When Rome played host to this summer's opener of Euro 2020 between now-finalist Italy and Turkey, I'd like to think there was a sigh of relief across the footballing world. I mean, if we're being honest, exhaling has probably become a recurring theme with fans everywhere, ever since the pandemic took center stage. It's been a difficult past 14 months for everybody, soccer fan or not, and seeing a major tournament kick off inside the magnificence of Roma and Lazio's Stadio Olimpico, filled with 25% of an audience, was another moment to cautiously suggest that we are slowly but surely heading towards a sense of normality. But this isn't an article about the pandemic or football's role within it, because these themes are here regardless whether we mention them or not, perhaps for the rest of our lives.
This, in fact, is a small tribute to UEFA's Euro 2020 tournament, a competition that gave us everything. From a moment of horror that eventually transcended into inspiration, to solidarity against the backdrop of social rights, to the action on the field, which at times was breathtaking, gifting us with memories that can only be created during an international tournament. It's fair to say that not everyone appreciated the multi-venue idea, especially because of distance, travel responsibilities and certain nations benefiting from playing in front of their own fans. But I do think the concept is one worth reevaluating, maybe once normality fully returns. There is after all a beauty in seeing the cultural melting pot of Europe.
So, as Sunday approaches and we close the curtain on the European Championship, let's first reflect on a majestic month of soccer, where the old continent played host to one of the greatest tournaments the beautiful game has ever seen and some of the countries that showed up, balled out, and enthralled us all.
1. Italy impress everybody
The story begins with Italy, and how could it not. The land of Renaissance art added another one to its catalogue: Roberto Mancini, wearing Giorgio Armani and holding his jacket over his shoulder after every post-game press conference, exuded class and style. The tournament was La Dolce Vita and he played Marcello Mastroianni. His Italian side brought back the memories of past legends who also delivered resiliency and poise, but here they added some extra: a modern touch. This was now a complete package. From Giorgio Chiellini's experienced charisma to Lorenzo Insigne's mazy creativity, Italy kicked off the tournament with the only way they know how: with heart. They never looked back and now head to Wembley for a chance of one more trophy in their adorned cabinet.
2. Favorites that didn't meet expectations
The favorites impressed but ultimately, couldn't live up to expectation. But this is less a criticism of their performance and more a commendation of their opponents. France, for example, shined brightly and were full of vigor and confidence. With an embarrassment of riches, Les Bleus knew that the road right from the start would be difficult and in the end, facing a stoic Switzerland, realized that France's biggest obstacle was France itself. Not to take anything away from the mighty Swiss, as they performed heroically, but France fell apart at the hands of their own success. Talent alone will never be enough. Spain knew this better than most, and Luis Enrique - who managed this competition by simultaneously providing GQ magazine with free content - knew that his Spain was a talented side who struggled to get going, but to him, they were also a bottle of Champagne ready to pop (I wish he used a fine Txakoli wine from Spain's Basque region as an example.) Germany aimed to close a chapter of Jogi Low's tenure by giving him a proper send off, and getting out of a ridiculously difficult group is an achievement in itself, but an old foe stood in the way, one who had the support of its people. In the end, it was just too much. But brighter days are ahead for this Goliath of European football, who will surely return….and this time, something tells me they will come back with a prolific point to prove.
Belgium is a beautiful painting who knows it's about to be replaced in the museum. There is still time to showcase one more exhibit but Roberto Martinez knows that dates are running out. Still, dates are there and Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard understand what their people want: a major trophy. Don't discount them just yet.
There's no point in spending too much time on Portugal because, just like storms in tropical weather, this nation never goes away. Cristiano Ronaldo created unprecedented history by becoming the highest-ever male goal scorer in European Championship history and equaled Ali Daei's record in the all-time male international scoring charts with 109 goals. It's only a matter of time before he breaks it and because he is built like a real-life Adonis, another European championship may honestly not be out of the question. Adonis was killed by a wild boar so I don't necessarily see that in Ronaldo's future, but like the mythological Greek God and Portugal itself - I do see a return to life.
