Did the best team win Euro 2020?
Gab Marcotti: Over the course of the tournament, based on what we saw on the pitch, yes. It doesn’t always happen that way — which is why we shouldn’t draw grand conclusions from a knockout tournament — but it doesn’t change the fact that, apart from the semifinal against Spain, Italy outplayed the opposition in every game. They’ve also been a tremendous story given the 180 degree turn in approach and the fact that, fundamentally, this is not a super-gifted side. They are a side with the courage to try and do what’s difficult… And, often, believing is half the battle.
Mark Ogden: Agreed, from start to finish, Italy were the team that showcased attacking strength and defensive quality in equal measure. Roberto Mancini’s team lacks the flair or superstar player of a truly great side, but they were tactically astute, organised, determined and, most importantly, experienced enough to know how to win. England had their best major tournament for 55 years, but they only truly performed in the 4-0 quarterfinal win against Ukraine. Once the dust settles and emotion fades, people will realise that they played within themselves in the other games.
Julien Laurens: Yes. There’s a case to be made for Spain playing the best football as they came so close to beating Italy in the semifinals, but overall Mancini’s team deserves their title because they were the best. They beat Belgium, the No. 1 ranked team in the world, they beat Spain and they beat England at Wembley. They played attacking football, with flair, energy and a clear identity. They also defended well with veterans Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini reminding everyone why Italy has always been a country of great defenders. The team also showed character and courage throughout the tournament.
Rob Dawson: Yes. Mancini has transformed Italy from a side which didn’t even make it to the last World Cup to European champions. They came into Euro 2020 on an impressive winning run and rode the wave all the way through the tournament. They defended well while also playing some thrilling attacking football. They coped with big injuries while also beating the best — Belgium, Spain and England in the knockout rounds. Lifting the trophy was well deserved.
Tom Hamilton: Absolutely. Italy’s 34-match unbeaten run is remarkable and Mancini judged his selection and tactics perfectly. They were fantastic throughout and were the better team in the final.
James Olley: It is hard to argue with much of the above. I’d venture Italy were fortunate to beat Austria in the round of 16 and Spain were the better team in their semifinal, but few teams dominate every game in a tournament format. Italy ultimately had a better combination of streetsmarts and intelligence in possession. England ran them close but the second-youngest squad at these finals lacked composure when 1-0 ahead in the final.
Craig Burley breaks down Gareth Southgate’s decision making during England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 final.
What is your biggest ‘what if’ from the tournament?
Laurens: What if Euro 2020 had actually taken place in 2020? It would have been so different. It might have been too early for Italy to win. Belgium would have had a fully fit Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel and maybe even Eden Hazard from the start. Germany would have been in even more turmoil. We would have seen more of the 2018 World Cup winning France team than the one that turned up in 2021. We would also not have seen players like Karim Benzema, Pedri, Kalvin Phillips, Luke Shaw or even Aymeric Laporte. On the other hand, Virgil van Dijk would have been there like Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ansu Fati and Sergio Ramos.
Ogden: What if Gareth Southgate was more like Pep Guardiola than Jose Mourinho? England’s attacking talent was under-employed throughout the tournament, with Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish all given fleeting opportunities to make a difference. It was as though Southgate didn’t trust his flair players, preferring to play it safe rather than push for a win. Had he used Sancho and Rashford 10 minutes earlier in the final against Italy, their pace could have triggered a breakthrough. But instead, he kept the handbrake on and settled for penalties. And lost.
Olley: It is hard not to think about what if England had won… given the 55-year wait. No more years of hurt. A complete shift in the nation’s sporting psyche. Arise, Sir Gareth (although that might still happen anyway). Mark has a point that Southgate’s caution made England more conservative but that was founded in a belief that England still don’t keep the ball well enough under the highest pressure. The final proved that is still the case so what if England had a Modric, a Frenkie de Jong or a Marco Verratti in midfield? It is the one type of player the country still struggles to develop. Perhaps 17-year-old Jude Bellingham will be the answer in time.
Hamilton: It has to be around those late substitutions for England in the final. What if Southgate had brought on Rashford and Sancho a little earlier, so they could have played their way in before having to take a penalty? Southgate judged the tournament brilliantly, but was reluctant to make those attacking substitutions earlier in the match. Who knows if it would have made any difference, but that’ll be a lingering question.
Dawson: What if France hadn’t bottled their round-of-16 game to lose to Switzerland? Talent-wise, they had the best squad at Euro 2020 and showed in flashes what they were capable of. After recovering from a horrible first 45 minutes against the Swiss, they were cruising at 3-1 with 10 minutes to go. Then disaster and, ultimately, an exit on penalties. After qualifying for the knockout rounds as winners from the toughest group, they should have got a lot further than the round 16. Their exit opened up the whole tournament.
