Continental Concerns

Continental Concerns

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. I recently posted my thoughts focusing on England, today I will be looking at the wider tournament.


Heading towards trouble

One of the moments that stood out to me most during the tournament came just before the hour mark in the Group F match between France and Germany. France rightback Benjamin Pavard and Germany’s Robin Gosens both challenged for the ball in the France box, which resulted in the French defender going down with a knock to his head.

To anyone watching, it looked nasty, as Pavard just dropped to the ground without bracing himself, resulting in his head hitting the ground hard. You didn’t have to be a medical professional to know that he was knocked out. And so it was a massive shock when, after the quickest of tests and a squirt of cold water, the French medics sent him back on to continue the game!

Anyone who frequently reads my Premier League articles will have seen just how disgusted I have been by the way the Premier League and the clubs competing in it treat head injuries, well apparently the French Football Federation and UEFA are no better. When UEFA announced that they were investigating the incident, I finally thought that some degree of justice may be done, but that hope was quashed as they announced that following their investigation they were “satisfied the actions taken by the [French] medical team were in line with the concussion protocol” and that “According to reports we received from the team doctor, it seems a loss of consciousness did not occur.” Well that’s awkward, as Pavard even stated in an interview that he was “a little knocked out for 10 to 15 seconds – after that it was better”.

Head injuries are not a joke, they are deadly serious. Rugby and the NFL have been working hard to improve their act over recent years regarding head injuries—hell, even pro wrestling has improved the way they treat wrestler’s heads—but football seems determined to stick their head in the sand. I only hope that they get their act together before we are left with a tragic accident…

The best and the worst of us

Of course, we almost had a tragic moment during the pool stages, as Denmark’s star midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch just before halftime in his team’s opening match against Finland. The 29-year-old required CPR and defibrillation on the pitch before being rushed to hospital, and the match was understandably abandoned, before eventually being completed later in the day, once it had been announced that Eriksen was stable.

This was a shocking incident and horrible to watch, and a stark reminder as to the fragility of human life that this fit athlete in his peak years was suffering a cardiac arrest. It was a reminder that their are things much more important than football, and while you hope it will never happen, it brought out the best in some people. From the medics who acted without hesitation to save his life, to the officials who immediately stopped the game and called for the medics, realising that this was out of the ordinary. From the Finland fans who began chanting his name as everyone remained in the stadium waiting for news, to Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjær, who acted as true leaders on the pitch, organising their teammates to create a human screen to give their comrade privacy as he was treated on the pitch, while also helping to calm and look after Eriksen’s partner.

Unfortunately, this incident also showed the worst in some people. With the game not even 50% completed, UEFA officials gave the Danes the choice of completing the match later that evening or the following day at noon, or face the game going against them as a 3-0 loss. This led t a team that was clearly not in the right headspace returning to the pitch and suffering a 0-1 upset loss, with Kasper Schmeichel failing to make a save that you know he would have made on any other occasion.

But the absolute worst were the broadcasters, who clearly wanted to immortalise this moment on film. It is generally expected that a serious injury like a leg break will not be replayed on a broadcast, while in the final of this very same competition, cameras quickly cut away from the pitch as a streaker (just topless, not even fully nude) invaded the pitch, and yet those of us who were watching the Denmark game on BBC were forced to watch 10 minutes of the camera trying to get the best view it could of Eriksen undergoing CPR, only cutting away to show his partner’s visible distress.

The BBC eventually apologised, using the excuse that they were getting the images from an outside broadcaster: UEFA themselves. This is certainly true, as I got confirmation from a friend in Sweden that they were also forced to watch these horrific images for 10 minutes, and that in itself is truly shocking that nobody in the booth had the decency to order a cut to a wide image of the stadium. But the BBC can’t get out of it that easy, as they could have chosen to cut the feed at any point, but chose to go along with it for 10 minutes before cutting back to the studio. I completely understand that even the pundits would need a moment to take in what they have seen and be ready to go onscreen, but it’s impossible for me to imagine that they could not have cut to a commercial break for a couple of minutes to give them time.

On the plus side, Denmark recovered from this harrowing start to the tournament, and if anything it appeared to give them a focus, going all the way to the semifinal, while 21-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard did a fantastic job filling Eriksen’s boots. Hopefully, broadcasters and tournament organisers will also react positively off the back of this incident, just in case anything similar happens again in the future.

Failed experiment

While the major tournaments are usually hosted by just 1 country, Euro 2020 was unique in that it had 11 host nations each providing a stadium. While this was a romantic idea, I can’t help feel that it was a failure and should not be tried again.

Of course, one thing that certainly didn’t help things was the timely arrival of a global pandemic, which heavily limited travel and stadium capacities. But the big issue really was how some teams were able to get such an advantage. Take England for example, who were able to play all 3 of their group games at Wembley, stayed in London for their match against Germany, took a short trip to Rome for their quarterfinal, before returning to Wembley for the semifinal and final. In contrast, semifinal opponents Denmark (another host nation) played their 3 group games at home, before travelling to Amsterdam, then a pointless trip to Baku to face the Czech Republic and then on to Wembley for their eventual loss. And then there’s Belgium, who had to play in Russia, then Denmark, then Russia, before trips to Spain and Germany in the knockouts. How is it fair that some teams are able to spend almost the whole tournament at one venue, while others are travelling the length and breadth of the continent after every match?

Personally, I feel that the tournament needs to remain as just 1 host nation, or a collection of a couple of smaller nations who border each other. That way, even if one team is travelling twice as much as another, the distances are still relatively small, while the whole country can then benefit economically from the influx of fans during the tournament.

feat football Euro 2020 logo

England’s Euros

England’s Euros

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.


Redemption

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.

football Everton Ashley Williams Jordan PickfordBut 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.

Foundations

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.

football england ben white jadon sancho jude bellingham mason mount marcus rashford harry kane bukayo saka phil foden jack grealishThe 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!

feat football Euro 2020 logo