Euro 2020 would have started on Friday if not for being delayed by a year because of the COVID-19 crisis. From a purely sporting standpoint, the delay has come as a relief to certain nations who were facing pressing problems, while for others it is surely a source of frustration, with certain elements figuring to line up for them this summer.
Here's a closer look at for whom Euro 2020 taking place in 2021 has some upside and for whom it could become a problem:
TO THEIR BENEFIT
Given frequent frustrations in major tournaments, England has a long-standing tendency to look to a possible golden future. Defeat in the World Cup semifinal to Croatia two years ago meant a tournament that delivered so much more than had ever seemed likely ended with a reminder of familiar failings: an overstretched midfield left chasing hopelessly after being technically and tactically overmatched. The immediate consolation was the youth of the squad and the thought that at the next World Cup, England should be better. And then there was the Euros, with group games, semifinals and a final to be played at Wembley Stadium in London. This was a real chance.
As it turned out, by the time football went into lockdown, the optimism had receded. Harry Kane, after an unconvincing season by his standards, was injured, as was Marcus Rashford. For England, this is a familiar narrative: the build-up to a tournament dominated by the fitness of a major star who would then play and, far from his best, underwhelm. Kane threatened to be Kevin Keegan in 1982 or David Beckham in 2002 or Wayne Rooney in 2006.
Of course, there may be a fresh wave of injuries by this point next year, but Kane and Rashford are both expected to start when the Premier League returns–fitness returning without the concentrated pressure of a major tournament. Not only that, but Jadon Sancho, who scored a hat trick for Borussia Dortmund last week, will be 21 next March, a year more experienced than he is now. That is a formidable front three, with Raheem Sterling to be worked in somewhere.
Gareth Southgate’s squad is young enough that there’s nobody he would have relied on likely to have gone into decline with an extra year other than perhaps Kyle Walker, who seemed to be drifting to the periphery anyway. Another year may also bring some clarity on the two major issues facing England: goalkeeper and midfield.
Jordan Pickford has had a difficult season with Everton but has been good enough for England that Southgate has stuck by him despite the obvious potential of Nick Pope and Dean Henderson. It may be that Pickford’s club form improves, or it may be that the case for one of his challengers becomes unanswerable.
Jordan Henderson’s selection is clear, but who should play with him is not. Nor is it obvious whether he should be the anchor or operate on the right. Another year may allow Declan Rice or Harry Winks to make a clear case to become the central player, while Dele Alli, Ross Barkley, Mason Mount and James Maddison contest the other position(s).
It’s just as possible, of course, that other conundrums of form emerge, but the main benefit for England is that the pressing doubts over Kane and Rashford have been removed.
Having missed out on both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, the Netherlands have improved rapidly since Ronald Koeman took charge. It would have been a serious threat in 2020, but an extra year of development should be beneficial. The Dutch probably wanted the Euros in 2019 when the Ajax side that reached the semifinal of the Champions League was in such exceptional form, but next summer is probably better than this one, given that neither Frenkie De Jong nor Matthijs De Ligt has been at his best after respective moves to Barcelona and Juventus. Donnie van der Beek may also have moved on by then and, if he settles, should benefit from more regular top-class competition.
If manager Jogi Low does the right thing, the delay to Euro 2020 should be a positive for Germany. One of the reasons for the poor showing at the World Cup was the failure to integrate younger players who had won the Confederations Cup, and as the great German production machine keeps pumping out exceptional talent, the need to rejuvenate feels ever stronger.
If the likes of Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt can be brought through, and Leroy Sane regains fitness, and Low manages to resolve the awkward goalkeeping situation by which a no-longer-entirely-convincing Manuel Neuer clings to his post despite the claims of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, then the additional 12 months will have been well-spent. But there is the danger this just keeps the old guard in a place a year longer.
There’s always a danger with young talent in assuming it will develop steadily and that energy and enthusiasm will be retained. But those countries with very raw talent can realistically expect their teenage talent to be better in the summer of 2021 than it would have been in the summer of 2020.
Norway still has to negotiate the qualifying playoffs where it faces Serbia and then either Scotland or Israel, but if it can achieve that, then there is significant reason to be excited by the prospects of a young side spearheaded by Erling Braut Haaland and Martin Odegaard. Haaland is in that phase of development at Borussia Dortmund in which he seems to improve week by week, while Odegaard, after being exposed too young, is, at 21, proving his quality on loan at Real Sociedad.
