Fifty-one matches across eleven cities in thirty-one days and Euro 2020 concluded, sadly, with a whimper rather than a bang for England at Wembley, whilst the Italians claimed their second ever Euros victory, some fifty-three years after their first, but it’s been a tournament of highs and lows that at least offered some distraction – and, briefly, glorious, glorious hope – from the last eighteen months. With the trophy back in Rome and football fever once more subdued back home, let’s take one final look back.
The Final – Before the start of the tournament, this was a Final that few would have predicted. Italy barely entered anyone’s thoughts and England were spoken of more in hope than expectation. From Italy’s first match against Turkey, however, it was clear that this Azzurri side was one to watch – and rightly so, on the back of an impressive run of victories and clean sheets. What made this Italy team stand out was its genuine attacking intent and dynamism – something not necessarily associated with the defensive-minded Italy of times gone by, but a welcome breath of fresh air. England, meanwhile, took some by surprise as well, in their measured, pragmatic approach, patiently seeking out results, building on a solid defence and looking quietly confident. As many of the big guns crashed and burnt, Italy and England progressed steadily but surely, so that by the Semi-Final stage, they were the clear favourites to face off for the Final, and so it turned out. It was generally felt that the Final would be a close-run thing, no out-and-out favourite, a 50% chance of England winning their first trophy in 55 years and a 50% chance of Italy claiming their first Euro victory in 53 years. Tactics were once again the order of the day prior to kick-off, with Southgate opting for a back three, and England couldn’t have wished for a better start, with Luke Shaw, who has emerged as one of the best full-backs in football throughout this tournament, scoring the fastest goal in a Euros Final in 1 minute 57 seconds. With a rocking Wembley, the Italians didn’t know what had hit them and this was the chance for England to capitalise. The measured approach that had done so well for the Three Lions, though, allowed Italy to get back into the game, and when they scored early in the second-half, there was a sense of growing inevitability. England had come from behind against a dogged Denmark, but otherwise fairly easy progress in the tournament meant they hadn’t been in a position of being pegged back before, and certainly not by such a strong, and canny, team as Italy. Chances were largely few and far between and it did seem, rather counterintuitively given England’s past, as if the Three Lions were counting on penalties. It would, in many ways, have been a fitting finale for a team who had conquered ghosts of Germany past, Semi-Finals past, to win a Final on penalties, but, alas, not all stories have a happy ending, and arguably the cruellest decider in sport crushed England’s hopes once more, but only after this brave Three Lions team had proved a lot of doubters wrong, overcome every other obstacle to the final and galvanised spirit and a nation. Looking at it objectively, Italy were far and away the best team and deserving winners, but this England team has much to be proud of.
Penalties – Is there any worse way to decide a sporting contest than penalties? How does kicking a ball from 12 yards at all fairly capture the competition of a football match? In many ways, it’s the antithesis of football – static, robotic, poised – there’s none of a game’s spontaneity, energy, flow, but until an alternative is found, it’s the only option available. Even prior to this game, the notion of penalty shootouts had plagued my mind – surely, there’s a better solution? But, in truth, they can’t be matched for sheer drama or tension. Despite the routine practice teams now increasingly put into penalties, there is no way to replicate the situation of a penalty shootout, in a European Final, at home, with the weight of 55 years of history and 65 million people resting on your shoulders. Every player that even considered stepping up for England and Italy deserves huge respect. And those ten players, and not forgetting the two goalkeepers, who took part, are all champions in my mind. The walk from the halfway line is something that often gets mentioned and even that seems virtually impossible in the context of a night such as last night and again seems so out of keeping with the emphasis it places so squarely on individuals in this most collective of team sports. For the England players, especially, the sight of 6’5” Donnarumma surely would have been extra imposing. Watching on, he seemed to typify that old football adage of a goalkeeper ‘filling the goal’. Maybe, it was my own nerves, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a goalkeeper look so substantial and the goal look so small. His height is one thing, but the fact he backs that up with incredible talent is another – and that he was named Player of the Tournament perhaps proves just how much England’s penalty takers had to contend with. Pickford, too, played his part with two vital saves, particularly taking the shootout down to the final spot-kick when he saved from Jorginho. And, of that final spot kick, I cannot praise Bukayo Saka enough. Regardless of what people say about who should and shouldn’t be taking them, the duty fell to Saka, and it couldn’t have carried any more pressure. For a nineteen-year-old to accept that responsibility and step up for his country is inspiring (I could barely take responsibility for myself at nineteen, let alone a nation’s dreams) and in no way will that one penalty define his tournament, let alone his career, for me, except in it cementing his incredible maturity, his courage and his spirit. Saka’s tournament included memorable appearances in the victory against Croatia, that meant England topped their group, and the Semi-Final against Denmark where his cross led to the own goal that pegged Denmark back. Saka was instrumental in England getting to the Final, and Rashford and Sancho too played their parts, and aged just 19, 23 and 21, these are three lion cubs with big hearts.
