Italy started and ended this tournament on a high. The Azzurri lit the blue touch paper 0n 11th June in Rome when they eased past Turkey with effortless elan and exactly one month later they slowly but surely wrested the initiative back from England after conceding the earliest goal in a European Championship Final. Nobody can deny that overall they were the most complete team and deservedly won their second European title, 53 years after their previous one. As they revelled in their victory they cocked a snook at the rising English triumphalism with their own catchphrase of “It’s Coming Rome.”
Despite the contentious and convoluted nature of this multi-national competition and its 12 month delay, Euros 2020 was up there with the 1970 World Cup as one of the best of all time. It contained all the elements you could possibly wish for in an international tournament and, it will not surprise those of you who know me, I have identified seven reasons why this was such an excellent four weeks of football. First and foremost, as highlighted above, the best team won. It is always a slight blot on the landscape when an inferior team, think Portugal in 2016, succeeds.
Secondly, there were hardly any duff matches, with England’s clash against Scotland one of only two goalless games, a match that had so much riding on it but which delivered very little. One of the strengths of the Euros compared to World Cups is that there are very few mismatches and nearly every game had an element of tension. There were goals galore – 142 in total, at 2.78 the highest ratio per game since 1976 – and some exceptional ones at that, Patrick Schick’s passable impression of David Beckham from the halfway line against Scotland was the most spectacular while Manuel Locatelli’s first against Switzerland was an example of Italian fluidity at its very finest.
If great goals are important then adding an orgy of own goals brings another dimension of tragicomedy in which we all deep down revel. There were eleven own goals, which is untold riches, and two more than all the previous 15 tournaments between 1960 and 2016 put together. There was the usual mixture of the unfortunate and unbelievable including the inevitable keeper clangers of which the extraordinary Unai Simon cock-up against Croatia has pride of place as well as the odd banger such as Mat Hummels’ bullet finish in the France game. Surely a compilation of this special XI is on its way, where is Danny Baker when you need him?
Fourthly, while Italy were the best team, there were a couple of young players who stood out from the crowd. Mikkel Damsgaard was pressed into action because of the harrowing loss of Christian Eriksen but he stepped up to the plate for Denmark and some. He knitted play so well and always provided a threat going forwards with an eye for goal and scored the only direct free-kick of the tournament with the opener against England in the semi-final. Damsgaard did not win the award for best young player as he was outshone by a Spanish teenager, who was a revelation.
Barcelona’s Pedri was such a joy to watch, he passed with precision and moved around the pitch with the assurance of someone who had amassed hundred caps rather than an international novice who had just three caps prior to the start. The 18 year-old is not only easy on the eye but he also has the stats nerds purring in their darkened rooms. He led the charts for most attempted passes in the opponents’ half with 348 in six games and had the third highest completion rate at 91%. In the semi-final he completed 65 of his 66 passes, with the only failure in extra time. He already appears to be the natural successor to Xavi and Iniesta.
Pedri was also involved in what could lay claim to being the greatest day in tournament history, Monday 28th June. If the overall quality of the Euros was pleasingly high there was one day, which stood out and elevated us to unimaginable heights. The two games packed enough drama, twists and turns for an entire tournament, along with fourteen goals and the eventual toppling of the World Champions, France. The first of these began in inauspicious circumstances for Pedri when his spinning 50-yard back pass was missed by his keeper and continued its not so merry journey into the Spanish net. Spain’s rehabilitation looked to be complete when they held a 3-1 lead with less than five minutes remaining. Croatia then struck twice to force extra time when Spain were equal to the task to finally come out as 5-3 winners.
It was breathless stuff but we barely had time to recover before the France Switzerland game was underway. The eerily similar pattern of the less fancied team taking the lead only to be pegged back and then overtaken by the favourites put us back on the roller-coaster from which we had only just recovered from an hour earlier. Pogba’s sumptuous curling strike was a strong candidate for goal of the tournament but the football gods did not rest there. Sure enough two late Swiss goals tied things up and we were able to gorge ourselves on another 30 minutes of this frenetic feast. After the Swiss prevailed in the penalty shoot-out it was time to return to earth and breathe.
If all this hectic action wasn’t enough we had an England team who proved capable of being serious challengers and who came tantalisingly close to the prize. Raheem Sterling proved all his doubters wrong with vivacious displays and goals to boot. Both Kyle Walker and Declan Rice proved me wrong as I had queried whether they were international class and they most emphatically proved that they were. Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho twinkled briefly.
Losing a final on penalties is heartbreaking and every true fan will feel nothing but sympathy for the three players who missed. The moronic, racist vitriol which tumbled on to these players’ heads was depressingly predictable and highlights some fundamental issues with our divided society, which need to be addressed not swept under the carpet as it has been before. And any politician who asks for footballers to focus on football not politics can wind their hypocritical necks in as they are quite happy to jump on the bandwagon when footballing success unites the nation.
Lastly, there was one incident that illustrated how football can bring out the best of people. The response of the Danish team and indeed the nation to the shocking collapse of Eriksen in the Finnish game was admirable. When the players formed a protective circle around their stricken teammate they showed a decency, solidarity and humanity that makes Denmark the real winners of this tournament. Italy may have the Delaunay trophy but the Danes won something far more worthwhile, our everlasting respect.
I will be taking a short break from weekly posts and would welcome any feedback, ideas for topics etc. for the future. Having not tried to generate any revenue from The Football Mine over the last year there are likely to be some changes on my return. And for those of you who don’t want to let the memory of the Euros go, I will be hosting a special Football 7th Heaven quiz on Zoom next Tuesday 20th July at 7pm – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.