They say better late than never. That’s why there’s a tournament called EURO 2020 being playing in 2021.
The reason why is obvious. Even though the horrifying death tolls Europe had racked up were easing off last summer, the tournament couldn’t be played for the simple reason that the qualifying process hadn’t ended.
While there was no such thing as a good time for this pandemic, this one happened at a spectacularly bad time for UEFA. This tournament was a break from the norm as after there wasn’t an acceptable bid from one country, UEFA decided to spread the matches over 12 venues across Europe.
The idea was that fans would be able to travel around watching their teams play. And, that strategy seemed to be vindicated as UEFA say there was unprecedented demand for tickets.
Instead, the games will be played in front of only a small number of fans, as stadiums have only been allowed to operate at a reduced capacity in most European countries. UEFA insisted that host venues had to allow fans in; there would be no completely empty stadiums.
As travel plans have been wrecked by the uneven statuses of European countries in terms of viral rates and rates of vaccination, meaning a lot of people would have to quarantine. UEFA have had to give refunds to millions of people (myself included) who either couldn’t travel to the country their ticket was for, or didn’t win a ballot to be allowed in the stadium.
Even a few weeks ago, it wasn’t a sure thing that enough hosts would be able to allow fans in for the games to go ahead, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson offering England as a potential host if UEFA wanted to pivot to having one nation host the whole tournament.
As it ended up, only two venues were unable to host. Ireland wasn’t able to give guarantees about admitting fans so Dublin was removed as a venue with the group games going to St Petersburg and the knockout game going to London. The Basque authorities put so many conditions on Bilbao hosting matches that UEFA ended up moving them to Seville, which has left the Basques threatening legal action. It was touch and go whether Munich could remain a host, with an agreement being made with the B only in the past couple of weeks.
UEFA have also tweaked the rules a bit to accommodate the extra strains this tournament will put on the players. Squads have been enlarged. Teams are allowed 5 substitutes (with an additional one allowed in extra-time), but are only allowed to stop the game three times to make them. There are contingencies in place if player or referees test positive for COVID.
These are already being tested after a few Spanish players have tested positive, with Spain creating a parallel bubble squad in case they need to replace any players.
All of this shouldn’t detract from the football. This has the potential to be one of the most open tournaments in a long time, with several teams being capable of winning.
France come into the tournament as favourites, justifiably so, and are looking to back up their World Cup win by winning the EUROs after doing just that in 1998 and 2000.
France are the perfect blend of a disciplined defence coupled with a ridiculous amount of attacking talent, and has added more by bringing Karim Benzema back from exile. N’Golo Kante is still a force to be reckoned with in midfield and there are few players who can match his football acumen and ability to read the game.
France have it all; but are in a group with Germany, Portugal and Hungary, which is about as tough as it gets. Not winning that group would put France in a tough part of the draw and hurt their chances.
I was there when Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after a 0-0 draw in Milan with Sweden sent the Swedes to Russia. In a game they had to win, Italy turned in a lifeless performance, barely threatening the Sweden goal and seemed to be playing scared.
Since then, a change of coach in bringing in Roberto Mancini has seen Italy play with much more boldness. It’s working too, as Italy arrive at this tournament on the back of a long unbeaten run. Italy have the attacking players and always possess the intelligence and know-how to win games, but there are questions about the defence, as Italy will be relying on some veteran players to carry them through.
England arrive in this tournament with a shot of winning that isn’t solely hype. They have a very young, talented squad with a lot of threat going forward. At the last World Cup England only scored three goals from open play, but this is a far more creative group of players.
There’s a few things to be concerned about. Firstly, somewhat unusually for England, there are issues defensively, especially at centre-back. England have a very young squad, with only 3 players being 30+ years old, and of those veteran players, Jordan Henderson has missed a lot of game time through injury and Kyle Walker hasn’t been in great form. I think it’s fair to question whether England have the know-how to go far in the tournament.
There’s also the issue of expectation. At the last World Cup, not much was expected from England and they did much better than expected, getting to the semi-finals. This time, there is a lot of expectation, and in the past, England have crumbled under expectations, so we’ll see what happens this time, especially as should England win the group as expected, they’ll likely have to play Portugal or Germany in the last 16.
There’s also issues swirling round the squad. England fans have been booing their own players for taking a knee before games in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, with people like Prime Minister Boris Johnson supporting those booing. Gareth Southgate has handled the situation about as well as it can be, but it will still be a distraction with England having a minimum of three games at Wembley and it can’t feel great for the players who clearly care about the issue having to face being booed by their own fans.
Defending champions Portugal arrive at the tournament with a good chance of defending. Strangely, for a team that contains Ronaldo and a whole host of other attacking talent, Portugal are quite a conservative team.
That’s not a criticism. Portugal have a strong side from front to back and have improved the supporting cast around Ronaldo.
