Euro 2020 has its final four and, hold the front page, England are in the mix – but so too are previous winners Denmark, Spain and Italy. So whilst football is coming home – from Rome to Wembley – in the next round, there are still some twists and turns left before July 11, but hopefully they’ll just be Sterling and Kane twisting and turning away to celebrate. Until then, however, a moment to reflect on the Quarter-Finals.
No more Number Ones: The Round of 16 saw the departure of both the Euro reigning champions Portugal and the reigning World Champions, and pre-tournament favourites, France, and the Quarter-Finals delivered up yet another scalp, this time in the form of the number-one ranked nation – Belgium. In truth, it sometimes feels like the FIFA rankings can be taken with a pinch of salt, but nonetheless, there were definitely high hopes for the Red Devils both coming into the tournament and after an impressive unbeaten run in the first four matches, which saw them knock out Portugal. Their squad has been spoken of in recent years as a Golden Generation, with the likes of Courtois, Vertonghen, De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku – to name a fearsome five-a-side. But, as we all know too well, a Golden Generation doesn’t guarantee success, and there was no escaping the fact that this was Belgium’s crop. Going into their Quarter-Final with Italy, the Red Devils had enjoyed a fairly easy and uncomplicated journey thus far, but in a reinvigorated Azzurri, their biggest test was to come, and once more they came up short. Yes, there were some Italian theatrics and questionable antics, but, in truth, Belgium never really looked like a team who were up to the challenge of their counterparts. A 2-1 defeat was enough to see them bow out of yet another promising tournament having failed to live up to their golden billing.
Swapping… shorts: The gifting of shirts after a match has long been a custom in football, but seeing a Y-front-clad Giovanni Di Lorenzo, who had ‘gifted’ his shorts to some lucky (?) recipient, after Italy’s win was a new one on me, although Jurgen Klinsmann reliably informed viewers that this was common practice in Italy… hmmm. A sweaty shirt given away is one thing, but shorts, really? At least with shirts, they have the name on the back and all of the added details that these days adorn the front – the fixture, date, inside-leg measurement – well, perhaps not the last one, but it seems to be going that way. But what do you get with shorts, apart from the number and team badge? What’s to say, in your dotage, you’ll even remember who was Italy’s number 2 at some point in the past? No, give me a shirt any day, thank you. Although that brings me to the whole shirt-swapping practice between players (look away now, Roy Keane). I’ve always wondered how this is negotiated. Does a player have his sights on an opposite number from the get-go? Are negotiations made before the match or is there an approach during or at half-time? Is there a mad rush to get the star’s shirt at the end of the match and it’s all down to a first-come first-served basis? Or does the shirt giver get to bestow his shirt on the lucky recipient? And what of the shirt giver, is he obliged to take the shirt of his opposite number even if he’s absolutely no inclination/knowledge of him? It’s surely pretty bad etiquette to refuse. I imagine Messi and Ronaldo must have quite the collection of random players’ shirts amassed somewhere. And what of the poor players who never get asked for their shirts – well, I guess they could always start giving away their shorts – or perhaps their socks if it comes to it.
Hugs and kisses: Was it just me or did anyone else watch the Italy players go to the fans to celebrate their victory over Belgium, where they embraced the crowd and got pulled into hugs and high fives, and think ‘social distancing, guys’? A sight like this would have been a heart-warming, nation-rousing spectacle eighteen months ago, but in these COVID times, all I could think was ‘two metres’. In their jubilation, Chiellini et al clearly forgot the protocol – hands, face, space, anyone? – and were whisked back to those halcyon days when they could be manhandled by fans. Oh, how we all wish to celebrate like that, but it seemed a miscalculated risk. Though, in the joy of victory, it’s hard to quell natural reactions such as these, and let’s be honest, the Azzurri are a pretty passionate bunch anyway – one only needs to see Gianluigi Donnarumma’s response to Leonardo Spinazzola’s block from Lukaku to recognise that. The sooner we get back to players jumping around with fans the better, but for now, it may be wise to stick to just giving your shorts away.
Golden Boot: Ronaldo may have bid farewell to Euro 2020, but with him he took a host of records, and there is surely one more accolade still in his sights, as he lies back on a beach somewhere, drinking water (not Coke) and taking in the conclusion of the tournament – Golden Boot. Whilst Patrick Schick levelled up with Ronaldo’s five goals, with his strike against Denmark in the Quarter-Finals, the Portuguese must have breathed a sigh of relief when not only Schick, but Lukaku and Forsberg who were hot on his heels in the Golden Boot race, all crashed out of the tournament. However, it’s not quite signed, sealed and delivered for Ronaldo yet, for, whilst he sits pretty at the top of the charts with Schick on five goals, Denmark’s Kasper Dolberg’s strike against the Czech Republic lifted him up to three goals, alongside Raheem Sterling. And, there’s another contender, making a late – but timely – dash for it – none other than Harry Kane. He who was being written off in many quarters after failing to score in the opening three matches has taken his tally up to three in just two games, with time yet to improve on that. There are a number of other players with two goals to their name left in the tournament, including Insigne and Immobile of Italy, Morata and Torres of Spain, and Maehle and Poulsen of Denmark. In what has already been a topsy-turvy tournament, nothing can be taken for granted, and whilst Ronaldo and Schick may each have one hand on the Golden Boot, don’t rule out an Englishman spoiling their party.
Three Lions: And, on that note, let’s turn to England and enjoy the moment – it doesn’t happen too often. After overcoming Germany, Ukraine were considered to be less of a challenge on paper, but, as any England fan knows, games aren’t won on paper – two words: Iceland, 2016. So, although hopes were raised going into the game, nobody was expecting an easy time of it, but in this craziest of times, we should have perhaps learned, if nothing else, to expect the unexpected, and in this case, the unexpected was one of the most comfortable victories in a knock-out stage in England’s history. After close contests with the Netherlands and Sweden, Ukraine shouldn’t have been a walkover, but I suspect that was as close to a walkover as is possible in tournament knock-out football. Admittedly, the early goal did England a lot of favours, and there was never really any danger from thereon out, as England scored four goals in a knockout stage for only the second time – the first, you ask? Some World Cup in 1966. Amongst the goal-scorers was Jordan Henderson who netted for the first time for his country in 62 appearances, taking perhaps the somewhat dubious honour of becoming the player with the longest wait for their first England goal – succeeding Sol Campbell (47 apps). Meanwhile, a fifth consecutive clean sheet in the tournament saw England progress to a total seven consecutive clean sheets for the first time ever – over 11 hours without conceding. And whilst the schooling of Ukraine was a collective effort, and a fairly routine one at that, Luke Shaw was amongst the most impressive performers, adding to his assists for the tournament and sitting joint second with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for three in the competition, with the departed Switzerland’s Zuber only one assist ahead. England certainly cruised into a Semi-Final return to Wembley against Denmark, with even the referee not wanting to prolong Ukraine’s agony, blowing up for full-time bang on 90 minutes before even the board denoting the additional minutes had been raised. Let’s hope it’s just as plain sailing through to the Final.