The other day Roger Federer did his one last dance on the clay of Roland Garros. Hobbling, thanks to a bad knee, he danced Zorba-like – as if no one was watching. And no one was watching. The famed tennis stadium of Paris was empty, courtesy pandemic-driven night curfew rules in France.
Europe wants to ensure football doesn’t suffer what Federer did. The one-year-late Euro, starting today, will have spectators. It will also be spread out over 11 countries, played out over a month, with 24 teams and 51 matches – and so many Covid-appropriate protocols for spectators and press that it may be easier to remember how many successful passes Cristiano Ronaldo makes in every match Portugal plays.
Organisers Uefa are aware of risks – the virus is still circulating in the continent – but they also wanted to emphasise that normalcy in some shape or form is coming back via the European showpiece of the world’s most popular sport. Certainly, Euro’s prep has been more methodical than big sporting events organised outside the first world.
Consider the chaos that was Copa America. The world gasped when Covid-battered Brazil stepped forward to host it – no other Latin American country seemed willing. Brazil’s national team players have agreed to play but not before expressing their disinclination.
And earlier this year, India’s cricket bosses arrogantly overplayed their hand, hosting the IPL in the country when most franchises preferred a venue elsewhere. IPL coincided with India’s horrific second Covid wave, which inevitably halted the tournament. India is to host the World T20 Cup in October. But before that the interrupted IPL must be played out. This time on foreign soil – the UAE.
And even rich Japan seems to be struggling with the Olympics. Euro, in contrast, so far seems well-organised. The resumption of elite European leagues over the past two seasons was sort of a trial run to the main event.
The larger idea here is that the first world remains the centre of global football, and that the divide between Europe and most of the rest of the football-mad world will grow as things become normal.
The other interesting insight from this Euro edition is how Covid has decided which country will host what. The UK’s much-lauded quick vaccine rollout ensured that London was given a big share of the matches.
Federalism is at play here. In the pan-European format, local guidelines will determine travel restrictions, fan-gathering norms and stadium attendances.
Economics is at play here, too. The Euro is today globally the second most-watched football tournament after the World Cup. The 2016 final, won by Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal, was watched by an audience of 600 million worldwide, as per a report by Sportcal, a sports business website. According to a Forbes 2019 report, Euro 2020 was projected to earn €2.5 billion in revenue. That estimate was pre-pandemic, but analysts reckon Uefa will suffer only a small dent in earnings.
And that’s because the quality of football is usually top-notch. Former Les Bleus maestro Zinedine Zidane, who reached his high noon as a footballer during the 2000 Euro event, has rated the Euro as the sternest test for a footballer. Often overshadowed in the 1980s by the more glamorous annual European Cup (today’s Champions League), European championships were typically keen but little-noticed affairs with old suspects, West Germany, Italy, France, Belgium and Czechoslovakia, fighting for regional supremacy every four years.
India probably discovered Euro via Dutchman Marco van Basten’s memorable zero-angle goal against USSR in 1988. Today, three decades later, a highly informed and aspirational Indian audience consumes European football on a daily basis.
Today onwards there should be a month of good football – that’s something to look forward to in these times.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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