Euro 2020 is postponed.
Imagine saying those words as late as February of 2020. Rage, indignation, disbelief and panic would be the feelings created. Football isn’t on. Football. Is. Not. On. Think of boxed up Erling Haaland shirts clustering up warehouses amongst the Norwegian fjords. Imagine the despair of collectors worldwide as novelty coins and football stickers were halted en masse, a sweating line manager pressing the red button as Cristiano Ronaldo’s face slides out of the hot-pressing machine for the thousandth time. Of the seismic events that took place across the burning hellscape that was 2020 (and, sadly, is 2021) the great global halt on the beautiful game had as many ramifications and stirrings of angst as almost anything else.
Football sprang back into life of course in late spring 2020, performing admirably in pivoting into shape to make it happen. Sticking rigidly to form, the Bundesliga got itself sorted first, a soothing familiarity in a year of horrid discomfort. Then the Premier League sprang back in June and has barely stopped since (more on that later). In the end, football’s resurgence was such that it could well have been possible that Euro 2020 could have taken place. Not, that is, in the sprawling original format that saw games flung across territories. Major European football hubs were in the mix: London, Munich, Rome, Amsterdam, erm, Baku. It was set to be the first European Championships of its kind, an urbane and sleek event - the kind that spoke four languages, could manage an Espresso after 11pm and whose favourite position would undoubtedly be the ‘Trequartista’.
To top it all off, the semi-finals and final were to be held at Wembley. England fans could plot out the route to the latter stages whilst sensing the growing mood of the nation, a la 2018 but this time not in Russia, it would be properly nearby and be weaving its way tantalisingly to us. Alas - it was of course not to be. Euro 2020 was postponed until the following year. Never before has a tournament been picked up and airdropped 12 months on - and whilst the official term is still Euro 2020 (perhaps they had already ordered all the bunting) - it’s happening in a mere few months’ time and is very nearly in reach. So which nations, and indeed which players, stand to gain the most from this enforced annus horribilis of national team introspection? One thing’s for certain - the final’s still at Wembley. That fragile dream within a dream that is English football still has its manuscript intact, just. But who’s going to come flying out of the traps and who’s going to wish that hamstring twinge wasn’t still actually quite a serious thing and why is this goddamn season so bloody long?!
Here's a quick look at five participating nations at this year’s Championships.
Shock horror - the holders are actually quite good. In fact, much more than that, they’re quite possibly the most lethal attacking force in European football. Not so much in the fact that CR7 is still chugging along, more determined than ever to get on the end of every possible cross, but more in the way in which the other superb members of that attacking unit manage to gracefully dance and sway around him. Bruno Fernandes may be blessed with a frankly shocking pass completion rate (normally hovering around 65%) but as we know - when they hit, they hit. At his best, he’s a one-man band capable of picking both his club and his country up from the floor and simply getting it done. Despite an injury-hit season, Diogo Jota has performed admirably at Liverpool, showcasing himself as one Europe’s best emerging wide forwards, and the increasingly reliable, enigmatic talent that is Atletico Madrid’s Joao Felix and you have, as the screaming fan in Mike Bassett’s face eloquently put it, “an effective partnership of strength and skill”. Despite the fact that the 49-year-old Jose Fonte still gets a run-out at the back, they will take some stopping.
Another Iberian side urged on by a bulging thighed megalomaniac, Spain have been earmarked as ‘transitional’ for the best part of a decade. Since that entrancing 1, 2, 3 hit of trophies between 2008-2012, the side has struggled to replace bona fide legends (your Xavi’s and your Iniesta’s) and under-rated stalwarts (your David Villa’s and your Busquets’). Add to this the off-on love affair with the idea of a centre forward, complete with Diego Costa in the Stanley Kowalski role, and you’re left with the constant impression that the Spanish don’t know their best line-up. Let’s be honest, it was always going to be a tough job to form a new band after that era. However, the ruthless 6-0 thrashing of the Germans in November 2020 felt like a watershed moment for this emerging Spanish vintage. With Manchester City’s Ferran Torres grabbing an eye-catching hat-trick and Rodri and Koke providing a central midfield engine room powerful enough to light up Las Ramblas, the match may prove to be a launchpad that builds plenty of momentum heading into this summer.