Team of the tournament – There were some standout performances across the tournament from players from all nations, so as a nod to some of them, this is my team of the tournament:
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy)
Denzel Dumfries (Netherlands)
Simon Kjaer (Denmark)
Harry Maguire (England)
Leonardo Spinazzola (Italy)
Kalvin Phillips (England)
Breel Embolo (Switzerland)
Renato Sanches (Portugal)
Mikkel Damsgaard (Denmark)
Patrik Schick (Czech Republic)
Player of the Tournament – I love to see players that catch the eye and do so consistently, and from the very first match, Leonardo Spinazzola was that player. It’s great that a so-called defensive player can steal the spotlight, when a lot of attention is always placed on the more naturally positioned forward players. Indeed, one of the highlights of this tournament was the full-backs in general – Maehle of Denmark, Gosens of Germany, and Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw of England, to name a few, but Spinazzola was on another level in terms of his attacking play in particular. He was a delight to watch, always playing as high up as possible, and it was such a cruel shame that he didn’t get to feature in the Final after picking up an injury, but his four performances before that were enough to make a significant impression. We’ve got used to full-backs bombing on in recent years, and the days of a full-back rarely venturing across the halfway line are long gone, but in this tournament Spinazzola showed attacking full-back play at its very best.
England – As someone who is usually entirely pragmatic and realistic about England’s fortunes when others are getting carried away, I found myself in the unusual position of actually feeling really calm and confident even before we’d kicked a ball this tournament, based on nothing but gut feeling alone. It was a decidedly refreshing – and stress-free – experience not to feel deflated when England weren’t firing on all cylinders, when they were held to a stalemate against Scotland and when they went behind against Denmark, and all the more so, because this team continued to deliver game after game. Ukraine aside, there was nothing seemingly mind-blowing in their football, but at the same time there was an assurance, a stability that perhaps hasn’t always been there, especially in the big moments. At not one point in their journey to the Final did I doubt this team and at not one point did they let me down. In the final, I knew, it was a tougher task, and in my heart of hearts I thought Italy would have too much experience and know-how in the circumstances, but this team allowed me to dare to dream in a way that no other England team in my lifetime has, and that is why I felt the disappointment of the result so much more keenly this time around – to the point of being a despicably sore loser and having to tun off the trophy celebration – but why I also felt not one ounce of disappointment in the players. In Phillips, Rice, Saka, et al, England have uncovered some gems for the future, whilst senior players like Walker, Maguire and Sterling stepped up. It’s hard to choose my standout England player as each of them genuinely contributed so much to the team, but whilst Maguire and Shaw made late charges, I’m going with Kalvin Phillips for having turned out at his first major tournament, featuring in every game and looking at home from the first group game through to the Final. But what made this England team great, and one I could find real confidence and pride in, was that it wasn’t about the individuals, this was a team that has played as a more united collective than any other England team I can remember. And that is why my disappointment is for them, not in them. Thanks for the journey, England.