With the group stage completed, the much-awaited Euro 2020 has lived up to its billing so far; offering undiluted excitement and rambunctious entertainment for spectators within Europe and beyond. Even operators of soccer viewing centres in developing countries like Nigeria are smiling to the bank as each match draws a full house. The soccer event kicked off on 11 June 2021 after a brief but colourful opening ceremony in Stadio Olimpico, Rome, with two teams from Group A, Italy and Turkey locking horns to set the ball rolling.
The zest and fervor with which the Italian players sang their national anthem that night in Rome exemplified the passion and excitement that this level of competition brings; an opportunity to represent your country at the highest sporting level. That encounter; attended by 12,916 spectators was one-sided as the Azurri swept aside their Turkish opponents in sublime fashion; defeating them with 3 goals to nil. That performance laid down a marker for the Italian side; as they proved their superior firepower in later beating Switzerland and Wales too; while keeping three clean sheets to end group A with a perfect 9 points; establishing themselves as a formidable force heading into the knockout stage.
The most significant event of the competition happened on June 12, a day after commencement; in the Scandinavian derby between Denmark and Finland; a game that was overshadowed by the sudden collapse of Danish star, Christian Eriksen due to cardiac arrest as the game approached half-time. Medics rushed to attend to the motionless midfielder; with the whole stadium horror-stricken at the scenes unfolding.
Shielded from the prying lenses of the camera by his teammates; Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was administered on-pitch for the player and he was eventually carried off the pitch accompanied by all the players; the game abruptly ended; with the events sending shockwaves to the entire soccer world, triggering messages of goodwill from all. The Danes and Finns in the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen; exemplifying the spirit of togetherness and unity that football portrays; did not leave the stadium but stood together; arms on necks and heartily sang Christian Eriksen’s name as everyone was earnestly hoping for good news from the medics.
Later that evening; everyone heaved a sigh of relief as news came in from the Danish Football Association that Christian Eriksen is awake and his condition has been stabilised. Motivated by the good news, the game resumed after 3 hours of pause and it ended up with Finland; making their first appearance at a major competition snatching a stunning 1-0 win.
The Danes equally lost their second group game against world-beaters Belgium; a game that saw both teams stop play in the 10th minute to honour the recuperating Christian Eriksen; but Denmark still managed to make history as the first team in the annals of the European Championships to end up in the second position from a group despite losing their first two games. The Danes ripped apart an underwhelming Russia 4-1 on in their third and last group game to claim an almost impossible second spot and qualification for the next phase. The scenes were joyous in Copenhagen; the venue of the match and the whole nation basked in the boundless euphoria that night.
England; coming into the competition as favourites; started the group stage with a scrappy 1-0 win over Croatia in the first game followed with a disappointing goalless draw with neighbours Scotland in the second game before earning another gritty victory over Czech in their last group game to end up top of Group D. They topped the group but created the fewest chances (17) of any team in their group. Performance has to improve if they are to navigate the stormy waters of the knockout phase against more illustrious opponents.
Czech Republic; buoyed by star striker Patrik Schick who scored a super strike from more than 40 yards out; a major contender for goal of the tournament in their mesmerizing 2-0 defeat of the Scots in Glasgow; finished 3rd in the group but surge on to the knockout phase as one of the best 3rd placed teams.
Croatia put their disappointing start behind them to put in a fine display in their last group game to beat Scotland and finish 2nd behind England, the 2018 World Cup finalists are finely placed as a formidable opponent heading into the knock-out phase. Scotland on the other hand; making their first appearance in a major competition in 23 years, were impressive in their clash against neighbouring England, and put in an inspired display against the Croats too but eventually crashed out after finishing bottom in their group; prolonging their wait to make it beyond the first phase of any major competition.
The Belgians and the Netherlands; have been majestic in performance so far; joining Italy to win their 3 group games and the only teams to end up top of their groups with a perfect 9 points. They are playing with flair and elegant self-confidence that got most spectators watching with keen admiration. Wales got their compatriots dreaming of another 2016 run performance when they defied all odds and reached the semis with another modest outing here so far with a second-place finish behind Italy to join them in the knock-out phase.
Minnows North Macedonia; making their debut in international competition was swiftly eliminated from the competition after losing their 3 group games; likewise, Turkey; who will be disappointed with their dismal performance in all the three group games that they lost. They both end up as the only teams with zero points.
