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Euro 2020: A unique experiment in pandemic football

Postponed by a year, Euro 2020 finally gets going on 11 June under the shadow of covid-19 and racism

Kylian Mbappé of France can be one of the stars of the tournament.
Kylian Mbappé of France can be one of the stars of the tournament. (AFP)

Even before the covid-19 pandemic, Euro 2020 had still seemed like a novel, if a slightly insane idea. Instead of one host country, 12 host cities. Instead of one football federation managing the event, 12 different football federations. Instead of fans travelling around one country, soaking in the culture and following their teams, they would now jet around the continent watching matches . The way UEFA saw it, the 60th anniversary of Europe’s international football tournament would be one continent-wide party.

And then came covid-19. Reeling with massive caseloads, countless deaths and overwhelmed medical services, Europe went into lockdown last year. Euro 2020 was postponed to 2021. This year’s tournament, which begins on June 11 and will continue for a month, continues to be called Euro 2020, but there will be no parties. The number of host cities has shrunk to 11, and the number of spectators allowed for each game will vary according to the covid-19 rules of individual countries.

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Of all the venues, only Budapest has announced close to 100% spectator attendance, with most other cities committing to no more than 40% of their capacity. Much like the rest of football over the past year, Euro 2020 will primarily be a televised spectacle. However, with even a minimum of 25% stadium attendance, there will certainly be some colour and drama in the stands, and TV viewers will be spared the indignity of canned fan sounds!

International tournaments like the Euros or the World Cup are hardly ever about scintillating football. The matches are mostly an exercise in damage limitation; games of patient attrition to see who blinks first. Even when the winners of the group stages proceed to the knockout rounds, while the drama grows exponentially, the quality of the football still plays second fiddle to the ‘narrative’. Defending champions Portugal didn’t light up Euro 2016 with their football, but the further they progressed, the more the tournament became about the beatification of Cristiano Ronaldo. And although CR7 missed the bulk of the final due to injury, when Portugal emerged champions after a boring battle with France, the victory was all about him. Much of the narrative and drama is, of course, down to the emotions of the fans in the stadium, and since that will be in short supply this year, there is a chance that we may end up seeing better football!

The favourites

One of the best things about the tournament is that the main teams all have excellent squads, some with the right mix of veterans and tyros. But even then, there is one overwhelming favourite: France. The reigning world champions have a fearsome squad stacked with a couple of world class players for every position. And what’s more, they’re in form.

N'Golo Kanté of France.
N'Golo Kanté of France. (Getty Images)

Take N’Golo Kanté for example. The Chelsea player is probably the best defensive midfielder in the world right now, and he’s an excellent creative force too when he needs to be. He played Manchester City off the park in the recently-concluded Champions League final and is in prime shape to control France’s midfield right now. Manchester United’s Paul Pogba may not have had as distinguished a season as Kanté, but he’s been very good nonetheless. As we’ve seen at the World Cup, Pogba comes alive in international tournaments, and with the security of Kanté behind him, Pogba can very well light up the tournament. The star of the 2018 World Cup, Antoine Griezmann, has been a shadow of his former brilliant self for Barcelona, but he certainly has the goods, and the self-contained world of tournament football might be the best place for him to be at his attacking best.

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And then there’s Kylian Mbappé. The PSG star has again had a superhuman season, scoring 42 goals in all competitions. He has everything that you might look for in a striker: deadly pace, mind-boggling skills and a ruthless eye for goal. At only 22, he has already scored 107 goals in the French Ligue 1, and 27 in the Champions League. It’s simply impossible to bet against France with him in the team.

Even without him, France is a formidable team. Former Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger thinks as much. Speaking to Sky Sports recently, he said, “They are not the favourites, they are the super favourite. Favourite is not big enough, because when you win the World Cup and then you have in your team, Kanté, Pogba, (Karim) Benzema, Griezmann, (Kingsley) Coman, (Olivier) Giroud, I forget half of them. (Ousmane) Dembélé. You will have on the bench 11 players who would play basically in any other national team.”

