LONDON: The delayed Euro 2020 tournament will finally get underway on Friday, a year behind schedule, with Covid-19 still set to cast a shadow over the event.
The continent-wide event, first envisaged by then-UEFA president Michel Platini when he announced the tournament would be held across Europe, will be played in front of limited crowds and with strict health restrictions in place.
The action gets under way at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, where Italy take on Turkey in front of 16,000 fans.
Spain’s preparations for the month-long tournament have been hit after two players, Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente, tested positive for the virus, although Llorente on Thursday returned a negative test.
The team even had to name a “parallel” squad of 17 reserve players, fearing a possible wider outbreak in the official 26-man squad.
Although captain Busquets still has Covid, Llorente’s test result will allay fears that the first-choice side might have to miss Spain’s opening game against Sweden in Seville on Monday.
Two Swedish players — forward Dejan Kulusevski and midfielder Mattias Svanberg — have also tested positive for the virus.
But despite the ongoing threat, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has been bullish, insisting Euro 2020 will be safe.
“It will be the first event of a global dimension to be held since the pandemic struck,” he said. “It will be the perfect opportunity to show the world that Europe is adapting. Europe is alive and celebrating life. Europe is back.”
The clearest illustration of that is set to come from Budapest, where it is hoped the new Puskas Arena will be packed to capacity.
But the majority of the 11 venues, all in different countries, will only be partially-filled for matches, although Denmark on Thursday announced it would lift mask rules and allow 25,000 fans, instead of 16,000, to attend games in Copenhagen.
Munich aims to host a minimum of 14,500 fans — around 22 percent of the Allianz Arena’s capacity, the lowest of the stadiums being used.
Dublin and Bilbao were dropped from the list of hosts after being unable to give guarantees they could meet UEFA’s requirement of accommodating limited numbers of spectators, but Seville stepped in for Bilbao while Dublin’s games went to London and St Petersburg.
FRANCE THE FAVOURITES
On the pitch, France will be firm favourites despite being one of the few traditional giants not to have any games at home. The world champions’ first match is in Munich against Germany on Tuesday.
“All the other countries envy us,” said a recent front page of French sports daily L’Equipe underneath pictures of Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann.All eyes will be on 33-year-old forward Benzema, who was recalled after an international exile of five-and-a-half years following a prolific season for Real Madrid.
Holders Portugal, with a star-studded squad led by Cristiano Ronaldo, and Hungary complete a tough-looking Group ‘F’.
Ronaldo is now 36 but is still going strong and is supported by a better squad than five years ago, which also boasts the outstanding talents of Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Ruben Dias.
The other likely contenders among the 24 nations include Belgium, sweating over the fitness of key player Kevin De Bruyne after he suffered facial injuries in the Champions League final, and usual suspects Spain and Italy.
England have the carrot of knowing both semi-finals and the final will be played at Wembley, while Italy and the Netherlands are eager to impress after failing to qualify for recent tournaments.
Captain Harry Kane believes England will start their bid to win Euro 2020 in a “better place” than they were before reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.
“I feel like now we’ve had a bit more experience, players in the biggest games for their club and obviously players who have played in that World Cup have had that experience as well,” he said.
“We haven’t won a tournament as a country for a long time, so there needs to be a lot of good mentality along the whole way as it is a long, tough journey to get to the later stages of a major tournament.”
Somehow it seems appropriate that Italy, the first country in Europe that was overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, is hosting the opening game of Euro 2020.
The biggest crowd to gather in Italy for a year and a half will witness an Azzurri squad aiming for the title play a Turkey team aiming to spring a surprise.
“We’ve been waiting a year for this European Championship and we can’t wait to experience hearing 15,000 people singing the national anthem,” veteran Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci said. “Football with fans inside the stadium is a different sport.”
After embarrassingly failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy won all 10 of their qualifying matches for Euro 2020 and enter on a 27-match unbeaten run.
“We want to go all the way,” Bonucci said. “Other national teams have more experience but we can play with anyone. We don’t have a [Romelu] Lukaku or a Cristiano Ronaldo. Our strength is the team.”
Turkey took four points off France in qualifying, including a 2-0 win over the World Cup champions, and lost only one of their matches to finish second in their group.
“Being in this tournament and playing in the opening match makes us proud,” Turkey coach Senol Gunes said. “In every opening game there are surprises and I hope we can also spring one.”
History is on the hosts side, though. Italy have never lost to Turkey in 10 previous meetings in all competitions, winning seven and drawing three.
It is a run the home fans will hope — and expect — to continue as a new chapter begins for the Italian national team.
Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2021