Marcotti: Considering Denmark reached the semifinals and were only beaten in extra time by England’s dubious penalty, I can’t help but wonder: “What if Christian Eriksen hadn’t been unwell?” Yeah, I know it’s obviously far more important that he is still with us and I’m sure some will argue that the horror he went through inspired them… but from a purely footballing perspective it’s one that hangs in the air.
Who was the tournament’s best player?
Marcotti: Hugely torn here. Feel like I should be choosing one of the Italy guys, but this was such a team performance, such a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, that I really struggle to pick one single player out. Gianluigi Donnarumma, after what he’s been through at club level and leaving AC Milan on a free for PSG this summer, making all those saves, in games and penalties. Chiellini’s smiles, leadership and experience. Bonucci’s passing, grit and the way he got better as the tournament went on (and the way he shouted “It’s going to Rome” into the cameras. Left-back Leonardo Spinazzola, arguably Italy’s best player through the quarterfinals before his injury. Jorginho, positively metronomic and ice-cool in midfield, despite all the haters. Federico Chiesa for his scything runs and big finishes. I’ll stop now because I kind of feel like mentioning all of them.
Olley: I’m torn like Gab but I’m tempted to go with Donnarumma. I had Raheem Sterling earmarked for this before the final but after an excellent tournament, Sunday was probably his worst game. That was in part due to Bonucci and Chiellini doing what they do, but Donnarumma is such a colossus behind them. Spinazzola would have had a shout had injury not robbed him of a chance to carry on his excellent form, while Pedri looks a hugely exciting prospect for Spain.
Laurens: At 34 years old, it has been a fantastic tournament for Bonucci. He was clutch with the equalising goal that kept Italy in the final against England, while he also scored his penalty in both shootouts in the final and semis. The defender was a wonderful leader alongside Chiellini for an inexperienced Italy side and was Mancini’s relay on the pitch. Italy defended so well against Belgium or Spain, mostly thanks to him and would not have won Euro 2020 without him.
Ogden: I’m with Gab and Juls here in that this has been a tournament defined by defensive players. That’s pretty unusual in the modern game, where so much focus is placed on the goal scorers and creative stars. Bonucci and Chiellini have reminded us all of the art of great defending, while Luke Shaw has been a revelation at left-back for England. Simon Kjaer‘s leadership and toughness at the back for Denmark stood out and Spain suddenly became a better team once Sergio Busquets returned to the midfield. For England, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were also outstanding and Sterling had a great tournament up until the final, while Italy’s Chiesa got better with each game. And a shout out to Goran Pandev who, at 37, made the most of every minute of the tournament with North Macedonia.
Hamilton: Pedri was an absolute joy for Spain, as were Sterling, Shaw, Rice and Phillips for England. But it has to be one of the winners and (as Gab has done) you can include most of them, but Spinazzola, Donnarumma and Chielllini were consistently outstanding.
Dawson: I’d say Shaw. Solid and versatile defensively, while also becoming one of England’s key attacking threats, the left-back has endured criticism before but his goal in the final was stunning.
What was the best goal?
Hamilton: Patrik Schick‘s goal from 54 yards for Czech Republic against Scotland — the longest goal at a Euros or World Cup since 1980 — was remarkable, but I loved Karim Benzema’s first for France against Spain in the round of 16. The way he controlled the ball and then snuck it past goalkeeper Unai Simon was Dennis Bergkamp-esque.
Marcotti: I have to go with Schick, just because it bordered on the surreal and we’ll see it in goal highlights for years to come. Shout out to France’s Paul Pogba too for his effort against Switzerland; we’ve seen him do it before and we’ll see him do it again, but that celebration, that sense of drama, makes it stand out to me.
Dawson: Yup, it was Schick: vision, invention and skill all wrapped into one goal.
Olley: I tend to prefer team goals but I don’t think you can look past Schick. It is one thing to try scoring from there but the technique was stunning. It wasn’t floated goalwards, but bent with a remarkable curve you only truly appreciate when seeing the angle from behind David Marshall’s goal.
Laurens: Schick’s wonderful strike is right up there because it was a piece of genius inspiration. Not far below though is Luka Modric‘s fantastic shot with the outside of his right foot against Scotland. A mention as well for Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne vs. Belgium and Pogba vs. Switzerland. And because we are purists at ESPN, we also need to give some love to beautiful assists: De Bruyne’s for Belgium against Denmark, Joakim Maehle‘s for Denmark against Czech Republic, Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko against Sweden, or Pogba’s and Harry Kane‘s second assists against Germany and Denmark.
Ogden: I was at Hampden Park for Modric’s stunning goal and it was a real “out of your seat” moment, but nothing tops Cristiano Ronaldo‘s goal in Portugal‘s 4-2 defeat against Germany. At 36 years old, with almost 20 years of elite football in his legs, he was still able to head away a Germany corner and sprint 90 yards to score a breakaway goal 14.2 seconds after making his clearance. If any goal could sum up Ronaldo’s determination and hunger, it was that one. And he eventually finished as the tournament’s Golden Boot winner.
