International tournaments are only tangentially about the football – which is probably just as well given how unsophisticated it often is beside the very best of the club game, how sluggish it can appear. They are about the stories and the mood, about the scandal and the drama and, most of all, the sense of shared experience.
Russia 2018 was a very good World Cup and an enjoyable tournament to cover, but watching England’s victory over Colombia alone in a drab flat in Samara, surrounded by another journalist’s drying laundry, and seeing the scenes of jubilation from back home, there was a distinct sense of being bypassed by something significant. As the Irish columnist Con Houlihan observed of Italia 90: “I missed it … I was in Italy at the time.”
It’s also why Italia 90, despite the poverty of much of the football, stands as one of the defining World Cups. There was the progress of England and Ireland, but also of Cameroon. There was Argentina’s bloody-minded path to the final, culminating in their operatic semi-final victory over the hosts in Naples. There were last appearances for West Germany, Yugoslavia, the USSR and Czechoslovakia, the USA’s first appearance at a World Cup since 1950, Costa Rica stunning Scotland, Frank Rijkaard spitting at Rudi Völler, Brazil and the possibly spiked water-bottles …
The spectacle may have been so bad that Fifa immediately set about changing the laws to prevent anything so cynical ever happening again, but it didn’t matter. The narratives were compelling enough they swept a global audience along with them.
That’s also why the chuntering that the general standard of football at Euro 96 was poor is largely irrelevant. That summer now stands, at least if you happened to be at an English university at the time, as a glorious time of freedom and hope: an unpopular government was in its death throes, Britain felt culturally important and the atmosphere at Wembley seemed to suggest a joyful, inclusive patriotism was possible. (And that despite an IRA bomb destroying the Arndale Centre in Manchester on the morning of England v Scotland and the violence after the semi-final defeat, in which a Russian student was stabbed in Brighton.)
From a narrative standpoint, Euro 2020 has the potential to be one of the most memorable tournaments there has ever been. Every game played represents some sort of symbolic victory over Covid. The pan-continental nature of the tournament has complicated the logistics – perhaps to an unforgivable degree during the pandemic – but there is at least the (possibly over-romantic) hope that all points of Europe, from Seville to Baku, St Petersburg to Rome, will be able to come together in celebrating human resilience and the beginning of the end of the crisis.
This year’s FA Cup final had, barring last season when nobody was admitted at all, the lowest attendance since 1890, yet the fans who were there had never felt more present. Even if Wembley is only half or a quarter full, it will feel like a huge step back towards some sort of normality. After months of restrictions, there is a sense of pent-up energy waiting to be released. Whether you’re gathered around a communal screen in a park or beer garden, desperate to toss your plastic glass of lager in the air, or watching quietly at home, the Euros have the potential to be a great unifying experience as the crisis (hopefully) wanes.
And that’s when reality kicks in. For one thing, as the Delta variant surges, the figures are looking increasingly worrying. For another, there’s the fact that humanity is rarely good at finding common cause, as the booing of the taking of the knee at recent Premier League games and England’s friendly against Austria has demonstrated.
Then there is the actual football. Because of the delayed start, this has been an unusually exhausting season. Injuries have robbed both the Netherlands and Hungary of their most important player. Kevin De Bruyne may miss out for Belgium. England have doubts over the fitness of a key central defender and a key midfielder.
There is a danger this becomes a tournament like the 2002 World Cup, which began at the end of May because of the Japanese rainy season and was characterised by fatigue as a result, a handful of storylines – Senegal’s progress, France’s implosion, Roy Keane v Mick McCarthy in Saipan, Ronaldo’s redemption – ultimately not enough to compensate for the raggedness of much of the football.
And finally, from a parochial point of view, there’s England. Many of the signs are positive. They have the experience of reaching the World Cup semi-finals in Russia three years ago. They have home advantage for, potentially, six of the seven games they would play were they to reach the final. They have a hugely talented young squad and, while there are reasonable doubts in goal, at centre-back and in central midfield, this still appears the deepest and best-balanced squad England have taken to a major tournament for a long, long time.
The problem is the draw. If England top a far from straightforward group, they will probably play Portugal or Germany in the last 16, two sides who immediately conjure memories of tournament exits. This may be a (relatively) vulnerable Germany, but England have won only two knockout games against World Cup or Euros-winning countries since 1966 (and one of those was on penalties). Come second in the group and the last 16 is notionally easier, a likely meeting with Sweden or Poland in Copenhagen, but that route leads to a probable quarter-final in St Petersburg against France, the overwhelming favourites.
Of course to win tournaments, you have to beat good sides, but there is a serious danger that England’s involvement ends before there has been any chance to build the sort of euphoric momentum seen in 1996 and 2018. And while any semi or final played at Wembley before a crowd should be something to celebrate, if England aren’t there, if there aren’t home fans, it may not feel that way.
Euro 2020 could be one of the great shared sporting experiences, a symbolic festival of relief; but there is a risk it becomes an anticlimactic addendum to what has already been a slog of a season.