Ravaged and Resilient, the Show Goes On

This is not how it was meant to be. The stands were supposed to be full, the cities jubilant, the lights of a carnival illuminating a continent. Euro 2020 was supposed to be the moment when it all began again, the great symbol of a world returning to normal. That is not how the tournament is. Instead, it is all it can be, how it has to be.

The name itself is a giveaway. We are, as you will have noticed, in the thick of 2021. Not, though, according to the banners and bunting fluttering outside stadiums in 11 cities across Europe, nor on the television schedules of dozens of broadcasters around the world. There, we are still locked into the year that never seemed to end, hotly anticipating the start of Euro 2020.

The anachronism is no accident. Last spring, when UEFA decided that it would postpone its showpiece tournament but not — despite the fact that on an elemental level keeping the incorrect date is wholly absurd — rename it, the organization rationalized it as a purely financial decision. They had printed tickets that said Euro 2020. They had commissioned merchandise. They had a website. You can’t just change a website, you know.

But the decision to retain the name spoke, too, to something far deeper. Within UEFA, there was a genuine, deep-seated belief that the European Championship, delayed by a year, would act as a potent symbol of recovery: the event that marked the end of the plague year and the restoration of the world we once knew. To still call it Euro 2020 is to say that now is when we pick up where we left off.

Over the last year, that sentiment has proved remarkably resilient. As early as March 2020, UEFA felt bold enough not only to postpone the event but to set a (provisional) date for when it would be played. As the world convulsed in the first, bare grip of the coronavirus pandemic, the people who organize European soccer were convinced that the whole thing would be done in a year.

And so it has continued. No matter how the circumstances have changed or the ground has shifted beneath its feet, UEFA has pushed on, adamant that this is how, and when, normal will start again.

In May 2020, the organization’s president, Aleksandar Ceferin, was insistent that the tournament would be staged exactly as it should have been, had the world never changed. There would, he said, still be 12 host cities, spread across the continent, just as his predecessor, Michel Platini, had planned it.

Last May, Ceferin confidently predicted that the stadiums would be full, packed to the rafters with fans reveling in each other’s presence and their mutual proximity after a year of enforced distance, isolation and separation. It would be a festival of rebirth, proof that life “will go back to normal, when we get rid of this bloody virus.”

He was still confident in January, as a second wave engulfed Europe and lockdowns returned. Salvation, he said, lay in vaccination. Medicine would triumph over infection, and Austria would meet Ukraine for a goal-less draw in Bucharest, Romania, in front of a full house.

There was hubris, of course, and gallons of it: not only the manifest evidence of soccer’s messianic streak, its unchecked sense of its own importance, but its absolute belief that it is not really subject to the same laws as anything and everything else. A financial crisis will hit, and soccer will keep on spending. A pandemic will break out, and it will keep playing.

The world can stop but soccer will go on, because soccer does not know how to do anything else, and besides: What would everyone do without soccer?

Behavioral economists have a term for this — plan continuation bias — though the one airline pilots use is, perhaps, a little more catchy, a little more immediately understood. They call it get-there-itis, the porcine, obstinate and sometimes fatal refusal to allow the facts at hand to change your intended course of action.

The fact that none of Ceferin’s predictions came to pass did not have any material impact on Euro 2020. There will not be 12 host cities — though UEFA eventually managed to press-gang 11 into service — and there will not, by a long shot, be full stadiums. Most are operating at about a quarter of capacity. Some may allow more fans as the tournament progresses.

But there will be scarcely any traveling fans, their free and easy movement around Europe either complicated or restricted by rules in place to try to reduce the spread of the virus and its variants, to maintain control of a force that is greater than trade or travel or human interaction, let alone a mere game. There will be no carnival.

Still the show will go on. It will do so diminished and deracinated, a shadow of what it was meant to be, but it will go on regardless, irrefutable proof of big-time soccer’s barrel-chested, bullheaded intransigence.

The same can be said — more so, in fact — of the summer’s other major tournament, the Copa América. That event supposed to be played in Colombia and Argentina, only for Colombia to be stripped of hosting rights because of civil unrest. The whole competition was then meant to be played in Argentina, until that was ruled out by a surge in Covid cases.

At that point, rather than give up, the tournament was simply shifted to Brazil, a country where the virus has killed almost half a million people, and cases continue to run at an alarming rate. Soccer really will not be stopped.

It would be easy, then — and to some extent warranted — to chide Ceferin for his lack of foresight, or UEFA for its bullishness and its single-mindedness, or soccer as a whole for a blinkered refusal to cede to reality. It would, though, be slightly hypocritical.

We have all, after all, spent much of the last year hoping for the point at which the uncanny, eerie version of existence that we currently inhabit might be banished for good, for the moment that things will go back to what they once were, clinging to the notion, despite all of the evidence, that the normal we once knew will soon be restored.

Euro 2020 will highlight how distant that remains. The stadiums will be thinly populated and socially distanced. Fans, in some places, will be asked to present proof of either vaccination or absence of infection to access the games. It will still be a landmark tournament, though perhaps not in the way UEFA envisaged. Not a return to the old, but something entirely new: Euros for the pandemic age.

