. Three European giants including the defending champions and the world cup winners in the same group meant there was much scope for drama and action. France were under pressure to follow in their past successes of 1998 and 2000 and deliver a second consecutive international trophy in two years. With their only win against Germany and a shock exit at the hands of the Swiss in the round of 16, they had overpromised and underdelivered.
Germany, meanwhile took hope from their second half performance against France, although the Euros seemed to have come at the wrong time for them. Manager Joachim Löw had already announced back in March that he’d depart after the Euros and their 2-0 loss at the hands of the English put them out of their misery. Where there should’ve been the trademark German no-nonsense football and attacking efficiency on display, we got to witness a team lacking cohesion and leaders on the pitch. Germany would hope new manager Hansi Flick might be able to pick up the pieces and get them to regroup before the world cup qualifiers.
Defending champions Portugal picked up a routine win in their first game, keeping a clean sheet against Hungary but ended up conceding four times to Germany despite going ahead. Fernando Santos’ men looked far from their solid selves and barely made it into the knockout round where they faced an ageing Belgium side whose golden generation had one final chance to win silverware before the squad was reset. An otherwise dull first was interrupted by a fierce drive from outside the box by Thorgan Hazard, which eventually ended up being the difference between the two teams as Courtois stood firm to prevent Portugal from equalising in the second half. Portugal might look back at the Euros at what could have been, as they ultimately failed to make their quality on paper reflect on the pitch.
Before most of what I recounted above even happened, there was the game between Finland and Denmark where football ended up taking a back seat. Denmark’s Eriksen suddenly collapsed on the pitch due to a cardiac arrest towards the end of the first half. The game had to be postponed for 90 mins as paramedics performed CPR to revive him. Thanks to expert medical help, Eriksen survived. It looked certain that the match would be called off while he was transferred to a hospital, but after about 90 minutes, the two teams remarkably found themselves going back out on the pitch.
This initiative is really welcome because if you look at the stats every week, between 12-16 young people under the age of 35 die as the result of a sudden cardiac arrest
Watching a footballer suffering a cardiac arrest in the middle of a game naturally took the whole football world by shock. The following days saw talks regarding the safety of players, and especially those who play in the lower tiers and amateur level where expert medical help is not around. The need for life-saving Defibrillators at every level was emphasised. On June 25, The Athletic reported that the English Premier League have agreed to provide defibrillators to 2000 grassroots football sites. "This initiative is really welcome because if you look at the stats every week, between 12-16 young people under the age of 35 die as the result of a sudden cardiac arrest," Crystal Palace head of medicine Dr. Zaf Iqbal told Sky Sports while representing the Premier League as the first device was installed at League One side AFC Wimbledon in July.
A key reason Euro 2020 saw many high-scoring games is that the games were allowed to flow. Referees laid down the law early on in most of the games that the whistle would go only if the incident warranted it. Roberto Rosetti and his team of officials came out of the tournament with credit and English referee Anthony Taylor also received special praise from Rosetti for intervening within seconds after Christian Eriksen collapsed, making sure he received help in time.
Another positive to take out from the games was the impressive use of VAR throughout. Euro 2020 was the first time since the 2018 world cup that VAR was used in international football. The past few years of VAR have been frustrating, to say the least, with both the fans and players taking their time to get accustomed to its presence. Let’s be honest, it isn’t going anywhere and especially not after a successful Euro 2020. The tournament has shown the way and fans across the globe would hope domestic leagues would follow. With the right personnel and training, both football and VAR can exist together.
There were many things UEFA didn’t account for when they drew up plans for Euro 2020, and one thing we can’t fault them for is not foreseeing a global pandemic. But COVID-19 meant all our plans went out the window and UEFA should have followed suit by dropping the multiple-city host format.
Football was forced into a difficult place in 2020, but thanks to leaders in the medical field, there was light at the end of the tunnel. In the year that followed, football survived and evolved. Fans watched their clubs get relegated and lift trophies in empty stadiums, and at that point, I’m sure you’d have bitten my hand off if I offered you Italy vs Turkey in front of 12,000 fans in Rome with a tiny adorable robot car bringing out the match ball.