It is billed as an 11-city football extravaganza from Baku to Bucharest, Seville to St Petersburg. But when Euro 2020 kicks off a year and a day later than planned in Rome on Friday night, a continent will be holding its breath. For while the tournament is the biggest and most ambitious event since the onset of the pandemic and a significant staging post on the road back to normality, the hope and expectation will inevitably be laced with uncertainty.
How could there not be nervousness, given that 24 teams will be crisscrossing Europe to play 51 matches in the teeth of a global pandemic? When the idea of staging a multi-country tournament was conceived by the then Uefa president, Michel Platini, in 2012, he conceded that it was “perhaps a bit zany”. Given the challenges Uefa has faced from Covid as European football’s governing body, officials could have been forgiven for echoing Edmund Blackadder by sticking underpants on their heads, shoving a couple of pencils up their noses and crying “wibble”.
And yet on the eve of the month-long tournament there is an unmistakable whiff of optimism. Fans will be back, with Wembley initially able to host 22,500 supporters in a quarter-full stadium, while the Puskas Arena in Budapest will be close to its 68,000 capacity. Seven of the highest-ranked teams in world football will be on the pitch. And with England potentially playing all but one of their games through to the final at home, there is careless hope that the giddiness of Euro 96 and the London 2012 Olympics, when the nation appeared to collectively bathe in serotonin for a month, could return.
That expectation is reflected by bookmakers, who make England 6-1 second favourites for Euro 2020 after they were drawn in a group with Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic. In truth that probably overstates England’s chances. Gareth Southgate’s squad is blessed with exceptional young attackers but questions remain about the defence, the form and fitness of some key players, and the astuteness of Southgate’s in-game decision making. A potential last-16 game against favourites France, Germany or Portugal threatens an unwelcome hazard.
However, Southgate has been exemplary off the pitch, particularly recently after some England fans began booing the team for taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter. “Why would you choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin?” he wrote this week. “Why? Unfortunately for those people that engage in that kind of behaviour, I have some bad news. You’re on the losing side.”
In previous tournaments, the belligerent behaviour of England supporters outside grounds has made headlines. This time the focus will be on the stands and social media. It can only be hoped that some of the team’s most ardent fans – often the ones that take over city centres when abroad to sing No Surrender to the IRA or Ten German Bombers – reflect on Southgate’s message.
Of the other home nations, Wales have struggled since reaching the semi-finals in 2016, but will hope that Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey retain enough stardust to lead them out of a group that contains Italy, Switzerland and Turkey. And while Scotland are rated as 250-1 long shots, their hopes of making it to the last 16 will not appear so forlorn if they win their first match against the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile the overriding message from Uefa this week was relief. Sharon Burkhalter-Lau, Uefa’s operations director, described the original cancellation last year as “like the feeling of preparing for a party for three years, and then just when the guests are about to arrive, the party’s called off. Then you’re left paying the bills, cleaning up, and you haven’t had the party.” Now, belatedly, the party is getting under way after all – with the name Euro 2020 staying put as the merchandise and branding was created before the pandemic struck.
Naturally it won’t be the same tournament as Uefa originally envisaged. Most football fans will be staying at home rather than taking a modern-day grand tour of Europe to support their country. The emergence of new variants has also led to two cities, Dublin and Bilbao, pulling out at short notice after being unable to guarantee the presence of spectators. Meanwhile players from Spain and the Netherlands have recently tested positive for Covid, showing the risk of significant disruption remains.
Inevitably the pandemic will also put extra pressures on teams, who will be forced to live in a bubble with no contact with the public. “It’s clearly been a logistical challenge to put it mildly,” one Uefa insider told the Guardian. Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, was even blunter, admitting last month: “I would not do it again.”
Yet for all the many challenges, it still promises to be a stunning feast of football, with millions watching on BBC and ITV. And, as they prepare for their first game against Croatia on Sunday afternoon, England’s boys in the bubble will also dream: that, 55 years after their last tournament victory, these can be the days of miracle and wonder again.