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Tue 22 June 2021

Gary Gowers looks forward to a very different European football tournament starting this week

While the upcoming European Championships will bear all the hallmarks of the bi-annual footballing extravaganza to which we have become accustomed, for many reasons – some obvious and some less so – this will be a tournament unlike any other.

Even before the Coronavirus pandemic reared its ugly head, Euro 2020 was always destined to be different. Back in 2012, UEFA’s then president, Michel Platini, proposed that, in order to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the competition, it should not be hosted by one country, but across the entire continent. “Romantic” was how he described his notion at the time although, given the cloud under which the Frenchman departed his post in 2015, one could be forgiven for thinking that there may also have been some fiscal considerations.

Either way, the UEFA Executive bought into Platini’s dream and, so persuasive was the argument put forward, it was reasoned that “the pan-European staging of the tournament was the logical decision at a time of financial difficulty across Europe”.

The logistics of a pan-European tournament were always going to be more challenging. While several countries had previously expressed an interest in hosting it, only Turkey had firmed up its interest. But, when it came to bidding to be one of the host cities, there was no Turkish bid among the 19 put forward.

In the end, 16 of the bids were given the nod with a variety of different ‘packages’ – ranging from a sprinkling of group games through to knock-out matches, semi-finals and the final. The big ‘winners’ were the English Football Association, which won the right to host a group stage plus both semi-finals and the final at Wembley, while the Scottish and Irish FAs both won a group stage and round-of-16 game package.

As it turned out, the Irish FA was unable to fulfil its obligation due to the pandemic. The other cities that failed to make the initial cut were Minsk, Sofia, Jerusalem, Skopje, Stockholm and Cardiff; while Brussels has also had to withdraw, after initially being given the thumbs-up, following delays in the construction of its Eurostadium.


A Year of Delay

On 17 March 2020 – six days before the Government enforced the first COVID-19 lockdown in England – the 55 member associations of UEFA agreed to postpone the tournament for one year.

Clearly, a lot of toing and froing has been ongoing since that decision was made, but on 9 April this year, UEFA announced that eight of the original 12 host cities had confirmed their plans for spectators, which ranged from stadium capacities of 25% through to 100%.

At that time, Bilbao, Dublin, Munich and Rome had been unable to confirm, but while the German and Italian FAs were eventually able to give UEFA the assurances they needed for Munich and Rome respectively; the Irish Government and Dublin City Council, and the Basque Government were not.

As a result, with no viable alternatives available in Ireland, the games originally scheduled for Dublin were reallocated to Saint Petersburg for the group stages and London for the round-of-16, while Sevilla picked up the fixtures initially scheduled for the San Mamés Stadium in Bilbao.

Bilbao City Council has since said that it holds UEFA and RFEF (the Royal Spanish Football Federation) “directly responsible for us not staging this sporting event and the unilateral cancellation of our contractual relationships” and has threatened legal action against both.

Law suits aside, Euro 2020 is now on its way and, for all the difficulties brought about by Platini’s dream and a global pandemic, there is still an unmistakeable buzz in the air – one unique to the days leading up to a major tournament.


Prospects

After a year of doom and gloom and a football season that was, for the most part, played out in empty, soulless grounds with piped-in crowd noise, the prospect of competitive international football with real crowds, including supporters of both teams, is an enticing one.

It does, of course, come with the caveat of pending heartbreak for supporters of the home nation, especially if they conform to tradition and prove themselves not quite good enough on the biggest stage.

For Scotland, there is an excuse: it is ranked 44 by FIFA and so has, in theory, achieved its goal by qualifying for the tournament in the first place – although the Scots’ mission will be over-accomplished if the team can beat England at Wembley on 18 June.

Wales’ FIFA world ranking is 17 so it, also in theory, has bolder claims than the Scots for progression to the knock-out stages of the tournament, especially after its over-achievement in Euro 2016 when the team reached the semi-final. The Welsh, however, will have no home comforts and have two games on the far extremity of the continent – against Switzerland and Turkey in Baku, Azerbaijan – as well as a clash with Italy in Rome. If it can match or better its own heroics of 2016, it could be of Leicester City’s Premier League winning proportions.

As for England, it is hard to predict. The team’s World Cup journey of 2018 took its players to the semi-final, but Gareth Southgate’s squad came up short when faced with elite opposition. Little has happened since to suggest this is no longer the case, although if England is able to win Group D, it could end up playing only the quarter-final tie (if the team gets that far) away from Wembley. So, for Southgate’s men, this could, if the planets align, be a de facto home tournament.

But, if there is one thing England supporters have learned since 1966, it is that disappointment and heartache are never far away – especially when expectations are high and the English public have started to believe. Caution is always advised but not always achieved.

Euro 2020 kicks off on Friday 11 June 2021, when Italy hosts Turkey in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico

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