Euro 2020 was postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, making anticipation even greater than usual. The wait proved to be worth it, as football fans all over the world were blessed with a record 142 goals and the highest goal per game ratio since the group stage was introduced over four decades ago. The tournament brought tears of both joy and distress and unforgettable moments, but let’s start from the beginning. This is the first in a series of articles that will tell the many stories of Euro 2020.
Euro 2020 Chronicles
Stadio Olimpico in Rome has hosted two Euro finals, in 1968 and 1980. Forty-one years later, the return here was long overdue. Even though this was not a final, the atmosphere rivalled that of one. Italy was a nation in turmoil after their failure to reach the 2018 World Cup and had only recently begun being carefully optimistic with Roberto Mancini at the helm. Their opponents, Turkey, went undefeated against France in qualifying and were many people’s dark horses.
Coach Senol Güneş took the team to a World Cup bronze 19 years earlier and was hoping for another magical summer, but this wasn’t Turkey’s tournament. Merih Demiral did score the tournament’s first goal. The only problem was that it was in the wrong net. Ciro Immobile extended the Azzurri’s lead and Lorenzo Insigne added another to make Italy 3-0 victors in the premiere match which gave us a good taste of what we could expect from Italy.
Turkey still couldn’t find the back of the right net in their match against Wales, losing 2-0 after goals from Aaron Ramsey and Connor Roberts. And after their 3-1 defeat against Switzerland, the Turkish fiasco was confirmed, even though they ended their goal drought.
Problematic Shirt-Pulling at Euro 2020
Speaking of Wales and Switzerland, it was those two that made up Euro 2020’s second match. It ultimately ended 1-1, even though the Swiss should’ve arguably been given a penalty for the blatant shirt pulling on Breel Embolo. But he stood firm and remained on his feet, so no foul was given. This issue was raised again in the round of 16 between Belgium and Portugal where João Palhinha pulled Romelu Lukaku’s shirt so hard that everyone saw it, except the referee. Football players should not be forced to dive in order for justice to be done.
But the group stage also offered beacons of hope, like the aforementioned Italy. They had set the bar sky-high after their emphatic performance against Turkey. A bar so high not even Gianmarco Tamberi could jump over it. However, the Italian team could. Their display against Switzerland was just as convincing as that against Turkey, once again winning 3-0. A new star shone this evening as Manuel Locatelli’s brace and solid performance throughout the tournament means he’ll unlikely stay at Sassuolo for long. Ciro Immobile also scored his second goal of the Euros. Despite a smaller goal tally, Italy were just as convincing against Wales, where Matteo Pessina announced himself.
When Football Didn’t Matter Anymore
The match between Denmark and Finland could have gone down in history as Finland’s first win at a major tournament. Joel Pohjanpalo could have forever engrained himself in the mind of the Finnish people. This match was remembered for an entirely different reason, though. Something of outstandingly greater importance. As half-time was approaching, Inter Milan star Christian Eriksen collapsed and the whole football world held its breath. Everyone knew something was seriously wrong and Danish and Finnish players alike fervently urged medical staff to immediately get there. Simon Kjaer set an unprecedented precedent for how a captain should act, putting Eriksen in the recovery position before the medical team arrived, then comforting Eriksen’s terrified partner and crying teammates together with Kasper Schmeichel.
The subsequent scenes were like something from a horror movie, as the resuscitation attempts began. However, amidst the terror, there were glimpses of hope and humanity. The Danish players formed a human shield around Eriksen that, along with flags provided by both sets of fans, protected him from the many disrespectful photographers. After what felt like an eternity, Eriksen was carried out of the stadium, with his eyes open again. He was taken to Rigshospitalet, which was thankfully just 500 metres away. People began being cautiously hopeful. Finnish fans chanted “Christian”, to which the rest of the stadium responded “Eriksen”.
UEFA’s Controversial Ultimatum
The match was controversially resumed later that evening. It seemed the Danish players had reached this decision at first, perhaps encouraged by the recovering Eriksen through FaceTime. However, it later emerged that they were given an ultimatum by UEFA: play the match that evening or the next day at noon.
Peter Schmeichel was deeply critical of the decision: “Something terrible like that happens and UEFA gives the players an option to go out and play the game or come back at 12:00 on Sunday. What kind of option is that?”, he told the BBC.
Coach Kasper Hjulmand also expressed his concerns: “The only real leadership would have been to put the players on a bus and send them home. And then deal with it after. With corona cases, it’s possible to postpone a game for 48 hours. But with cardiac arrest, apparently, it’s not. And I think that’s wrong”, he said.
The disapproval of the decision was near-universal, even though UEFA claimed they restarted the match “following the request made by players of both teams”.
Denmark ultimately lost, but Eriksen surviving is an infinitely bigger victory.
Belgium and Russia made up Group B’s second match. The Red Devils absolutely dominated, defeating the Russians 3-0 in their own backyard in a match where Romelu Lukaku proved why he was many people’s favourite to win Golden Boot. Thomas Meunier also got on the scoresheet.
In the next match, the Belgians were poised to face a redemption-seeking Danish side in Copenhagen. Yussuf Poulsen gave Denmark an early lead in a half the Red and White dominated. Then Kevin de Bruyne entered the field. His assist enabled Thorgan Hazard’s equalizer and 16 minutes later, the Manchester City star’s superb finish made sure Belgium were victorious.
Finally, the Red Devils ultimately defeated Finland comfortably, despite solid defending and a great performance by one of the group stage’s best goalkeepers, Lukas Hradecky. Finland had previously lost 1-0 to Russia in Saint Petersburg, so this spelt the end of their tournament.
It was do-or-die for Denmark in their final Euro 2020 group match against Russia, and ‘do’ they did. Twenty-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard opened the scoring with a superb strike that ended up being just the second-best in the match. After being gifted the ball by Roman Zobnin, Poulsen scored Denmark’s second goal of the match and his second of the tournament. Artem Dzyuba’s penalty momentarily dampened the mood, but this was Denmark’s night. Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen hammered in from outside the penalty area in the 79th minute to make it 3-1 and Joakim Maehle cemented a historic win when he made it 4-1 shortly afterwards. Denmark advanced as the group runner-up with just three points.
The Danes were, if possible, even better in the round of 16 against Wales, and it was there their eventual top goalscorer made his mark. Kasper Dolberg gave Denmark the lead with an excellent finish and doubled it early in the second half. Maehle added a third as the match was nearing its end and Martin Braithwaite finally scored with the last kick of the game. A great Czech side awaited Denmark in the quarter-finals. Another player stepped up this time, or rather jumped. Thomas Delaney’s header made it 1-0 in the fifth minute and Dolberg scored his third of the tournament after a stunning Quaresma-esque pass from Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Patrik Schick gave the Czech Republic a consolation goal. but Denmark reached the semi-finals.