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Farewell to a delightful Euros.
I haven't seen a better international tournament.
It’s Saturday night as I’m writing this. I haven’t seen the final. Whatever happens there will shape how the rest of the tournament is remembered, at least for me. That’s why I need to write this now. I don’t want to let those feelings, be they despair or jubilation, forever overshadow my reflections on the tournament as a whole. I want Euro 2020 to exist in my head without the question of whether England did it or not.
Because it deserves nothing less. I don’t think my expectations for a major tournament have ever been lower. The players have been through a brutal compressed season in which they were run into the ground. It’s been pretty evident watching the games how much the intensity has dropped. The number of pressures recorded per game was way down. It was there in the data and there in the eyes. Either these lads were shattered, or they didn’t play at the same intensity behind closed doors, or both. The thought of holding a European Championship this summer sounded like it could serve up a dirge of negative football, with teams looking to play a low energy defensive game.
The format seemed like a disaster in these circumstances. Holding the tournament everywhere from Glasgow to Seville to Baku, with all the travel that would entail, was and is a strategic nightmare for preventing the spread of the virus. UEFA were rewarding the far-right regime of Viktor Orban for refusing to take Covid seriously, giving vindication to his agenda of hate. Everything about the way UEFA behaved themselves in organising this competition felt disgraceful. This was another grubby tournament featuring overworked players in a game increasingly defined by such things. It was football at its worst.
And then they started playing.
Everything the administrators have done at this tournament has been totally unworthy of the quality of football the players have provided. The response to Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, in which the players were forced back on the pitch, sums up the whole issue. While the executives looked to put the players through trauma and rob Finland of being able to really enjoy a major tournament win, those on the pitch couldn’t have handled it any better. It’s become an annoying cliche to pat Denmark on the back and tell them how well they did, but even if that side had gone out in the group stages, the players showed themselves to be the best imaginable representatives of their country.
That might be what defines this era of football for me. While seemingly every administrative body shows itself as a pit of greed and corruption, while club owners and agents look to suck up every last penny from the game, the players themselves have never been better as people. From Marcus Rashford to Leon Goretzka, football has never had better advocates for the game on the pitch and worse advocates off it. We’ve seen the best and worst of the game here, both sides showing their true colours. I don’t know who “wins” this clash, with those at the top taking so much money from this tournament, but I know whose side I’m on.
And the players have delivered games of outstanding quality across the board, from day one. Group A gave us a rampant Italy and a Wales once again with a surprise or two in them. Group B, beyond the tragedy of Eriksen, had an out of his mind Romelu Lukaku forming a thrilling double act with Kevin De Bruyne. Everywhere you looked in this Euros, there were good games with quality.
Weirdly my favourite story in the tournament was Alvaro Morata. The guy did exactly his thing, as ever, running in behind and getting on the end of good chances. His 2.9 non-penalty expected goals (per FBRef) are, final notwithstanding, the most of any player at the tournament. He scored three goals to go along with that. And everybody hates him! He looks so uncomposed when he strikes the ball that he appears to be terrible at it, even though he’s basically fine. He’s playing to an entirely different rhythm to the rest of the Spain team, and he sticks out for it. God bless you, Alvaro.
France’s implosion is going to live long in the memory. This was a side with more quality than anyone at the tournament, and Didier Deschamps just decided to play with the handbrake all the way on. He was able to get away with it at the World Cup because Olivier Giroud is a cheat code for sufferball. Just launch it to him and he’ll make it stick, whatever other flaws in his game he might have. This time they had Karim Benzema, who is obviously wonderful but feels such a different profile. You have to actually play some football with this forward line, Didier! I don’t know if it was quite appreciated what a tactical shift Benzema would require. It just didn’t happen, and France couldn’t find a way of getting the best out of these players.
International football, I think, gets its strengths and weaknesses from being a simpler game than at club level. This is an arena where some of the best players in the world can score from the goalkeeper launching it directly to the striker. The lack of time for coaching complex tactical systems make things more straightforward, but that’s the beauty. The stakes, similarly, are cleaner than virtually anything you get at club level. The level of intensity in some of these games felt so much higher in part because of how clear the stakes were. It’s football in its purest form, if not its most refined.
The powers that be will probably find some way to break it eventually. But we’d be losing so much. The club game has become the main event in most people’s eyes, and it’s very easy to understand why. But there’s a straightforward adrenaline rush from the simplicity of international football. It’s a different experience, but one no less intoxicating. Euro 2020 did it as well as any tournament I’ve seen.
Now to take a big sip of water and see where the next World Cup is taking place.