Again there’s an issue of qualification–and, for the financially stricken Football Association of Ireland the deferment of some much-needed possible revenue–but should Ireland get by Bosnia-Herzegovina and then either Slovakia or Northern Ireland, and remain solvent, it should be in a much better position to make an impact on the Euros next summer than it would have been this year.
Mick McCarthy’s contract expired this summer, but he stood down a couple of months early to make way for Stephen Kenny. McCarthy's sides have always been solid and well-organized but a little lacking in creativity or fun. He has, again and again, refused to blood players from the hugely exciting Ireland Under-21 team, insisting that only experience can bring the necessary tedium to the next inevitable 1-1 draw.
Kenny, having managed that Under-21 side, not only knows those players but has proved he can get high-class performances out of them in a style far more progressive than has been usual with Ireland. It’s probably too early for Kenny’s Ireland to take Europe by storm, but rather, surely, a glimpse of an exciting future than the grim struggle that seemed inevitable had Ireland reached the Euros under McCarthy.
A NEGATIVE IMPACT
The clock was ticking anyway on Belgium’s golden generation. Seven from the last World Cup squad were aged 30 or older. Having wasted so much time under the uninspired management of Marc Wilmots, there was a sense in Russia that it was that side's last chance. Perhaps Belgium could have dragged it out to the Euros and improved on a third-place finish in the 2018 World Cup, but an extra year will make that even harder for the likes of Vincent Kompany and Toby Alderweireld.
On the flip side, neither Eden Hazard nor Thibaut Courtois has been in great form for Real Madrid, and it may be that another 12 months gives them the chance to regain their edge. Thorgan Hazard, meanwhile, has settled well at Borussia Dortmund and, at 27, looks to have gone up a level. It’s remarkable that two brothers just two years apart in age should seem at such different stages of their careers, but an extra season with Dortmund can only be beneficial to the younger Hazard.
Despite appearances, Cristiano Ronaldo is human. At some point, he will slow down to the point where he is no longer effective as a footballer. He will be 36 by the Euros in 2021. Perhaps, in that restricted center forward role he has created for himself, he will still be able to function. The desire still burns strong in him to win a tournament with Portugal while on the pitch and not merely applauding from the technical area as he did as his country won Euro 2016. But the danger is a greater decline setting in between now and then.
With Ronaldo, teams have to play in a certain way. They cannot press. They cannot have a fluid forward line. They have to play to and for him. While Ronaldo’s instincts are sharp, while he has explosive pace over a couple of yards, while he still has the spring that makes him such a formidable header of the ball, playing around him is justifiable. But once he slows down, that stops–and nothing in Ronaldo’s career suggests he is somebody likely to bow out without a fight. Portugal has a fleet of exciting midfielders, most notably Bruno Fernandes; at some point it will be time to give them the reins. Negotiating when that may be could be hugely difficult.
Ronaldo, at least, is showing few obvious signs of decrepitude. The same cannot be said of Luka Modric, whose efforts in dragging Croatia to the World Cup final probably represent the final true flowering of his extraordinary talent.
Modric, involved in court battles at home and now 34, has looked distinctly weary over the past few months. Mario Mandzukic is the only other player from that squad who feels like he’s nearing the end, but, without Modric at full capacity, this is a very different Croatia.
France was not exciting in winning the World Cup, but it found a way, based around a solid defense, the capacity to break with extreme pace and the intelligence at center forward of Olivier Giroud. He will be 34 by the time the Euros come round and, already struggling for regular game time at Chelsea, may not be capable of playing with the intensity and regularity tournament football demands. That will require flexibility from Didier Deschamps, a coach who has never been especially imaginative.
Euro 2020 was supposed to be a farewell to Age Hareide, Denmark’s 66-year-old Norwegian coach, with all three group games in Copenhagen. As it is, his contract expires on July 31, when he will be replaced by Kasper Hjulmand. It may be that the 48-year-old, who won the Danish title with Lyngby and Nordsjaelland, will be an upgrade, but he will have to prepare for a major tournament without any qualifiers or competitive games.