And yet, once it starts, all of that will fall away. All tournaments exist in and of themselves; once the ball and the field and the players take center stage, they develop a life of their own, they become a self-sustaining universe, a monthlong suspension of the outside world. They are breathless and swift and all-consuming, and they make you fall helplessly in love, once more — not with the business of soccer, not with the industrial complex, but with the game at its heart.

Euro 2020 will still be an exercise in hubris and pigheadedness and get-there-itis; it will still be a monument to soccer’s unyielding self-satisfaction. But that’s not what will absorb us, over the next month: it will, instead, be the hope and the desolation and the joy of discovery.

That the stands are not full, that the carnival is not in full swing, that the world has not yet returned to normal will not matter in those final few seconds before the final whistle, or as the goalkeeper watches on as the ball sails into the corner, or as dreams are dashed or fulfilled. It will not matter that this is not the tournament it was supposed to be. It will be the tournament that it has to be, and that, for now, will be enough.

There has always been something of a non sequitur at the heart of the European Championships. For a long time, its calling card — the thing that differentiated it from the World Cup — was its concentration of quality.

It was not nearly as glamorous or as global as the greatest show on Earth, the World Cup. From a purely technical standpoint, it was better. In the halcyon days when it had only 16 teams, there was no room, not really, for chaff. The bar for qualifying was so high that few, if any, of those teams that made it as far as the finals were overmatched.

And yet, at the same time, the Euros has always been far more susceptible to upsets. Denmark won it in 1992, despite not actually qualifying for it. Greece emerged from obscurity to claim primacy in 2004. Even Portugal, the reigning champion, hardly ranked among the absolute favorites in 2016.

Those are just the teams that have won it: the Czech Republic made the final in 1996, and the semifinals in 2004 (that year, at least in these eyes, the Czechs had the best team in the tournament). Russia and Turkey both reached the final four in 2008. Wales did the same five years ago.

Given how afflicted by fatigue most of the anticipated contenders will be, there is a fairly compelling theory that this year’s edition will maintain that tradition. Picking a winner, then, would be a fool’s errand. Even picking a clutch of teams as possible candidates may not prove much of a hedge. Still, let’s have a go.

France, the reigning world champion, has a strength in depth — Only able to play Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann in attack? Why not throw in Karim Benzema? — that nobody in the tournament can match. On paper, Didier Deschamps’s team should end the month trying to get N’Golo Kanté to celebrate with another trophy.

Behind the French, the field is a little more open. England probably has the greatest resources, for all that it has spent the last month trying to convince itself that the absence of James Ward-Prowse is an unsustainable body blow. Portugal has a fine blend of canniness and craft. Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team, has an experienced side aware that this may be its last chance to win something. Italy, unbeaten in 27 games, has few famous names but plenty of momentum.

If there is to be a surprise, then the likeliest source is Turkey — the youngest squad in the tournament, and a vibrant, undaunted team — or possibly Poland: a quarterfinal place should not be out of the question, given the way the draw has fallen, and with Robert Lewandowski up front, anything is possible.

That leaves Germany and Spain, the two great unknowns. Germany has been drifting for three years or more; Spain has seen its preparations undone by at least two positive coronavirus tests. Either could win it. Either could fall at the first hurdle. It’s the Euros. The line between the two is very fine.

Further to the discussion of Forward, Madison! in last week’s newsletter and the subject of authenticity in American soccer, Ryan Parks believes that the Oakland Roots are worthy of consideration. “They should be applauded for their connection to their city,” he wrote. “Their official website includes pages on ‘Purpose’ and ‘Culture,’ which highlights their Justice Fund, Nurtured Roots program, and Artist Residency.” I’m aware of their work, Ryan, and would be inclined to agree with you.

Diaa Baghat has been watching “Baggio: The Divine Ponytail” on Netflix, and has a question. “If there was an option, who would you like to see play again at their peak? Dead or alive players are accepted in your wish list.”

There’s a few fairly obvious answers to this — Maradona, Pelé, Duncan Edwards, Ian Ormondroyd — but I’m going to cheat, just a little, and say that I would have loved to have seen the Fiorentina of Rui Costa and Gabriele Batistuta in the flesh, just once. Or possibly Jim Baxter, a Rangers and Scotland midfielder who I heard a lot about from my dad. Almost too much, really. He’d probably be a bit of a disappointment.

And finally, an excellent point from John Nekrasov. “Maybe Massimiliano Allegri, Carlo Ancelotti and José Mourinho are all being hired as a reaction to the failure of the club legend experiment that we were all talking about last summer. We had that wave of Artetas, Lampards and Pirlos being hired as an attempt to bring that new blood. Now, Lampard’s gone, Pirlo’s gone, and Arteta (sadly for my beloved Arsenal) is also hardly thriving in his current role.”

That has the ring of truth to it, John, and is damning in its own way: that clubs are so easily frit — as Jim Baxter might have put it — that they rush straight back into the arms of the tried and tested at the first glimpse of any trouble.


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