Euro 2020 finally kicks off, a year late and buffeted by the virus

The European football championships would have been an organisational achievement even without coronavirus.

The 24 competing national teams will for the first time criss-cross the continent to play matches in 11 stadiums from Glasgow to Baku — a change from the traditional model where one or two countries host all the games.

To complicate matters further, the pandemic forced European football’s governing body Uefa to postpone the tournament by a year, while restrictions on the number of fans in attendance has led to a downward revision of projected revenues by at least €300m, mainly due to loss of ticketing and hospitality money.

With the action finally kicking off on Friday at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, where Italy face Turkey, the virus threat will create logistical headaches for the duration of the month-long spectacle.

A worker arranges football merchandise in a shop at Wembley Stadium ahead of Euro 2020 © Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Organisers of Euro 2020 — the tournament’s name has not changed, having already been printed on millions of items of merchandise — have spent months negotiating with governments, football executives and medical officials to agree strict protocols on travel arrangements and the staging of matches.

The result has been €10m in additional costs on health and hygiene measures. Uefa expects to conduct about 24,000 Covid-19 tests during the competition, a regime that covers not only the players, but anyone who might come into close contact: referees, team officials, even coach drivers.

The priority for organisers will be to avoid an outbreak that could derail the tournament. “Players being infected, teams cannot play — that’s the worst case [scenario],” said Martin Kallen, chief executive of Uefa’s events division.

“There’s only one Ronaldo,” he added, referring to Portugal’s star player.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal’s talismanic forward Cristiano Ronaldo lines up a shot during his country’s friendly match with Spain in Madrid this month © Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images

The efforts to pull off an enormous sporting event in the midst of the pandemic will be watched closely by organisers of the Tokyo Olympics, which is set to begin just two weeks after the Euro 2020 final at London’s Wembley Stadium on July 11.

The idea of a continent-wide football competition was dreamt up by Michel Platini, a former France captain and then Uefa president. 

He pushed through the concept as a celebration of the world’s favourite game that reflected modern realities, with low-cost airlines and online booking websites making it easier for fans to attend.

The pandemic exposed the hubris behind the plans. Platini resigned in 2016 following an ethics investigation over an unrecorded payment received from Fifa, world football’s governing body. His successor, Aleksander Ceferin, held talks about moving the tournament to a single country such as Russia or England due to the pandemic.

Supporters in the Stade de France, just north of Paris
Supporters prepare for France’s friendly clash with Bulgaria in the Stade de France on Tuesday © Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

It was decided that the original plan was easier to implement rather than unpick binding commercial contracts, though Ceferin has said the experiment of holding the event across Europe is unlikely to be repeated.

As Uefa did not want matches to be staged in empty grounds, Dublin and Bilbao, two original host cities, were forced to pull out. Of those that will host matches, the Puskas Arena in Budapest will be the only one to fully open. Stadiums in St Petersburg and Baku will operate at 50 per cent capacity while some others will be a quarter full. 

Despite indications that the UK government could put back plans to lift coronavirus restrictions on June 21, Uefa is hopeful that the curbs will end in time for Wembley to host 90,000 people for the final.

Unlike the Olympics, where organisers agreed a deal with drugs company Pfizer to offer vaccinations to athletes, Uefa decided that inoculating footballers would be too difficult to administer ahead of the tournament.

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Euro 2020 finally kicks off, a year late and buffeted by the virus

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But club football competitions, such as the Champions League, were held successfully with similar protocols to those in place for Euro 2020. 

Players will need to pass a Covid-19 test on arrival at a team’s training camp, after which they enter a “bubble” cut off from the outside world. They will be tested every two to four days while being housed in hotels and areas closed off from other guests.

Food and laundry will be handled by team workers, rather than hotel staff. Stadiums will be split into different “zones”, with the aim of preventing players from coming near anyone who has not undergone a strict testing regime. 

“It’s not what you’d choose but everyone is facing those difficulties,” Gareth Southgate, England manager, said of the restrictions. “We respect that so many people in the world haven’t been able to do their jobs in the way we have.”

There is an acceptance that it may be impossible to keep the virus at bay. Sergio Busquets, captain of the Spanish team, tested positive for the virus last weekend, forcing the entire squad to self-isolate. 

People walk by a ball advertising Euro 2020 in Baku, Azerbaijan
People walk by a ball advertising Euro 2020 in Baku, Azerbaijan, which will host the Wales vs Switzerland game on Saturday © Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

If this is repeated during the tournament, Uefa will require matches to go ahead if at least 13 players from each country’s 26-man squad can play. If not, teams may be forced to draft in youth or reserve players at short notice to fulfil fixtures. Another option would be to delay matches for no longer than two days. 

There are also contingency plans to move games to other cities if a Covid-19 surge forces a country to pull out of staging them.

“The most probable scenario is that we’ll have happy fans and that we won’t have big issues with Covid,” said Daniel Koch, health adviser to the Euro 2020 organisers.

“This tournament will not change the outcome of the pandemic,” he added, but it could help “in a good way if people are happier”.

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