Michael Pavitt

Spare a thought for Switzerland.

Having been drawn as A4 in the UEFA Euro 2020 draw yesterday, the Swiss team and fans know they will have one of the largest journeys at next summer’s European Championships. Even if they are eliminated after just three games.

Switzerland will feature in the second match of the competition when they face Wales in Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku. Four days later they will find themselves in Rome’s Stadio Olympico to play Italy, before shooting back to Baku for their final Group A contest against Turkey.

Sound bizarre. Well, it is.

The decision by UEFA, announcing by its then President Michel Platini, to hold a pan-European edition of the tournament to celebrate its 60th anniversary sounded a strange idea at the time with 12 cities hosting matches.

Now the well-received UEFA Nations League and the traditional qualifying campaign have concluded - well almost - the reality appears to be dawning on what an ill-conceived idea it really was.

There are sporting and environmental reasons why this should be a one-off, - before we even consider the lack of thought given to football fans.

On the sporting side, it is hard to look beyond Switzerland as a starting point.

Of the four teams featuring in Group A of the tournament, the Swiss, Wales and Turkey will drag themselves to Baku for two matches. The latter two will have the benefit of having back-to-back matches in the city, so should at least be able to unpack their suitcases.

Italy, meanwhile, will play all threer of their Group A fixtures in front of their home crowd in Rome. The group favourites will undoubtably base themselves in the comforts of home and can have their feet up for an extra day ahead of taking on Switzerland in their second group contest.

Honestly, where do Switzerland base themselves? And how much actual training will they be able to do to prepare for matches?

Switzerland will twice travel to Baku during the group stage ©Getty Images
Switzerland will twice travel to Baku during the group stage ©Getty Images

It is clear the Italian team have major advantage over their group rivals heading into the tournament, but they are not the only ones.

The Netherlands, England and Spain would all consider themselves favourites to top their respective groups and each will play all three opening fixtures at home. Sure, teams benefit from home advantage regularly as an advantage of putting themselves forward as a host, but normally there are not multiple favourites hosting multiple matches.

There is a real danger many of the favourites may thrive with the added boost and ease through against travel weary and - on paper - weaker opponents.

It is not the first time a European continental event has attempted this kind of project, with the group phase of EuroBasket shared out among cities in different countries in 2015 and 2017.

The key difference is that the host cities have remained the same for each group, making the format fair for each competing nation. After the group stage, the tournament has also concentrated in a smaller area, rather than continuing a tour of Europe.

Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne gave a typical forthright assessment of the Euro 2020 format last month.

"It is a shame, a scandal, honestly," he told HLN Sport. "This feels like competition distortion, a fake competition. Football is not really football any more, it’s becoming a business."

His comments came ahead of the group stage draw when two of Belgium’s opponents were already known, owing to host city pairings and Ukraine being unable to be placed into a group with Russia.

De Bruyne may have tempered his view slightly given that Belgium were able to avoid a dreaded scenario of being drawn with world champions France and defending European champions Portugal.

Despite winning their qualifying group France somehow ended up in the pot with the second seeded teams, while Portugal were third. Thankfully, both managed to end up drawn with real tournament lightweights in… er… Germany.

Portugal, France and Germany were all drawn in the same group ©Getty Images
Portugal, France and Germany were all drawn in the same group ©Getty Images

Thankfully the blockbuster group has one of the more sane gaps between destinations, but there is a risk the tournament could lose a major name due to the convoluted draw.

England are one of the teams that would have the least distance to travel during the competition, as each of their three group fixtures and potential semi-final and final matches scheduled to be held at Wembley Stadium in London.

Even so, there is the possibility of English fans racking up their air miles during the last-16 phase of the competition.

The knockout phase could quite easily be one of those Choose Your Own Adventure kids books. "Top of Group F, you are in Bucharest".

A third-place finish in Group D could feasible put England on a path to the semi-finals via last eight match in Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku. The choice of venue was much derided by fans of both Arsenal and Chelsea when it held this year’s all-London Europa League final, with fans either opting not to travel or taking long and expensive routes there and back.

The outcome was a strange atmosphere for what would normally have been the key event in both team’s seasons.

The atmosphere is one of the aspects which could easily suffer with the tournament spread around the continent. One of the successes of major tournaments has often been the mingling of different fan groups, particularly those who are enjoying a rare experience of the tournament.

Fans of Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales were among those to distinguish themselves and add flavour to the 2016 tournament held in France, with their team’s performances also helping to dispel initial fears an expansion from 16 to 24 teams would dilute the quality of the event.

A brief look at social media last night showed many Welsh fans prepared to flock to Rome for their clash with Italy, but were prepared to give Baku a miss. UEFA have been fortunate Turkey have ended up having two matches in Baku, as they are likely to take on the status as Azerbaijan’s adopted team given their close relationship, which may prevent matches there having a near friendly feel.

The difficulty for fans is determining their potential path, as their venue for the last 16 and quarter-finals will be dependent on their nation’s performance in the group stage.

I imagine few fans will be willing to take the gamble and book flights to Bucharest, owing to the fact their team may instead end up playing a last-16 tie in Glasgow. Airlines are not known for their generosity to football fans at the best of times, so you cannot imagine their will make an exception during next year’s tournament.

Fans are facing long journeys to follow their team's matches at the tournament ©Getty Images
Fans are facing long journeys to follow their team's matches at the tournament ©Getty Images

It also seems fitting the tournament draw took place in the same week the Council of Europe declared a "climate emergency", with calls to "reduce emissions from international shipping and aviation".

How better to mark that occasion than by forcing fans and teams across Europe, rather than a single central location.

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin, who has the unenviable job of having to continue to promote the tournament as a celebration event and face the consequences of Platini’s decision, announced back in September the organisation would seek to offset the carbon emissions caused by the tournament.

This is expected to be achieved with the planting of 50,000 trees in each of the 12 host countries, along with investing in "gold standard renewable energy projects".

"UEFA EURO 2020 is a celebration of European football that will happen right across the continent," Čeferin said.

"The nature of the tournament means there are many benefits over a traditional one. In addition to being able to take the matches to more diverse communities across Europe, there is no need either to build a host of new stadia or the transport links that they need, which carry a huge environmental cost in concrete and other resources.

"But it also has a cost - with increased travel for fans to watch their teams play. UEFA takes its responsibilities on this seriously and it is right that we offset the carbon emissions that causes.

"Working with South Pole will help to build gold standard renewable energy projects, which will be of lasting value to the planet."

The project is a good one, even though this likely to have come out of necessity to quell the response to the volume of travel caused by the format of next year’s event.

A better idea though. 

Make sure this is the only time the European Championships is held with such a structure.