Derek Rae explains that Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest and collapse during Denmark’s game against Finland was his hardest challenge in broadcasting.
What was the most memorable moment?
Marcotti: There’s one that overshadows everything, because it goes beyond sport: seeing the photo of Eriksen on the stretcher after his collapse, with his hand up by his head. That told you that he was still with us in that moment. Until that point, all we could do is pray. For me, personally, it was seeing the head of Italy’s team delegation, Gianluca Vialli, standing quietly by himself in the middle of the pitch for a minute before the final kicked off, soaking it all in. After what he’s been through in a battle with pancreatic cancer, simply being able to personally witness that at Wembley was huge.
Ogden: Sorry to put a dampener on what ended up being a great tournament, but the prematch scenes at Wembley on Sunday will stain the memory of Euro 2020. It was English football at its worst and a reminder that, no matter what progress is made on the pitch by the team, the same mindless idiots who have embarrassed England at World Cups and Euros for decades continue to behave and act like an unwanted guest at a party. The fan disorder and violence played out on TV screens across the globe and will probably kill any hopes of a joint British and Irish bid to host the 2030 World Cup. Why would any nation vote to host it in a country where fans are able to storm the gates to the stadium hours before a major final?
Olley: Mark is right in that there will be recriminations for those unedifying scenes at Wembley. An idiot minority — but one perhaps bigger than many would care to admit — sought to undermine what had hitherto been a country binding together for a after widening divisions of the past few years. As the damaged barriers and turnstiles are repaired, the broken glass cleared away, it is sad to feel some of that progress has been undone. Away from all that, Denmark players applauding England taking a knee was a heartwarming moment and I can only echo Gab’s words on Eriksen.
Laurens: The shock and sadness on the day of Eriksen’s collapse will stay with us forever, but to see Denmark thrashing Russia 4-1 a few days later to go through to the round of 16 was incredible. Bukayo Saka‘s tears in the final after missing the last penalty for England will never be forgotten. Spain vs. Italy in the semifinals was the game of the tournament. And last but not least, Adrien Rabiot‘s mother telling Kylian Mbappe‘s father to sort his son out because he was too arrogant after his penalty miss for France against Switzerland was something else.
Dawson: Switzerland’s comeback against France. Football is at its best when it’s inexplicable and that was right up there.
Hamilton: Denmark’s 4-1 win over Russia was an incredible match and, after everything they’d been through, this was a moment of heart-warming unity. The atmosphere before Scotland vs. Czech Republic with the “Yes sir, I can Boogie!” was also amazing. There were only 9,000 or so fans in Hampden Park but they made some serious noise.
When I look back at Euro 2020, I will think about…
Laurens: Italy’s resurrection; England’s curse; Pedri’s talent; Benzema’s comeback; Germany coach Joachim Low’s demise; Denmark’s run to the semifinals; France’s arrogance; Frank de Boer’s failure for Netherlands; the unfair format; the COVID-19 restrictions; Schick’s goal; Bonucci/Chiellini’s defending; goalkeeper Martin Dubravka‘s own goal for Slovakia against Spain; and Rabiot’s mother of course.
Ogden: Chiellini’s smile and obvious delight at captaining Italy to glory; the joy of noisy stadiums again in the wake of the pandemic; the penalty misses (Gareth Bale, Alvaro Morata, Saka, Sancho, Rashford); the lack of a central hub and atmosphere that comes with one host nation; the masses of Scotland fans in London ahead of the group game against England at Wembley. And the final airing of “Football’s Coming Home” from the Euro ’96 anthem “Three Lions” — surely, it has to be retired now?! Everyone is using it to mock England [see Bonucci’s “It’s coming to Rome” celebration], so let’s put that one back in the box and look to the future instead.
Olley: The noise. It has been so long without crowds but regardless of the pandemic, I’ve never heard Wembley louder than in those games against Germany, Denmark and Italy. The Germany game felt like a real breakthrough for England, finally beating an elite nation — albeit not the strongest incarnation — in a tournament knockout game. And although I’m sure this won’t win me any popularity contests, I actually quite liked U2’s official song.
Hamilton: The strength and unity of the Denmark team. The way they rallied around Eriksen when he lay receiving treatment on the Copenhagen pitch, and then played on to a 1-0 defeat against Finland was incredible. Their run to the semifinals was deserved, so you have to give credit and admiration to that wonderful group of players and their brilliant manager Kasper Hjulmand.
Dawson: England. Winning a major tournament has seemed so far away for so many years but Southgate and his players have given supporters hope that it is possible. It may turn out that Euro 2020 was their best chance but, for now, the build up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be filled with optimism. Southgate deserves great credit for what he’s been able to achieve, even if he came up just short this time.
Marcotti: Apart from the incidents, goals and moments, I’ll think about how hopefully this signals football’s (and the world’s) gradual movement back to normality. And how this tournament unfolded with relatively little acrimony and controversy, with a winning side that took the game to the opposition and believed. It felt right that positivity should be rewarded.
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