As Covid regulations began to ease across Europe and a limited numbers of spectators started gaining access to stadiums, a postponed Euro 2020 took the spotlight as the biggest footballing festival of the summer. In parallel, under much stricter regulations and closed doors, the delayed Copa America also commenced.
UEFA upheld the original decision to host matches of the European Championships in multiple cities scattered in different countries, despite limited travel due to the pandemic. Out of the 12 cities originally chosen, Dublin was dropped over the speculation that fans might not be granted permission to attend the matches in person due to local health guidelines. Meanwhile, Rome, London, Munich, Amsterdam, Seville, Copenhagen, Baku, Budapest, St Petersburg, Glasgow and Budapest retained their status as host cities.
The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL), however, had to alter the hosts. Argentina and Colombia had been announced as co-hosts for the tournament, originally set to take place in 2020 after a decision to move the quadrennial tournament to even years. Due to political instability in Colombia and the Covid situation in Argentina, both had to be dropped and Brazil was chosen to host the rearranged tournament, even though Brazil had hosted the 2019 Copa America as well.
After a long, gruelling season because of the pandemic, many believed the Euros would not have the same pizzazz. Most of the players had been on club duty with no breaks since June 2020. What followed though, was wonderful to watch — a tournament full of stories, comebacks, underdog runs, upsets, and spectacular goals.
It was time to enjoy mega teams and players clashing in Europe and South America in the form of the Euro 2020 and the Copa America. In case you missed any of the high points, Eos provides a round-up of both
France and Belgium were probably the favourites in the eyes of most people: the FIFA World Cup holders and the number 1 ranked team in the FIFA International ranking respectively. Both had incredible depth in their squads and both featured superstars within their ranks. England, Germany and Spain had young, exciting squads, having all passed through some sort of rebuilding over the past few years. England was primed to go further than the semi-finals it had reached in the 2018 World Cup. The holders and the inaugural UEFA Nations League winners Portugal could not be counted out either, especially with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line again.
THE DANISH MIRACLE
In their first group game of the tournament against Finland, Denmark was the overwhelming favourite to get the three points. In the 43rd minute, Christian Eriksen, one of the biggest names in the Danish squad, collapsed on the field after collecting a throw-in with no other player near him. As moments ticked to seconds and seconds became minutes, Danish captain Simon Kjaer proceeded to offer him first aid, attempted to resuscitate him, and form a protective circle around him with his teammates after the team doctors had arrived. Eriksen survived, having been shifted to a nearby hospital and inserted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator.
The match resumed after an hour and a half, after confirmation from the hospital that Eriksen was alive. The Danes could not have possibly been prepared though. No matter how mentally strong athletes may be, one cannot simply erase the sight of a colleague collapsing in front of them. The Danes lost the game 1-0. In the next game, they produced a spirited performance against Belgium, leading 1-0 at half time before conceding two in the second. In their final group game, they thrashed Russia 4-1 in front of an electric home atmosphere to qualify for the knockout stages. “For Christian” was the message from all the players and fans.
Denmark went on to hammer Wales 4-0 in the Round of 16, before beating Czech Republic 2-1 to set up a semi-final with England. They led through a sumptuous free kick by Mikkel Damsgaard, before conceding an own goal by Kjaer. In extra time, they conceded from a dubious penalty awarded to Raheem Sterling, bowing out with their heads held high and giving everything they had got. They had made Eriksen proud.
THE ITALIAN JOB
Roberto Mancini had been appointed the task to guide the Azzurri back to glory after they failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Mancini brought about a change in philosophy, giving chances to young players across Serie A to carry out an attacking possession-based playing style. Italy had made significant progress under the former Manchester City manager, qualifying with a 100 per cent record and having been unbeaten since 2018. In the eyes of the Italians, their team was an outside favourite for the trophy.
Italy cruised through its group, winning all three games to set up a Round of 16 clash with Austria. Despite the match going to extra time, Italy looked in control throughout. Their quarter-final was against Belgium, arguably the best team on form in the tournament. Belgium had knocked out the defending champions Portugal in the Round of 16. Mancini’s men outplayed and outshot the Belgians, winning the match 2-1.
In the bottom half, the other pre-tournament favourite France was knocked out on penalties by Switzerland, who then themselves went out in the same fashion against Spain in the quarter-finals. Spain and Italy produced a breathtaking display of end-to-end football in their semi-final, another match which went all the way to penalties (spoiler alert: the final did too). Gianluigi Donnarumma saved Alvaro Morata’s penalty to take Italy through to their first final since Euro 2012.
In the final, England’s Luke Shaw capped off his brilliant tournament with a goal in the second minute, before Leonardo Bonucci equalised for Italy in the second half. Jordan Pickford gave England the advantage by saving from Andrea Belotti and Jorginho in the penalty shootout, but Donnarumma saved efforts by Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after Marcus Rashford had hit the post to hand Italy their second European crown. Donnarumma also took home the title of the Player of the Tournament.
For the first time since 1991, Copa America was played without a guest nation participating, after Australia and Qatar withdrew to participate in the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. This left only 10 teams in the tournament, which were divided into two groups of five based on their geographic location.
The top four teams from each group qualified for the quarter-finals. In the group consisting of teams from the North, Brazil finished top ahead of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. In the South group, Argentina led the way from Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile.
In the quarter-finals, Uruguay bowed out on penalties against Colombia, despite Edison Cavani and Luis Suarez both putting away their spot kicks successfully. Argentina brushed Ecuador aside 3-0, Brazil beat Chile 1-0 and Peru edged out Paraguay on penalties in a thriller which ended 3-3.
Argentina took the long route in the semi-finals against Colombia, Emiliano Martinez saving three penalties in the shootout to take them through to the final. The hosts Brazil lay waiting, having beaten Peru 1-0. Neither Lional Messi nor Neymar had the final say, Ángel Di Maria scoring the decisive goal in the decider to hand Argentina their first continental championship since 1993. The victory also took them to 15 Copa America titles, level for the most with Uruguay.
MESSI AND RONALDO CORNER
At 33 and 36, respectively, this might have been the last we see of Messi and Ronaldo in their continental championships. That did not stop them from taking home the Golden Boots, Ronaldo sharing it with Patrik Schick (five goals each) and Messi sharing it with Luis Diaz (four goals each). Messi won the Player of the Tournament award, too, as well as the grand prize — the Copa America trophy.
July 10, 2016 was the final of the European Championships between France and Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo’s team rallied in his forced absence through injury and brought about the first international trophy of the great man’s career.
Exactly five years later, July 10, 2021 was the final of the Copa America between bitter rivals Brazil and Argentina. Di Maria scored the only goal of the game to hand Lionel Messi the first international trophy of his glittering career.
As fate would have it, the two greatest players of our generation guiding their nations to international trophies on the same date.
The writer tweets @tahagoheer
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 18th, 2021