With a song in our heart, embrace the championship that takes us to Baku and back
EURO 2020 EUROZONE
THE fates were never likely to smile on a major tournament for which England were ante-post favourites and Scotland had qualified. Happily, after a year-long delay which we can’t even blame on VAR, Euro 2020 is upon us. Finally there is an excuse to stay at home, ignore our friends and relatives, and watch three live football matches per day back to back (or in whatever position works best on your sofa). It’s been a while since we’ve been able to get stuck into a European Championship finals so here is a brief refresher course to ensure you’re cherry ripe for the start of the group stage. Let Uefa lead you down memory lane The Uefa website is the first point of call for punters attempting to slip into the optimum headspace for Euro 2020. As well as all the squads, fixtures and venue guides there is a wealth of background information that could prove invaluable (that means utterly without value, yeah?). The list of official tournament ambassadors is a treat for nostalgic souls, featuring the likes of Karel Poborsky, Steffen Freund and former Portugal striker Nuno Gomes, who always looked as though he should be moodily hanging around outside a branch of Virgin Megastore in a Placebo T-shirt. Also on ambassadorial duty is former Greece captain Theo Zagorakis, hailed as “a combative, industrious defensive midfielder whose stars aligned spectacularly at Uefa Euro 2004”. With just a couple of minor tweaks, that is what I’d like to have carved on my gravestone. Express yourself (in no more than 90 seconds) The tournament’s official mascot is Skillzy, “a larger-than-life character” inspired by freestyling and street football, according to those hip cats at Uefa’s Nyon crib. One freestyler involved in the ceremony to introduce the new mascot declared that it’s all about “expressing yourself with the ball at your feet”. I’ll be reminding Skillzy, if that is his real name, of that manifesto promise after the 17th aerial duel of the first half between giant Russia striker Artem Dzyuba and Denmark colossus Jannik Vestergaard. Presumably there is also an official Euro 2020 song although given the rough justice meted out to the United Kingdom at Eurovision this must be vigorously boycotted by the England, Scottish and Welsh Football Associations. On a musical theme, one of the arcane rules in place at this summer’s tournament is a time limit of 90 seconds for each pre-match national anthem. At first glance this appears to be a shocking piece of anti-welsh legislation as a serious rendition of ‘Land of My Fathers’ is only just hitting its straps after a minute and a half. In fact, though, 90 seconds turns out to be the perfect length of time in which to send a disparaging tweet about Spain’s players not joining in their own anthem and then remember that it doesn’t actually have any lyrics. Baku’s back where it belongs Wales, hopefully unaffected by their cruelly abbreviated anthem, start their campaign with Group A fixtures against Switzerland and Turkey in Baku. Yes, you read that correctly – Baku’s back, baby! The capital of Azerbaijan has been restored to its rightful position at the very heart of European football, two years after hosting the Europa League final between Chelsea and Arsenal. On television that final appeared to be played in one of the most depressing atmospheres in sporting history although we should probably wait until the travelling fans manage to find their way home before jumping to conclusions. You’ve probably heard a lot of cynical conjecture about why Baku has got the Group A gig but any concerns should be assuaged by one line from Uefa’s venue guide: “nearly half of the world’s mud volcanoes are located in Azerbaijan”. Forget Turkey’s second-half xg or how many ‘big chances’ Scott McTominay has created in his Nations League career – that’s your Euro 2020 key stat right there. Fashion faux pas could derail England But let’s tackle the serious business: how are England going to stuff this up? On the face of it, the stars have “aligned spectacularly” – as Uefa would say – for the Three Lions, at least until Harry Kane hands in a mid-tournament transfer request because he needs to be winning trophies at this stage of his career. The manager has to be a concern too. I worry that the success of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup waistcoat revival may have gone to the mild-mannered gaffer’s head. What retro fashion fad has he got up his sleeve this time? Will he even have any sleeves? The morale of the camp could crumble if Southgate calls it wrong and turns up to the opening group game in spats, a monocle, and that accursed grey England Euro 96 shirt which the marketing gurus claimed would look great with a pair of Carling-soaked jeans. Die Mannschaft selection is no laughing matter Of course, there are doubts over some of England’s biggest rivals too. France may be the reigning world champions but they’ve never won a major tournament when the year ends in ‘one’. Germany’s decision to recall Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels just feels like an opportunistic attempt to board the Friends Reunion bandwagon. Don’t be surprised if Die Mannschaft opt to ditch training sessions in favour of a series of press conferences where James Corden giggles his way through sycophantic questions about Joachim Low’s iconic hairstyle. Welcome to ‘The One Where The Coach Should Have Been Sacked After Finishing Bottom Of A World Cup Group Containing Sweden, Mexico And South Korea’. Italy, at least, are easy to predict at major tournaments. They’re always either really, really bad or really, really good. Except for the times when they’re mediocre. Come on, I’ve given you that Azeri mud volcano stat – you’ve got to do some of the punting homework yourself.