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Euro 2020 a nice idea at the wrong time

Tom Gennoy
Tom Gennoy
July 12, 2021

There was actually some merit in the controversial idea of a pan-European tournament. But by the time it came to be played, it was neither the right time nor the right place, reports DW's Tom Gennoy.

BdTD | Azerbaijan | UEFA Euro | 2020 Wales - Switzerland
Image: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

For a certain kind of football fan, the idea of a truly European European Championships, played in a dozen cities right across the continent from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, was once an attractive prospect.

Why not spend June and July jetting from country to country, visiting new places and collecting ticket stubs from unlikely new grounds?

At its inception in 2012, the pan-European Euros, the pet project of former UEFA boss Michel Platini to celebrate the tournament's 60th anniversary, seemed — in theory at least — like a nice enough idea.

In the event, of course, that jet-set support was all but impossible: the world is a very different place in 2021, and coronavirus travel restrictions meant that supporters were often forbidden from following their team.

Bureaucratic nightmare

In the case of finalists England, for instance, UK-based supporters were legally unable to attend their side's sole fixture abroad, the quarterfinal tie with Ukraine, held in Rome.

Up until March 2020, the simple matter of a short-haul hop from Heathrow to Fiumicino made Rome and London feel like neighboring cities. But during a pandemic, travel between European cities is always an ordeal, often even a criminal offence.

Those residents of other countries who did go to the game — this reporter included — were subject to document checks from rifle-wielding soldiers in fatigues. It was all a far cry from the party atmosphere of France 2016, the boisterous festival-of-football feeling that UEFA always hopes to create for its premier competition.

An England fan holding a flag at the quarterfinal in Rome
England fans who attended the quarterfinal were effectively banned from the semifinal by by travel restrictions.Image: Alberto Lingria/REUTERS

In cautious, coronavirus-conscious Rome, capital of the European country that was first and arguably worst-hit by the pandemic, 18,000 supporters shared the Stadio Olimpico with 54,000 empty seats.

England's next fixture, a semifinal against Denmark back at Wembley, was played in front of an increased 60,000 crowd a concession to UEFA, which had threatened moving the final games of the tournament to Budapest.

One rule for some, one rule for others

Any England fan who'd been at the game in Rome was now effectively banned from attending the semifinal due to coronavirus travel restrictions. But a reported 2,500 UEFA "VIPs" — sponsors, officials, corporate guests — were exempt from quarantine.

While supporters self-isolated, the federation's favored elites enjoyed the benefits of their extorted freedom in a country where the numbers of new daily coronavirus cases were once against passing 20,000.

And so — for those with the resources to complete a costly PCR test and end their obligation to self-isolate — to the final, where 60,000 ticket holders were joined inside the ground by legions of ticketless revelers and turnstile-hopping chancers.

Outside, the Wembley Way stadium approach was carpeted with debris; thousands of bottles, bags, and cans strewn on the ground, remnants of the enormous crowd's long day of drinking.

The atmosphere was that of a music festival – hedonistic excess after 18 months of pandemic-enforced lockdowns and restrictions. Police and stewards struggled to maintain control.

Coronavirus restrictions, so stringently observed in Rome, were nonexistent. UEFA may come to regret it if the pinnacle of their summer is later revealed to have been a super-spreader event, and so might England's Football Association (FA) if it dents their World Cup 2030 hosting bid.

England fans outside Wembley.
Stewards and police struggled to maintain control ahead of the final at Wembley.Image: Lee Smith/Action Images/REUTERS

Euro 2020: A nice idea at the wrong time

But, in clinging to the multihost format that seemed plausible in pre-pandemic days, and demanding that spectators be allowed to attend games in big numbers for the sake of the spectacle, the federation has elected to disregard these contradictions and ignore the problems inherent in its plan.

Even without considering the environmental impact of all the unnecessary traveling, the sporting unfairness of sending one team from Baku to Rome to Amsterdam while another plays six of seven games at home, the health implications of potential superspreader events, or the pandering to the political whims of far-right regimes, it's fair to say — as current UEFA boss Alexander Ceferin has himself conceded — that Platini's vision hasn't aged well.

The city-hopping continental holiday dreamed up eight years ago has been a logistical impossibility.

That the tournament happened at all is in many ways astounding, but Europe in 2021 is a fractured and confusing place, and 2012's nice idea has felt like an odd relic of a bygone era.

Tom Gennoy
Tom Gennoy Reporter@TG94__