And for the final flourish, they now have a young player destined for the dizzying summit of the global game. Ansu Fati may be someone that a side can truly be built around, and as a sort of Messi Padawan, is someone great things have been expected of for some time, despite his young age. With the right players and the right system around him, this summer's tournament could be Fati’s Mbappe moment on the big stage.
Here we go, here we go, here we gooooo. I think. Are England’s chances helped or hindered by the delay of Euro 2020? With such a strong and exciting squad (my type, on paper 100%) there isn’t a lot in it, but arguably it’s a plus that this squad have had more time to gel and come together. The Three Lions stumbled a little across 2019 and 2020, culminating in the disappointing Nations League results that prompted more questions than they answered. However, there have been some fleeting but fantastic shimmers of gold that glimpse at a genuinely thrilling potential of Southgate’s team. Namely, his public acknowledgement that Jack Grealish is actually quite good and could do a job for his national team. Couple that with the blooding of Phil Foden, a player who would arguably look more at home in the red of La Roja, the stunning season of captain wonder Harry Kane, the re-emergence of John Stones as a classy centre back made of silk instead of sawdust and the gradual improvement of Declan Rice and you have the makings of something wonderful.
Let’s face it, who else hasn’t swapped out Paul Gascoigne for Grealish in that Euro 96 moment - knocking the ball insolently over the head of a creaking Scottish defender before whacking it in on that kind of volley nearly half volley thing then wheeling away for an ironic celebration. Replace Gazza’s dentist chair for a load of Nitrous Oxide perhaps? Either way, it’s definitely happening. Whilst we’re talking of Scotland…
Yes yes yesss they’re here and it’s marvellous. To any Scottish readers, I can ensure you that this is sincere and heartfelt. Having Scotland qualify for their first major tournament in 23 years is exciting in itself, but chuck in the fact they are in England’s group and the whole thing has just been shot with a vaccine dart composed of pure adrenaline and giddiness. We’re recreating Euro 96 lads. We were doing it anyway but now it’s actually proper.
Speaking of which, this Scotland side are not here to make up the numbers. It is true that their best two players are left backs - step forward Kieran Tierney and the skipper Andrew Robertson. Combine that with the prowess of two seasoned premier league midfield technicians in Scott McTominay and the ludicrously underrated John McGinn and it’s clear to see why Scotland have finally made it after such an exile. One thing’s for sure, book Wednesday 16th June off (if offices are still a thing at the time of reading). It could be the game of the tournament.
It feels ludicrous to use this word to describe the reigning world champions with a squad depth big enough to comfortably fill out five very, very good starting XI’s, but France can often be a bit ‘meh’. Even in their triumphant 2018 World Cup campaign there were only snatched moments of true brilliance - Pavard’s stunning strike against the Argies and Mbappe’s constant thrilling electricity. There remained a purveying sense however that the French had managed to simply be good enough - definitely more than enough to brush off an exhausted, hallucinating Croatia side of grizzled vets in the final.
There is an argument that certain players are just beginning the slow descent from the peak of brilliance, such as Antoine Griezmann, N’Golo Kante, Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba. It seems perhaps that the prolongment of this particular tournament may end up costing Les Blues - however as always with such a footballing conveyer belt of a nation, the French have some serious talent lurking in that star studded squad.
Where Spain have Ansu Fati, step forward Eduardo Camavinga. The bendy legged wunderkind has set pulses racing across Ligue 1 for the past two seasons at the terrifying age of 16 and 17 respectively. His international debut featured a casual, looping bicycle kick inside the six-yard box that arced impudently over a host of helpless Ukrainian defenders, announcing his arrival in the most appropriate way imaginable. Coveted by Europe’s top clubs, there has already been some devastating link up play with Mbappe, and this tournament could see his full emergence into the spotlight.
One. to. Watch.