KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- The greatest thrill of Euro 2020 – which kicks off finally tonight with Italy hosting Turkey in Rome – will be seeing fans back in all the stadia in significant numbers.
The tournament, in 11 countries, is a logistical nightmare for everyone, including European football federation UEFA. But it will provide the positive sight – and sound! – of a live audience in all the stands. Even the the football itself comes second to this most exciting aspect of the next four weeks.
Expectations for the action on the pitch are even more unpredictable than ever.
A Covid-19-enforced postponement of the finals broke the winning momentum which the 24 national teams had developed in their qualifying campaigns.
These will not be the starting line-ups the coaches had expected originally to send out on the pitch. Nor did they expect the strategical challenge available from the squad expansion to 26 players and the match-by-match option of using five substitutes.
The usual favourites will bring intriguing questions: Will Karim Benzema strengthen or confuse France? What can we expect of a Germany in back/forward transition? Can Spain win the gamble of ignoring Real Madrid players? Are Belgium worth the world No1 ranking?
Also . . . can England take winning advantage of a semi-home tournament?
Credit to UEFA and president Aleksander Ceferin for pushing ahead stubbornly with the rescheduled staging of Euro 2020 once last year’s postponement had been enforced.
Indeed hosting matches between the opener in Rome on June 11 and final at Wembley on July 11 is becoming a totemic statement for not only football but governments of the countries sharing the finals.
Thrust into the background have been the howls of derision at the pan-European shape of the tournament.
The concept of celebrating in this manner the finals’ 60th anniversary was first set before the UEFA executive committee in Kiev by then-president Michel Platini during the closing stages of Euro 2012.
This was his solution to a reluctance of bidders.
Germany’s DFB ha considered it then stepped back, leaving Turkey in pole position. Trouble was, Turkey’s Istanbul was also bidding for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Platini and Olympic president Thomas Bach insisted state President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to choose one or the other. He opted to bid for the Olympics and, ironically, by the time Istanbul was outbid by Tokyo so UEFA had come up with its own sharing, caring Euro solution.
Some 32 countries showed initial interest in staging matches, whittled down to 12 in 2012 when Wembley was allocated the semi-finals and final.
All a far cry from the minimalist inaugural finals in France in 1960. These featured only four teams, subsequently expanded to eight in Italy in 1980, 16 in England in 1994 and 24 in France in 2016.
As with the World Cup, the more teams the lower the overall quality of the football.
As long as the knockout drama is maintained, however, and as long as more FAs share in the cash bonanza from both expanded finals and qualifiers, so the game will accept the price of driving star players into the ground.
The original kickoff was all the way back on September 28, 1958, when the Soviet Union’s Anatoli Ilyin scored the first goal in the event’s history in a 3-1 qualifying win over Hungary in Moscow. Only 17 nations even entered. England, Germany and Italy all stood aloof and Spain withdrew rather than play the Soviets, politically anathema to the regime of dictator Francisco Franco.
Steadily quality overcame querulous minds. Spain threw aside political angst to beat the USSR in Madrid in 1964, Italy won the only replayed final against Yugoslavia in 1968 and Franz Beckenbauer’s magnificent West Germany managed a victory in 1972 which led on to World Cup glory two years later.
Great players, great moments: Antonin Panenka’s iconic winning penalty in 1976, Platini’s nine-goal haul in 1984, Marco van Basten’s stunning winning volley against the Soviet Union in 1988. Denmark’s players rushed back from their holidays – not quite true but it was a good story – to win as late substitutes for banned Yugoslavia in 1992.
The fragmentation of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia saw UEFA expand towards its current membership of 55, all joining the clamour to press their right to a slice of the Euro cake.
This led to the latest qualifying complexities featuring not only lucky loser play-offs among the third-placed teams in the preliminary groups but the cross-tournament involvement of stage winners from the new UEFA Nations League. Somehow UEFA managed to complete the long-postponed play-offs between lockdowns but it was a close-run thing. UEFA was very nearly hoist by the its expansionist petard.
Now the route is clear, pandemic restrictions permitting.
Let the games begin!