Russia will be highly distraught at missing out on participating in the next phase due to goal difference, the Scots too will have hoped their solid performances would have yielded better results instead of an early exit. Poland crashed out after failing to win any game, Hungary will exit the showpiece with heads held high; having gone toe-to-toe with France and Germany, two of the tournament’s favorite, and gotten a draw from each; but it, unfortunately, proved insufficient to push them through to the next stage. Finland and Slovakia joined the contingent of teams crashing out at the first hurdle.
Spain overcame a shaky start to scale through to the next round in majestic fashion; registering the competition group stage’s biggest win margin of 5-0 in their final group game against Slovakia. La Roja set a tournament record with 419 passes in the first half of their opening match against Sweden, but Luis Enrique’s side fails to make dominance count as they were held to a frustrating goalless draw in the opener followed by another bland draw against Poland. Sweden joins them in qualifying from Group E as leaders after frustrating Spain in their first game and nicking a precious win against Slovakia in the second game while also triumphant over Poland in their final group encounter
In the scary Group F dubbed the group of death, defending champions Portugal; busted into life in the last 7 minutes of their first group game against Hungary in front of 55,662 raucous spectators at the Puskas Arena in Budapest; the largest attendance at any major sports event since March 2020. The Selecao got three goals in that encounter to break the hearts of the spirited Hungarians who have repelled them for more than 80 minutes. Portuguese superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo; got two goals as Portugal cruised to a 3-0 victory. Ronaldo was involved in a dramatic pre-match press conference episode with one of the tournament’s sponsors Coca-Cola before that game, at the conference; sitting in front of Coca-Cola bottles to take questions from journalists; the star pushed the Coca-Cola bottles aside in disgust and replaced them with bottles of water. France midfielder, Paul Pogba made a similar move in the press conference before their opening encounter against Germany. Pogba set aside the bottles of Heineken; another sponsor of Euro 2020 set before him in the conference room.
The Germans; having lost their first game to world champions France in Munich, bounced back emphatically to defeat Portugal 4-2 in the second game; a game where Portugalmade unwanted history as the first country to concede two own-goals in a single game in the European Championships. The ongoing Euro 2020; heading into the Round of 16 stages has already produced a record eight own-goals; more than the total own-goals recorded in the previous 5 editions of the tournament combined.
The French team started with a precious win over Germany; and despite being held to a stalemate by Hungary and Portugal in their other 2 group games, they progress to the knock out stage as winners of the dreaded Group F, they are joined by Germany who occupied 2nd place and defending champions Portugal who progressed as one of the best 3rd ranked team.
The neck-to-neck race for the top 4 positions among the six 3rd-ranked teams was keenly contested; with Portugal, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Ukraine eventually joining the 12 automatic qualifiers occupying first and second-placed teams in the Round of 16.
The top scorer so far has been Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, who leads the way with 5 goals. The prolific hitman broke Michel Platini’s record as all-time top scorer in Euros history, while his goal against France on the final group game made him equal Iranian legend Ali Daei as the overall top scorer at the national team level with 109 goals; he needs just one goal to become the sole highest scorer.
There have been doubts over plans to play the semi-finals and grand finale of the showpiece in Wembley Stadium; England due to the strict quarantine policies and travel restrictions in place; and UEFA has been mulling moving the games to Budapest, Hungary where the restrictions are less severe and more flexible. But the British Government displayed renewed enthusiasm to host the games; coming forward to announce that crowd capacity will be increased from the initial 50% to 75%; meaning as many as 60,000 fans will be permitted into the stadia for the last 3 games on the provision of a negative Covid-19 test or proof of full vaccination; with two doses received 14 days before the fixtures. The final three games are scheduled for July 6,7 and 11.
The next stage, Round of 16 which will start on Saturday, June 26 has set up mouth-watering and potential blockbuster encounters; Wales will take on Denmark, Italy; yet to concede a goal in this competition will battle Austria, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic will fight it out, high flying Belgium will lock horns with defending champions Portugal, Croatia, and Spain will slug it out, Switzerland will hope to defeat current World Champions France, England and Germany will battle it out fiercely, while Sweden versus Ukraine completes the fixture list. The winners of each of these encounters will proceed to the Quarter Finals; from where we move onto the Semi-Finals and the Grand Finale.
As the stakes are now higher; there is little margin for error and fans can be assured of more exhilarating displays of excitement and soccer intensity.