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Men’s football The highs and lows of what will be Euro 2020

by Layth Yousif

EURO 2020 is finally here. The competition that was delayed by a year thanks to the Covid pandemic is now upon us. Am I looking forward to it? 
Yes and no.
Stretching from central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, the idea was to take in as much of the continent as possible in a celebration of cultures and countries. Which is great in theory. Especially if you’re a Uefa bigwig being flown first class from Russia to Romania, Azerbaijan to the Allianz Arena and everywhere in between.
The notion was Michel Platini’s brainchild. The now-disgraced administrator Platini. No wonder I prefer to recall the glorious French attacking midfielder Platini. The man who notched a record nine goals in five games during Les Bleus’ unforgettable march to the 1984 European Championship. 
The logistics of attempting to navigate Europe as a fan would have been difficult for many thousands of loyal supporters without factoring in airline companies’ rapacious algorithms. Squeezing fans’ budgets by ramping up prices for popular flights seconds after the final whistle, that could send a team 4,000 miles away on the kick of a ball, depending on group stage results. 
Thankfully, that won’t happen. Well, when I say thankfully, a pandemic disrupting a major international tournament, not to mention our lives for the last 16 months, is nothing to be grateful for. Nor is the fact that fans are being told not to travel. 
Even the Tartan Army are forbidden from congregating in Trafalgar Square, prior to the derby with England at Wembley next Friday. 
Stadiums will be less than half full, with many hard-pressed fans complaining that Uefa has cancelled their tickets — after holding onto their hard-earned cash for nearly two years. 
That would be contentious in itself, only for many to highlight their tickets are now back on sale to the corporate crowd for prices 10-times as much. And that’s without mentioning the “secondary market.” Or greedy touts as they’re normally called. 
And yet. 
Who isn’t exited about the prospect of this tournament on the pitch at least? 
The format presents a line-up arguably stronger than the World Cup. Reigning global champs France, led by the most decorated water carrier in history Didier Deschamps and now bolstered by the return of Karim Benzema, breezed Euro qualifying topping Group H with eight wins, a draw and a single defeat, with only six goals conceded.
A resurgent Italy under former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini, who haven’t lost a game since 2018, are part of the group of frontrunners that also include a storied Belgium side ranked No 1 in the Fifa rankings. 
Led by Roberto Martinez, they are masters of the 3-4-3 with an embarrassment of riches in their attacking options including Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Youri Tielemans — with even Crystal Palace journeyman Michy Batshauyi sparkling when pulling on the Red Devils shirt, notching an impressive 22 goals in only 33 appearances — even if the backline are far too old to become trophy winners. 
Don’t forget hardy perennials Germany, whose miserable form — including a 6-0 thrashing by fellow hopefuls Spain — was forgotten following their 7-1 rout of a sorry Latvia side this week. 
What of England? Tomorrow’s clash with Croatia will reveal all, after two stodgy 1-0 friendly victories over underwhelming opponents in Austria and Romania. 
Zlatko Dalic’s side that reached the 2018 World Cup final are aiming for one final hurrah with 13 of that squad still present — and could surprise Gareth Southgate’s side at the English national stadium. 
Dalic is a canny operator who favours a 4-2-3-1 formation that can easily morph into a fluid 4-3-3. Luca Modric, even at 35, is still their lynchpin in midfield, while defensive pairing Dejan Lovren and Besiktas’s Domagoj Vida still dominate the backline.
Their attacking trident of Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic that worked so well in Russia still contains two of the three, with Serie A winners Inter Milan boasting the outstanding Nikola Vlasic — who replaces the fading 33-year-old Sevilla star Rakitic — alongside club side teammate Brozovic. It promises to be an exciting tournament. On the pitch at least. 
PS: Here’s a message for those who boo the knee: Do you feel uncomfortable about people taking the knee? Good. Now stop booing and educate yourself as to why people are doing it. Because, if you boo the knee, you’re a racist. It’s as simple as that. 

And if you claim it’s about “protesting against the creep of Marxism” or any other arrant nonsense used to disguise your disgusting prejudice you’re utterly wrong. Taking the knee is about raising awareness of discrimination and trying to combat racism. If you’re against that then I don’t want you near me because you’re a racist, however you dress up your pathetic lies and arguments. 
What I’m (re)reading: Football Against The Enemy. Seeing as Euro 2020 is a continent-wide spectacle, Simon Kuper’s outstanding football travelogue from 1994 covers 22 countries to explore how our game has shaped national politics and culture. Quite simply one of the finest books ever written on sport, let alone football. 
What I’m listening to: It’s Record Store Day on Saturday, with a raft of decent rereleases whatever your tastes. In honour of RSD 2021 I’ve been listening to New Order’s 1982 John Peel sessions, which dropped last summer for RSD 2020. 
What I’m watching: England vs New Zealand. It’s been a long year for all of us and I’ll be catching up with an old pal at Edgbaston to watch the second Test as a punter for the first time in two summers. As someone who lives for live sport I simply can’t wait.


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