The questions will be around the fact that there will be a lot of veterans in this team so how much do they have left on the clock? At 38, Pepe is the oldest player in the tournament and as good as he is, Portugal will need a plan to stop the likes of Mbappe targeting him.
Portugal will also have to battle to get out of the group, as being in the same group as France and Germany won’t make it too easy for them to progress in a way that gives them a favourable draw. There’s a good chance they could get England, Belgium or the Netherlands in the last 16.
Only a fool would ever write Germany off in a tournament. With this tournament bringing to an end Joachim Low’s long and, for the most part, very successful time in charge, Germany will be looking for a win.
However, there have been a few results that have caused some alarm. In the Nations League last year, Spain beat them 6-0. Germany have also lost to North Macedonia in recent times.
As ever, Germany have a solid spine to their team, and have a plethora of excellent midfielders to choose from; the midfielders sat on Germany’s bench would walk into most other teams. They do seem to have a little problem in attack. Thomas Muller is back, but the likes of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner have had difficult seasons at Chelsea and may not be too confident.
Belgium have been the great underachievers of European football in the past decade. They have had an extremely good set of players but have only one semi-final appearance to show for it.
This is an old squad, with only 2 players being under the age of 25. There’s a few questions surrounding the fitness of some players with Kevin De Bruyne getting hurt in the Champions League final and Romelu Lukaku and Axel Witsel all having battled injury recently.
Belgium’s play depends heavily on their wing backs. If they get caught upfield then Belgium look vulnerable in defence, but if they get everything right, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Time is running out for Belgium to live up to expectation. This tournament may also be the end of the line for coach Roberto Martinez, who has been linked with a couple of Premier League jobs, including a return to Everton.
Spain have almost completely revamped their squad after they lost in the last 16 at EURO 2016 and the last World Cup. David Silva and Gerard Pique retired, Sergio Ramos hasn’t been selected and stalwart players like Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba aren’t automatic starters anymore
Luis Enrique was given the job as coach just before the last World Cup and, despite him having to temporarily step down for family reasons, they’ve not looked back since. The faces may have changed, but the style of play is more or less the same, though maybe a bit more direct than before. Watch out for Spain’s wide players scoring at lot of goals.
Spain breezed through qualifying, scoring 31 goals on the way, and followed that up with a 6-0 win over Germany. They have a relatively easy group in this tournament and if they get it right, could go all the way and win.
The biggest opponent that may stop them is COVID. They’ve had two players test positive, and had to send an under-21 team to play a friendly with Lithuania. They’re going to be praying that there won’t be any more positive tests.
There’s a few dark horses that may go a long way in the competition.
Denmark have quietly put together an impressive set of results in recent years, with them not having lost in 90 minutes to anyone other than Belgium in 5 years. They are solid in defence and midfield and have the twin advantages of a lot of games in front of a home crowd in Copenhagen and a favourable draw should they progress from their group.
Turkey also come into the tournament on a great run of form, with a couple of brilliant wins over France and the Netherlands in recent games. Turkey have a very young squad, but they look to be a team on the up. The return of wily coach Senol Gunes, who was in charge when they finished third at the 2002 World Cup
Some are fancying Poland to go a long way in the tournament, but that seems to be based on not a lot more than them having Robert Lewandowski, one of Europe’s best forwards. The Netherlands have lost a lot of players through injury and Croatia are in a transitional period and are unlikely to be anywhere near as good as they were in the last World Cup.
Of the other home nations, Wales unexpectedly made the semi-finals last time. Last tournament Wales were reliant on the stellar form of Gareth Bale, but four years on Bale isn’t quite the same player he once was. Their preparations have been further hampered by coach Ryan Giggs having to be stood down as he faces a trial next year on assault charges, which has left Wales in limbo. Robert Page will lead Wales into the tournament, but a tough group means it’s unlikely they will be able to repeat their heroics of 2016.
Scotland have qualified for their first tournament since 1998, beating Serbia on penalties in the playoffs. They have drastically improved since Steve Clarke took charge, and in Billy Gilmour, may have one of the breakout stars of the tournament. Unfortunately for them, they are in a group with England, Croatia and Czechia, which means they probably won’t be making the knockout stages.
In every EUROs, there has been at least one nation making a debut. Iceland captured everyone’s hearts in 2016, so could Finland and North Macedonia do the same? Finland qualified out of a tough group, beating Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina to second place behind Italy. It was always a crying shame that Finland couldn’t qualify when Jari Litmanen, one of Europe’s best players of the 90s was playing, so it’s good to see them here, though it will likely be no further than the group stages
North Macedonia come into the tournament full of confidence after an away win in a World Cup qualifier against Germany. They will be led by Goran Pandev, who has been playing in Serie A for year now. North Macedonia also had a weird kit launch, after their kit supplier appeared to make their jersey in the wrong colour. After a quick backtrack, they will play in their quite fetching red and yellow colours of their flag.