After a year-long delay, one of the biggest and most exciting sporting events will kick off this week in major cities across Europe.
The 2020 UEFA European Championship, colloquially known as Euro 2020, was originally slated to take place last summer, but the global pandemic forced the postponement of the quadrennial competition.
Now, the second biggest international tournament – second only to the FIFA World Cup – is back on track with 24 European national teams ready to do battle over the next month.
Here’s what you need to know…
How does the Euro 2020 tournament work?
The 24-nation field has been divided into six round-robin groups, and the first round runs from June 11 to June 23.
The top two teams in each group, plus the four-best third-place teams overall, advance to the round of 16 which begins on June 26. From there, it’s a single elimination format right up until the final on July 11.
The six groups are:
Group A: Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales
Group B: Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Russia
Group C: Austria, Netherlands, North Macedonia and Ukraine
Group D: Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland
Group E: Poland, Slovakia, Sweden and Spain
Group F: France, Germany, Hungary and Portugal
Who’s hosting the tournament?
Unlike past European Championships that had one or two nations act as hosts, Euro 2020 is a pan-European event, with matches taking place in 11 cities in 11 countries.
A pair of cities will stage games in each of the first-round groups, giving some nations home-field advantage. The host cities for the group stage are: Rome and Baku (Group A), Saint Petersburg and Copenhagen (Group B), Amsterdam and Bucharest (Group C), London and Glasgow (Group D), Seville and Saint Petersburg (Group E) and Munich and Budapest (Group E).
Round of 16 matches will be split between Amsterdam, Bucharest, Budapest, Copenhagen, Glasgow, London (two matches) and Seville. The quarterfinals will take place in Baku, Munich, Rome and Saint Petersburg. London’s Wembley Stadium will stage both semifinals and the final.
Will fans be allowed to attend matches?
Yes! Each of the 11 host cities will have fans inside their stadiums for the matches this summer.
Ten cities are shooting for anywhere from 22 to 50 per cent of stadium capacity, while Budapest is aiming to have 100 per cent capacity (with strict stadium entry requirements in place).
Those numbers might change over time, but either way, teams will be playing in front of fans at Euro 2020.
Wait a second. It’s still being called Euro 2020 even though we’re in 2021?
Last April, the Executive Committee of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, ruled that the tournament will still retain the name “UEFA Euro 2020.”
In making its decision, UEFA stated this will “serve to remember how the whole football family came together to respond to the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficult times Europe, and the world, had to go through in 2020.”
Who are some of the favourites at Euro 2020?
Reigning World Cup champions France enter Euro 2020 as the top favourite. Coach Didier Deschamps has a number of quality options at every position and Les Bleus have such great depth that they could field two teams at this tournament.
After a semifinal showing at the 2018 World Cup, England could go one better and win its first European championship this summer. Manager Gareth Southgate has a crop of attacking players that is the envy of most other teams at Euro 2020. England’s dangerous front line features Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, and the Three Lions have players the calibre of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, and Jack Grealish waiting in the wings.
Other nations to watch out for include Belgium (No. 1 in the current FIFA rankings), defending European champions Portugal, Germany (like France, they have great depth and quality) and an Italian team that is playing some dynamic soccer under manager Roberto Mancini.
Who could be a dark horse?
Don’t overlook Turkey, who conceded just three goals and finished tied with Belgium for the best defensive record during the qualifiers. They posted an impressive eight clean sheets in 10 games, including a home win over France. Şenol Güneş is an experienced manager who led Turkey to a third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup. Could he pull off another surprise this summer?
Any newcomers at Euro 2020?
Finland is appearing in its first ever major international competition – the Nordic country has never previously qualified for a World Cup or a European championship. Veteran forward Teemu Pukki scored 10 goals in the qualifiers for the Finns, who beat out Greece for second place in Group J and a tournament berth.
Another debutant is North Macedonia, who qualified for Euro 2020 via the playoffs, beating Kosovo and Georgia to book its place at a major international tournament for the first time in the nation’s history.
Is there a Group of Death?
Most of the six groups are evenly balanced and should be competitive. But Group F has to be considered the toughest group, as it features France, Germany and Portugal – these teams have combined to win the last two World Cups and Euro 2016 – and Hungary, a nation that is enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
With all of the group games taking place in Munich and Budapest, Germany and Hungary have a big advantage, but you’d be foolish to write off France – they are the defending World Cup champions, after all – and a Portugal side featuring Cristiano Ronaldo.
Who are some of the top players to watch?
France’s Kylian Mbappé was a teenager when he took the 2018 World Cup by storm, scoring four goals en route to winning the tournament’s best young player award. Now 22, the Paris Saint-Germain forward is primed to lead Les Bleus to its third European title.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo always seems to deliver for his country on the international stage. Germany’s Serge Gnabry bagged an impressive eight goals in just seven appearances during the qualifiers. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is one of the most in-form forwards in world soccer at the moment, while fellow goal-scorers Romelu Lukaku of Belgium and England’s Harry Kane are coming off strong domestic campaigns for their clubs, Inter Milan and Tottenham.
Who could be a major breakout player?
There are too many to choose from, but two players you might want to keep close tabs on are England’s Phil Foden and Italy’s Manuel Locatelli.
Only 21, Foden was a key starter for a Manchester City team that won the Premier League and reached the UEFA Champions League finals this season. Foden only has six caps and hasn’t played in a major international tournament, but he’s one of the best young attacking midfielders in the world right now.
Locatelli, 23, is a midfielder who flies under the radar because he plays for a modest side in Sassuolo rather than one of Serie A’s giant clubs such as Juventus or Inter Milan. But he’s drawn comparison to a former great Italian midfield maestro in Andrea Pirlo, as he is elegant in possession and a sublime deep-lying playmaker.
Anything else I should know?
There are a few rules changes in place for Euro 2020, some with which you’re probably already familiar.
Teams are allowed a maximum of five substitutions in matches, with a sixth allowed in extra time. However, coaches only have three windows in a game to make substitutions (with a fourth window in extra time), not including substitutions made at half-time, at the start of and during half-time of extra time.
Roster sizes have increased to 26 players, up from the usual 23. But, teams can only name a maximum of 23 players to their gameday squads.
Also, UEFA announced last week that an adjustment to the handball rule will be in effect for Euro 2020. According to a rule change approved earlier this year by the International Football Association Board (world soccer’s law-making body), an accidental handball by an attacking player in the build-up to a goal will longer be penalized.
“The way the law has been rewritten is more according to the spirit of football and gives players the freedom to play football,” said Roberto Rosetti, UEFA’s chief refereeing officer.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, CLICK HERE.