3. Denmark inspire us all
If there was a country who deserves its own accolade in this tournament, it's Denmark. The people's team. Entering the competition as a justified dark horse, where the team's first obstacle was not Finland, but the delicate realities of mortality. The french philosopher Albert Camus famously said, "there is not love of life without despair about life," and I think all of us - not just Copenhagen - will forever remember where we were on June 12, 2021.
As their leader and brother Christian Eriksen fell to the ground, so did our breath. There was silence and a collective sense of wishfulness, hoping for Christian to give us any sign that he's alright. His teammates and opponents formed a circle, to protect not just Christian, but the world from a reality that shook us all. Then - after grueling moments of waiting and hoping - the image appeared, a thumbs up, and once again, we exhaled. The moment was not over, however, and tragedy - because it plays the role of unexpected confusion - reminded us that we are after all, just human beings. For what it's worth, I think it was an abominable mistake to carry on playing the game because sadly, I know too well what your mind goes through when faced with unspeakable horror. Rationality goes out the window so the moment you are asked to make decisions that have nothing to do with your emotions, especially when you are asked to do this immediately afterwards, the decision you make will almost always never be the correct one. Nor the most important. This is why Denmark deserves so much adulation, not just because they made it all the way to the semifinal of a major tournament, but because throughout it all, they kept on facing two opponents on the pitch: the team they were playing against and their own emotional struggles. It's why to me, no matter what happens on Sunday, Denmark has already won.
4. Surprise goal scorers
There were brave performances such as the Czech Republic and of course Patrik Schick, who gifted us with one of the best goals of the last few years, never mind the tournament. He is the Golden Boot joint leader with Cristiano Ronaldo and unless Harry Kane scores a brace on Sunday, he'll share the trophy. Yes, of course I am going to mention own goals. An unbelievable statistic for you: Only 20 own goals have been scored in 16 European Championships as of this article, 11 have occurred in Euro 2020. I don't know why this has been the case but I can tell you that a long, strenuous domestic season - one that occurred during a pandemic - is surely part of the narrative. The physical demands - even for an athlete - can often be too much.
Either way, make sure you follow Mr. Own Goal and his next move this summer. I hear PSG might put in a bid.
5. Off field advocacy
We can't forget the political aspect of this tournament and the right to voice social calls for unity, representation and of course, acceptance. Whatever the motives were to deny a stadium to digitally paint itself in colors that speak to support the LGBTQ+ community, or fans booing or rallying against the rights of players - specifically black and brown players - to kneel, it's important to remember that our sport is political because life is political, we are all ingrained in the makeup of social rights, issues of race, economical and cultural issues. If our communities suffer, so does the football that lives inside of it. It's why I believe we should never hide away from this point: Soccer and politics are intertwined and the faster we accept and embrace this, the easier it will be to communicate. Don't ever forget that before kick off, first comes life.
6. England, of course, England
Finally, we end with a country so close to my heart. The land where - while growing up in Peru - I actually found out I was born in. The country that welcomed a Peruvian family in the early 90's and nurtured my upbringing and the most important years of my life. The land of my own family members and friends, one that hosts my mother as she rests in peace, and now the land that is one game away from winning yet again, another major trophy. The first since 1966. 1966. I begin this paragraph with this personal statement because I have suddenly realized just how emotional I have become watching England during this competition. Part of it is nostalgia. I grew up during Euro 96. I was a junior in high school and can fondly remember the energy of England during the tournament. This is the same. In fact, more, because this team is an inspiration. They are built out of personal struggle and have faced every type of adversity that can be thrown, most specifically from its own media and even political leaders.
Gareth Southgate, Aston Villa's former captain, suffered during Euro 96 but he has now achieved something bigger than any past memory. He is uniting the nation, not just because of the performances on the pitch, but because of the message, His England squad is made of what England should inspire to be. Diverse, heroic, accepting and empathetic, and that to me is a powerful vision.
Yes, I am rooting for England because of the personal, but make no mistake about it, I write this tribute to salute every team that took part in this competition, because in my humble opinion, they gave us a memorable tournament, one that also reminded us that this game - thanks to its global appeal and recurring moments of humanity - really is the greatest.