One year later than planned, UEFA’s European Championship is here, and with the cross-border tournament being played against a backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, points will be scored off as well as on the pitch.
The multi-country approach to hosting Euro 2020, as it is still branded - 12 cities in 12 countries were initially picked to stage games - meant it would look different even before the global health crisis came along. But in the months leading up to the tournament, European football’s governing body has made it clear that it would not tolerate this extending to a complete absence of spectators, as has been then case with so much football played on the continent over the past 15 months.
Whether implicit or not, it is clear that this has led to a certain level of competition among the host venues, with attendance limits set to range from 100 per cent in Budapest - which has been keen to market itself as a destination for top-level sport during the pandemic, hosting events ranging from UEFA Champions League ties with no Hungarian involvement to the ongoing World Judo Championships - to the more guarded figure of 22 per cent which is being implemented in Munich.
London’s Wembley Stadium is due to host the semi-finals and final, as well as various group-stage matches, and officials in England, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have been keen to talk up the possibility of the 25 per cent capacity limit in place for the arena’s first four matches being lifted for the tournament’s concluding three games. After the horrors of the last 15 months, a major football tournament is too appealing an opportunity for a public-relations win to turn down for many politicians.
The United Kingdom, which Johnson leads, and will also be hosting games through the Scottish Football Association at Hampden Park, has reported more COVID-19 deaths than any other European country. Yet in March, buoyed my a more efficient vaccine rollout than the rest of Europe and keen to shape this as a victory over COVID-19, Johnson boasted in a bombastic interview given to The Sun: "Any other matches they [UEFA] want hosted, we are certainly on for that!"
The notion of England staging the entire tournament, fanciful as it was, was floated by some and Johnson was only too happy to play along. The groundwork for fans in seats being the de facto measure of success - both for tournament and the specific host nation’s handling of the health crisis - was being laid. Wembley takes a round-of-16 match from Dublin? Chalk one up for the English.
Cut ahead to this week, when plans to ease restrictions across all aspects of society in England are expected to be put on hold over concerns about the spread of the so-called Delta variant of COVID-19 and rising case numbers, it is also reported that Wembley will be given special dispensation to up the capacity limit for the knockout rounds. Might be awkward to back down now, after all.
And the English attitude is far from unique. Saint Petersburg, where like Baku a 50 per cent cap will be in place from the outset of the tournament, was only too happy to take three group-stage matches Dublin gave up when the Irish Government would not guarantee fans would be able to attend. Certain officials were also happy to suggest Russia could stage the entire tournament if required - as with Johnson’s throwaway proposition, how kind and how impressive. Getting one over on the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is preventing Russia from staging - or being awarded the rights to - any "major events" until the end of 2022, of which this does not count, would of course have been coincidental.
Politicians using a sporting event for their personal gain is nothing new, be it sportswashing or for winning votes at home. What may make Euro 2020 unique though is how 11 different cities, 11 different Governments - more once you consider devolution - and 11 different national football associations are hosting the same event at the same time.
Comparisons will be easy to make, good or bad. The chances for one-upmanship will be plenty. Everyone will say health is the top priority, but when you claim that about a bloated tournament being played by exhausted players at the end of this most congested of seasons - making the players traverse Europe at a time when non-essential travel is being frowned upon to boot - it is hard to take at face value.
Using the tournament to re-shape the narrative on coronavirus will no doubt be the true priority for many, and that is done most easily through bums on seats. Something which conveniently brings in money, too.
And all of this is relevant when it comes to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Euro 2020 is the largest sporting event to take place since the onset of the pandemic, and could be viewed as a litmus test for Games organisers, who soon have a decision to make over how many - if any - domestic spectators will be allowed to attend events.
One of the reasons I have seen put forward for the Japanese Government appearing so subservient to the International Olympic Committee’s wishes for the Games to go ahead despite well-documented public opposition in the host nation is a fear of being outshone by China, with Beijing due to host the Winter Olympics fewer than six months later.
If that is the case, then they will no doubt be watching Euro 2020 with interest and know that the world will be too. It stands to reason that if fan attendance runs smoothly, pressure to allow spectators at the Olympics will grow. The sight of big crowds at sporting events carries major political capital at present, and the battle is on to be the hostess with the mostess.