With annual events like Wimbledon and the Tour de France being joined by the Summer Olympics and the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the summer of 2021 was always going to be a busy one for those of us brave (or stupid) enough to fall in love with multiple sports. However, the COVID-19 pandemic then mad this summer even busier, with the postponement of Euro 2020 to this summer.
And what a tournament it ended up being. Unfancied Hungary caused plenty of scares in their group of death that saw them face France, Germany and Portugal. Defending champions Portugal went through as one of the best 3ʳᵈ-placed finishers in the pools and found themselves eliminated in the Round of 16. Denmark overcame the loss of their star player Christian Eriksen, who collapsed before halftime in their opening game, and recovered from losing their first 2 games to go all the way to the semifinals, while becoming everyone’s second team. Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to score at 5 European Championships, and in 11 consecutive major tournaments, while breaking Michel Platini’s record for European Championship goals and Miroslav Klose’s record for goals scored in tournament finals for World Cups and European Championships combined. England defeated Germany in the knockouts of a major tournament for the first time since 1966. And after 51 matches and 142 goals, 2 saves from player of the tournament Gianluigi Donnarumma in a penalty shootout saw Italy declared European Champions, with England the heartbroken runners-up at Wembley.
There was a lot to look back on during this tournament, too much to put into adequate words, so I will be focusing on what really stood out for me over a series of 2 posts. Today, I will be putting the focus on England (for obvious reasons). Keep an eye out for my second article later this week, which will look at some wider thoughts for the tournament.
Sometimes when you look back on a team’s campaign, it can be summed up in a word. For me, watching England on their run to the final, the word was clear: Redemption.
How many times have we looked at past England teams and seen a bunch of overpaid prima donnas who seem out of touch with the public? Well that has been one thing Gareth Southgate has been keen to dispel in his time with the team, and as such we find ourselves cheering on players that we love for more than just their football. Nowhere was this more obvious than Tyrone Mings’ dignified response to Priti Patel calling the team’s anti-racism stand (taking the knee at the start of every game) as “gesture politics” and supporting those who booed them, or Marcus Rashford, who even managed to unite both sides of Manchester in their love for him over the last year as he campaigned for free meals for deprived schoolchildren during lockdown.
But it goes even further than that. Just look at the starting line-up. This time last year, it would have been laughable to suggest that Luke Shaw would be starting for England. The Manchester United left back had always shows flashes of quality, only for serious injuries to then leave him out of the game for months, while former manager José Mourinho was vocal of his criticism of the player. Flash forward to now and he was arguably England’s player of the tournament, with his impressive performances seeing him finish with 3 assists and the opening goal of the final. Sticking with the defence and John Stones looked to be just the latest in a long line of expensive flops at the back for Manchester City, but never gave up and became a key part of their title-winning season and was a key member of an England defence that allowed just 2 goals in 7 games. Similarly, Kyle Walker has had his ups and downs over the last couple of seasons, but was ever-reliable in an England shirt, whether at rightback or playing as part of a 3-man defence. And let’s not forget Jordan Pickford, who I have repeatedly made clear that I had no faith in as he appeared unable to play a match for Everton without getting a case of the yips… well he was largely cool and composed throughout the tournament on his way to winning the Golden Glove with 5 clean sheets and 2 saves in the final shootout.
And it was even redemption for Gareth Southgate. Go back to Euro 96, and England found themselves in a penalty shootout at Wembley against Germany hoping to end 30 years of hurt and get back to a the final of a major tournament. All of the initial 5 spot kick takers for each team found the back of the net, and when Andreas Möller scored his penalty, it was Gareth Southgate who stepped up and—with the weight of a nation on his shoulders—saw his shot saved by Andreas Köpke. Now, 25 years later, he has backed up his tea’s run to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup with an appearance in their first major final since 1966, which also saw them defeat Germany in the knockouts for the first time since they won the World Cup.
They may not have won on the night, but they should still be counted as winners.
While England’s run to the final is something to be proud of, there must also be some realism. England’s pool should always have resulted in 3 wins, and after defeating Germany, the team was left with a favourable route to the final. Yes they kept 5 clean sheets, but they shouldn’t have found themselves overly threatened.
Looking back over the tournament, it is clear that Gareth Southgate was taking a very safe approach. Despite having some of the most exciting young players in Europe in Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham, it was the experience and reliability of Raheem Sterling, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips that got the minutes, while the direct attacking of Jack Grealish—which clearly improved the team up front—was limited to cameo appearances.
Nothing highlights this more than the final itself. Shaw’s early goal should have been perfect for England. The Italians would have to attack and that would leave space at the back for a goal. However by the middle of the first half, England were already starting to sit back too much, defending the lead they had rather than looking to build on it, and it let the Azzurri grow into the game, and become dominant in the second half, by which point the England team was barely getting the ball in the Italian half. Harry Kane didn’t even manage a touch in the Italian box other than his penalty, but while he can put in a great delivery, he did not have the players around him to take advantage of this and fill the space in the box. Rather than going out and trying to win the game, Southgate sent the team out to not lose, and in doing so, they came up short when it mattered.
The good news though is that this is a young team. Only 3 of the squad are in their 30s (Trippier is 30, Henderson and Walker 31), so they should still be pushing for the World Cup next season, while the median age of the squad is 25. This squad should grow together over the next couple of years, with young superstars like Sancho, Foden, Saka, Bellingham and Mount only set to improve. Add to that the potential for Dean Henderson to come back and push Jordan Pickford to remain at the top of his game, and the return of Trent Alexander-Arnold. The success we have seen from England over the last 2 tournaments does not have to be the peak, but just the foundation for a run of strong tournaments.
But for this to happen, Southgate also needs to start taking more risks, picking players who can go out to win a game, and rewarding form players like Foden and Sancho rather than the tried and tested players—Raheem Sterling may have scored in some crucial moments, but these moments often masked poor performances. Meanwhile a decision must be made about how to best utilise Harry Kane: by forcing him to stay in the box as a 9, or by giving him the freedom to drop deeper and selecting players who will make the attacking runs beyond him like Son Heung-Min does at Spurs.
England have the chance to become one of the best in the world over the next couple of years, but the way they react to this tournament is crucial.
The Fandom Menace
Sadly, while the performances of the England players left much for us to be proud of, the same cannot be said of the so-called fans.
England fans already (deservedly) don’t have the best of reputations, but they have gone out of their way to show the worst of themselves during this tournament:
- Booing the players while they take a knee as a message against racism
- Booing the opposition’s national anthem
- Use of a laser pointer during England’s semi-final against Denmark, including shining it in Kasper Schmeichel’s eyes during Harry Kane’s penalty
- Trashing much of London before and after the final
- Breaking into Wembley without a ticket for the final
- Racist abuse of Saka, Sancho and Rashford online following their failure to score their penalties in the final
Of course this behaviour is being widely vilified, but what will change? All that will be done is that many people will try to distance these so-called fans from the England national team, while the FA are paying a fine for the fan issues revolving around the Denmark game. But that’s clearly not enough, as otherwise this would have been sorted long ago.
It’s time for the governing bodies—FIFA and UEFA—to start taking real action relating to fan behaviour. Too many serious cases of misbehaviour in a space of time, and the governing body should ban that nation from the next major tournament. Only with such a punishment will individual associations start putting in the real work to deal with the c***s who are only their to cause harm and upset.
Can I see this happening? Sadly, no. The governing bodies will continue to pay lip service towards supporting inclusivity and decrying poor behaviour, but they would never be brave enough to throw a top team out of a major tournament.
To all those out there causing trouble and spreading hate: You have no place here. Be better, or f*ck off!