Back to the Future: Euro 2020

Back to the Future: Euro 2020

July 2021 | Sport

Euro 2020 was a triumph for English football despite a disappointing finale. It promises a bright future. The consequences may not be so glorious.

For a few glorious days, the English public genuinely believed that football truly was coming home. A convincing victory against Germany persuaded people that England had both the talent and strength to go all the way. England put together a series of relatively strong performances following a series of disjointed group stage outings, marred by a distinct lack of attacking threat. Denmark troubled them briefly in the semi-final, but not enough to pull off a fairy tale victory.

Italy were always the favourites, from the moment they kicked off Euro 2020 in Rome until that last missed penalty in London. As other pre-tournament favourites fell by the wayside, there was an air of inevitability about the eventual Italian triumph. France had the strongest squad but were beset by injuries and divisions. They lacked the unity that the 4 semi-finalists possessed. Belgium and Portugal also fell early in the knock-out stages to superior opposition.


England had an easier run to the final than Italy. Germany are a team in transition, overly reliant on their wing-backs for attacking threat. They will be much stronger at next year's world cup. Ukraine are a good team but were lucky to get to the quarter finals. Denmark outplayed England for 30 minutes on either side of half-time until substitutions killed their attacking threat. None of these teams were better than the Belgium or Spain teams that Italy had to face.

So it proved in the final. England came out stronger. Their aggressive press caused serious problems for the Italians in the early stages, but eventually the Azzurri were able to assert themselves as England dropped back to defend their early lead. After the first 30 minutes, there was only ever going to be one winner. Donnarumma's record against penalties saw to that. Southgate made mistakes in the final, but they didn't prove to be decisive. Italy were simply the better team.

There is no shame in reaching the final and losing to better opposition. The team went one stage further than the 2018 World Cup, beating teams that they wouldn't have been capable of beating three years ago. It was clear that England were not among the four best teams at the last world cup, as results against Belgium proved. It can definitely be argued that they were among the best four teams at the Euros. Statistically, they had the best defence in the tournament. It was the attack that struggled. Creating fewer chances than other leading nations, although they had a significantly better record in finishing those chances than their main opposition.


Furthermore, this is a team that can expect to be better at next year's world cup. Their squad was the second youngest at the tournament, just as it was in Russia. Meanwhile, England's rivals all have key players that may not even make Qatar, let alone the next Euros. Italy and Belgium both have centre back partnerships well over 30. For Spain, it's their full backs. For France and Portugal, it's their attacking players.

England have no such concerns. They only had 3 players over 30, and two of those were right backs, a position in which England are blessed with extraordinary depth. Kyle Walker's recovery pace proved crucial in the semi-final against Denmark. While Kieran Trippier added an extra attacking dimension when deployed as a right wing back. However, neither would be considered to be the best Englishmen in their position.


Off the pitch is a different story. There is plenty of shame in the events surrounding the final, both from the hooliganism at the stadium to the racist abuse suffered by the three England players who missed penalties. These hark back to darker days of English football that many thought were in the past. As a result, the proposed 2030 World Cup bid looks in serious trouble.

Perhaps the most depressing event of the tournament was Bukayo Saka's comment yesterday that he expected to be racially abused following his penalty miss. Not all the abuse is coming from within the UK, but plenty is. The failure of Instagram to initially deal with the problem was equally predictable. Stronger legal protections against online abuse will be the result of that particular travesty. In the meantime, a steady stream of real world consequences is emerging for the abusers that have been unmasked. Let's hope they uncover all the perpetrators.