The challengers

So who could challenge France? According to Wenger in the same interview, it could be England. “The English team is for me the team who can most threaten France,” he said. “They have top quality players. They are maybe still a bit young some of them but this season with Mason Mount, (Phil) Foden, they have (Jack) Grealish, Declan Rice and of course Harry Kane up front and some experienced players like (Jordan) Henderson. They can compete with France.”

Harry Kane of England.
Harry Kane of England. (Getty Images)

England is certainly great team on paper, but much will depend on the way the team manages its defence and attack. England’s standout centre-back Harry Maguire is an injury worry and may miss the group phase. Similarly Henderson is just coming back from a long layoff since February and will be used sparingly. Harry Kane, who was again the highest scorer in the Premier League this season, is one of the best strikers in the world right now, and if he can develop a chemistry with Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden or Marcus Rashford, England could go a long way.

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Portugal have an even better team than the one that won the tournament in 2016. Even at 36, Ronaldo is still banging in goals for fun (he was the top scorer in the Italian Serie A with 29 goals for Juventus). In Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, Portugal have one of the best attacking midfielders in the world right now, and Liverpool’s Diogo Jota is a pretty lethal striker himself. The Portugal squad might be on the older side, but as they have proved in 2016, the team thrives on tournament football. But for Portugal, or Germany, another team stocked to the gills with world class talent, any dreams of winning the Euro is contingent on them getting out of Group F. A true ‘group of death’, it also contains France and Hungary. One of Portugal or Germany will have to bow out at the group stage, and it looks likely to be Germany, who haven’t had the best preparations in the run-in. Unless Germany or Poland become one of the four best third-placed finishers.

The other team that believe that they can win the tournament is Belgium. Boasting a golden generation of talent that’s at its peak, Belgium has consistently been ranked the number one team in the world since 2018, and that’s no wonder. A team consisting of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen in defence, Kevin De Bruyne, Youri Tielsmans and Thorgan Hazard in midfield, and Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Dries Martens in attack is a world beating team. The Red Devils came close in the 2018 World Cup, only to be edged out 1-0 by eventual champions France in the semi-finals. This might be the last chance for a talented group of footballers to win a major tournament.

Romelu Lukaku of Belgium.
Romelu Lukaku of Belgium. (Getty Images)

The Netherlands and Italy are the dark horses of the tournament. The former will certainly be weakened by the unavailability of the Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk due to injury, while the latter are a workman-like team lacking any real cutting edge. But although both teams are unfancied, stranger things have happened.

A barometer of diversity

Ever since the racist killing of George Floyd in the US in May 2020, an urgent need to reckon with racism has swept the world. It has been felt in European football as well, with Premier League teams taking the knee before every game this past season. The need to denounce racism is of paramount importance in Europe, where right wing, xenophobic, anti-immigration politics has been in the ascendance for over a decade. While people of African and Asian descent have been subjected to egregious ‘stop-and-search’ policing in countries like Spain, Croatia and Austria, in England the harder edge of Brexit supporters have targeted people of colour.

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This, despite the fact that the very same immigration has elevated European football in the past decade. For example, England, France, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands—former colonial powers all—have incredibly diverse squads. Many of the star players are second or third generation immigrants, like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku (who was born to Congolese parents) or France’s N’Golo Kanté (who was born to Malian parents) or England’s Marcus Rashford (whose grandmother was from St. Kitts in the West Indies).

Many of these same players would also point out that most people from their backgrounds continue to get a raw deal across Europe, living in conditions of extreme poverty and frequently subjected to hate-filled racism in their countries. While they feel strongly about Black Lives Matter, European football administration, which is predominantly white, seem to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, and, beyond minor gestures, are only too happy to sweep it under the carpet. As the persistent booing of England players taking the knee by white football fans shows, this tournament could be a lightning rod for issues of tolerance, equality and dignity.

Bring on the Euros!

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