Sunday, July 11, 2021

EURO 2020: The 51st State

ITALY v ENGLAND - The European Championship reaches its climax tonight in London

ITALY v ENGLAND
The 51st and last match of the 16th UEFA European Championship takes place at Wembley stadium this evening at 20:00 GMT.

This has been a unique Euros for three reasons - first because the pandemic was a major player and secondly because it expanded to 24 teams and was held in 11 countries. Whoever wins will write the first sentence of the recorded version, but the Christian Eriksen incident will be as much a part of the official history as Diego Maradona's Hand of God or Luis Suarez's shoulder bite.

Denmark's emotional rollercoaster stopped just short of the final, perhaps because of England's home advantage. Wembley's capacity has surged to 60,000 maskless and socially undistanced supporters, including unquarantined UEFA and other VIPs.

This has been Euro 2021 in reality, but believing we are in 2020 for a month is par for the course for the topsy-turvy world of Covid. Reality has been blurred for a while now, England reaching a final and Italy playing attacking football is not unusual.

Michel Platini's parting gift to football might have convinced if it had not been for Covid emptying much of the arenas, quarantining infected players like Billy Gilmour and stripping Brussels and Dublin of their matches.

The 24-team competition reverts to a sole host, Germany, in 2024, with ten venues, which feels much better.

The locals in Budapest and Copenhagen enjoyed the novelty of hosting finals matches but the scheduling was heavily weighted towards England - the Three Lions played six of their seven matches at home, but Italy only three, although with their third match out of four at Wembley tonight, perhaps Italy will already be feeling somewhat a casa a Londra.

Although Wembley will be decidedly pro-England, there are plenty of expat Italians in England whose cries of Forza Azzurri! should carry to the dressing room. If the blues win, those pockets of the old country will will be all sound and light tonight, but the contrary result will spark a drunken revel to match July 30th 1966, the last time England won a tournament.

Comparisons with '66 are inevitable, but the Euros are not the World Cup and this disjointed tournament has not felt like a home one until perhaps now. The BBC, in an existential crisis, is using its exclusivity to push football to the top of its news broadcasts, above issues like Covid-19 or the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The newspapers have joined in the flag-waving and government ministers, none of whom have shown any interest in football before, are also hastily jumping on the bandwagon. 

No.10 Downing Street is festooned with cheap St George's Cross bunting and the buffoonish Prime Minister and his abrasive Home Secretary have crassly pulled on England shirts on top of their business attire for the cameras.

Boris Johnson's previous engagement with the people's game was a rugby tackle on Germany's Maurizio Gaudino in a charity match, so any sudden displays of football fandom do not wash with those with a memory.

In trying to piggyback on the team's success, the government is inevitably playing a risky game because this  team represent a different England to the isolationist and nativist one at the heart of their politics.

Manager Gareth Southgate has criticised Brexit, which took Johnson to power, Marcus Rashford forced the Tories to u-turn on plans to axe free school meals and Raheem Sterling, England's star of the tournament, has been persistently vocal on racial equality issues, highlighting how the UK press treats black players differently to white ones. In contrast, Conservative MP Lee Anderson has been proudly boycotting Euro 2020 in protest at England players taking the knee against racism before kickoff.

The two Englands might not be on a collision course until the PM invites the team to lunch post-Euros, but the contrast in what constitutes national identity is jarring. Since Russia 2018, Southgate has moonlighted as the alternate leader of the nation, a meritocratic, unifying and serious contrast to the born into wealth, divisive and flippant Johnson.

ITALY v ENGLAND

Gary Neville, the former England right-back, went as far as comparing the two on national television after the semi-final. He said Southgate was "everything a leader should be - respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine." In contrast, Neville added, "the standard of leaders in this country the past couple of years has been poor."

The team's taking the knee has been met with some booing from their own fans, probably from the same ones who boo others' national anthems, a vile tradition that has never been eradicated from England matches.

But if one can separate oneself from all the ugliness that attends the national team, it is a night of great expectations that can hopefully unify the nation as one, albeit briefly.

55 years of hurt is a long time for football's founding nation. In the same time spell, Italy have been to six finals by comparison, winning two World Cups (1982 & 2006) and one Euros (1968). Italy's record against England is the stronger too, knocking the Three Lions out of Euro '80, Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup.

Italy we should not forget is a divided nation too, with cultural chasms between regions. Yet Roberto Mancini has managed to unify 'lo stivale' (the boot) with a team plucked from all the regions and clubs big and small, which plays with positivity and joy.

The tournament began with the Azzurri riding a warm wave, easing to a 3-0 win over Turkey and showing the world how Mancini has brought about a revolution. Despite the loss of flying winger Leonardo Spinazzola, the Italians have quality in abundance throughout, although their bench has fewer offensive options than England's.

Italy naturally want to attack, a phrase one cannot imagine saying in previous tournaments, but against Spain found their plan A nullified by a possession-based opponent. England do not keep the ball quite as much as Luis Enrique's team, but like Italy, have a solid defence and a fast attack.

This meeting of giants may imply a tense and tight affair, a nervy affair as finals often are, but this has not been the zeitgeist of Euro 2020. Italy's 4-3-3 is unlikely to change with a mobile midfield of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti crossing swords with the defensive duo of Declan Rice and Calvin Phillips.

To that end Southgate may sacrifice one of his fast wing men to put an extra body in defence to stop Federico Chiesa getting a sight on goal. Expect Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini to stick to Harry Kane like glue.

England's bench looks a bit richer in options but Italy's titanic goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma could have the edge on Jordan Pickford should it go to penalties. 

Who knows? It's a very evenly matched game and anything could happen. I just hope for a good contest, not a foul-fest or a walkover. 

Should home advantage give England the edge, both sides will surely be contenders for Qatar 2022. Both Mancini and Southgate have worked wonders and the best two sides in the competition have reached the final.

Let's Go / Andiamo.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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