Here it is: 30 days, 50 games and one long year on, Euro 2020 has its final. It is July 11th 2021, a bonfire of a night in some places. It is Italy versus England. Giorgio Chiellini versus Harry Kane. Serie A versus Premier League. Superpowers in different respects but a big, bold pairing to climax a rousing, beguiling tournament played out in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic.
The show, the ball, goes on. The final offers historic elevation to the victors. For England we can hardly escape the noise of 55 years of hurt and in more than one way this could be a seminal moment for football in the country Gareth Southgate wrote a letter to after the warm-ups in Middlesbrough.
For Italy, too, it would be a reawakening after not making the last World Cup. They have not been European champions since 1968, when they were the hosts and only four countries took part.
It was all very different then and Roberto Mancini’s energetic, animated side are offering another contrast: fast, pressing, attacking football, un-Italian to some. In Federico Chiesa they have a striking winger whose tournament certainty is reminiscent of Toto Schillaci in 1990. In Marco Verratti Italy have an elite midfielder. In Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini, they have men who could stop the Tiber.
It all began there in Rome on June 11th, a Friday night on which the Italians set a tone. The organisers got the atmosphere right and Mancini got his Italian team right. After a tricky first half, they ran all over Turkey, so-called dark horses who pulled up lame. “It was a perfect performance,” said man of the match, and one of the players of the Euros, Leonardo Spinazzola. “It started on the bus towards the stadium – seeing all the fans gave us goosebumps.”
Fans were back in numbers. There was an own goal, the first of a fresh trend. Euro 2020 arrived late, but this was a jump-start.
Yet the next day brought Denmark v Finland and Christian Eriksen’s collapse. As we watched in horror as Eriksen convulsed on our screens, there seemed no doubt the game would be cancelled there and then, that even Euro 2020 might not be able to carry on should the worst happen.
Thankfully the medical staff in Copenhagen resuscitated Eriksen, got him to hospital and saved his life. It still causes some bemusement that the match was re-started – with Eriksen’s agreement. These finals, expanded by Michel Platini in the name of votes and dear knows what – certainly not the environment – rolled on.
Denmark’s players spent the next few days bewildered. But like Eriksen, the found a recovery and in reaching the semi-finals became one of the rewarding stories of a growing competition. Eriksen has been invited to the final.
On the third day, England defeated Croatia. It was close, 1-0, but Raheem Sterling had made a statement and Southgate had something to build on.
And so it spun on, Patrick Schick scoring from 50 yards against Scotland, Cristiano Ronaldo netting two late goals for Portugal in Hungary. France beat Germany in Munich via a Mats Hummels own goal. The daily drama beamed into our homes perhaps seemed more captivating because we all knew we could do little else.
The product, and Uefa know about its placement in silly toy cars, was good. Belgium began to motor, Portugal-Germany was a belter, then Denmark scored four against Russia in the last group game to make it to the Round of 16. “A modern fairytale,” it was called.
There was Group F’s last night of hypnotic action when France, Portugal, Germany and Hungary all seemed about to qualify or be knocked out. Portugal, the holders, exited due to Thorgan Hazard, then France blew up against Switzerland and Spain and Croatia scored eight between them. Kane scored his first as England overcame a dipping Germany. Farewell Joachim Low. The refereeing was smart rather than pedantic.
Italy won the pick of the quarter-finals against Belgium, but lost Spinazzola. They had scored 11 in five games and conceded two.
Which brought us to this week and Italy to face a Spanish side that had both impressed and flatlined. Ever since Turkey, Italy had been able to dictate the tempo, but not now. Spain man-marked Verratti, Sergio Busquets held the centre and fed Dani Olmo – there could be a lesson there for England.
Had Mikel Oyarzabel taken his chances, this would be about a Spanish revival. Italy did not win the game, they won the penalty shootout.
Yet they are deserving finalists and Verratti said of Mancini: “He re-triggered our enthusiasm. We actually have fun.”
The same can be said of Southgate and England. An overblown reaction is already here via politicians and 24-hour media, but Southgate brings a measured maturity to it all, his squad are likeable and awake and might just have enough to squeak to victory.
It will be tight. A prediction would be 1-1 and extra-time. Whatever, let’s hope for a mini-epic to end a fine tournament that has been a grand distraction and held our gaze since day one.