FOOTBALL is supposed to be a team game, but the media concentrates so much on the fortunes of individual players and their progress in Euro 2020. You could be mistaken for thinking Wales were a one-man team and Portugal’s side was Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 others. Admittedly, these players are talismans in their own country, but they were, by no means, on their own. In fact, in the case of CR7, he didn’t have a good game at all and Portugal have a lot of very good players. But everything is all about the man from Madeira.
The media always has an idea of who should win the major competitions. In 2018, nobody expected Croatia to get to the final and in 2016, France were the hosts and favourites, but were upset by a workmanlike Portugal. In 2014, Brazil were supposed to make amends for 1950 and win the World Cup on their own turf. They capitulated dreadfully. In 2006, Italy were surprise winners and in 2004’s Euros, Greece were shock champions. It happens and this year, the way the draw has been compiled, there is a good chance a surprise finalist will run-out at Wembley: Denmark, Czech Republic and Sweden could make it through. England, too, despite their pedestrian, uncreative style, could slalom their way through the competition.
Portugal and Ronaldo are out, the first of the big guns to go. England versus Germany will see another one out. Spain and France should make it through, but in the case of the Spanish, they will have to tread carefully against Croatia. The two halves of the draw are very lop-sided in terms of strength and this means that in the top half, two big names will fall in the quarter-finals.
Those that promote the sport want the most marketable names to flourish in these events. Luka Modric, at the age of 32, won the FIFA Golden Ball in 2018 as FIFA searched for a worthy successor to past winners. It has happened before – Lionel Messi, bizarrely, was given the trophy in 2014 when very few people thought he was deserving. The world of football hype desperately wanted Messi to win the World Cup, but every tournament that passes, the less likely that will happen.
The ideal competition is one that has a great team that wins the trophy, a very good runner-up and a sprinkling of star names. The star names are becoming scarce these days – there are many very good players, but the superstars are in short supply, and we are coming to the end of a golden period where Messi, Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and one or two others, are coming to the end of their time.
While everyone likes a hard-working team of journeymen with an indomitable spirit, they like them as much as the person who looks at a friend’s quirky Fiat 500 or (in the past) Citroen 2CV and comments, “I’ve always loved wanted one of them,” as they polish their BMW or Mercedes. Endeavour-led teams of swashbucklers win plaudits for their pluck, but nobody really wants them to be world or European champions. Indeed, the “spirit” that pundits admire in Wales and Scotland would not be acceptable if it was the only quality on display with England or Spain. There’s something a little patronising about summing up a team’s efforts as merely being full of earnest effort. The reason these teams have to rely on organisation, teamwork and a plan is because they have limited resources. This takes you so far, but if a team of such qualities was to become champions – like Denmark in 1992 and Greece 2004, they are invariably overlooked when the history books are written and their success dismissed as a “blip”.
That’s why Brazil’s successes since 1970 are not talked about in the same way that glorious summer in Mexico is so richly eulogised. Rightly so, you might add, even though Brazil in 1994 and 2002 had some great players. While Brazil 1970 were a team built around form, Brazil’s subsequent sides were more functional, are we say more European, with the exception of 1982.
Today, the teams that are considered to have the most “stars” are Belgium (the world’s number one running out of time), France (talent rich) and Portugal (CR7 and friends). The narrative concerning other countries includes England (promising and stable), Germany (in mild decline), Spain (transitional) and Italy (in-form but don’t forget, they didn’t make 2018).
No other country is seriously considered, hence many people are stunned by Denmark’s performances (a hasty assumption) and Czech Republic’s shock progress. The two now meet in the last eight.
If an unexpected winner of the competition does emerge, Euro 2020 will not be spoken of in the same glowing terms as some of UEFA’s more predictable tournaments. To some extent, it will be written off as a year in which “the big guns didn’t perform”. The fact is, the status of a big gun is not permanent, as Italy found out in 2018, England experienced between 1970 and 1982 and the Dutch frequently discover between generations. Belgium have only just become a “big club” and may return to the second tier when their current batch of stars age and fade.
No matter how we claim to admire the team ethic, in our corporate lives, in sport and in families, everyone’s relationship with their job is generally personal. That’s why we idolise individuals and why a player can shift stock markets because he doesn’t like a certain drink. Every competition, be it World Cup, European Championship or Champions League, needs outstanding individuals to provide that little piece of gilding. Those World Cups that don’t have a big star do get devalued. Pelé, Cruyff, Kempes, Rossi, and Maradona were all head and shoulders above the rest, and they became the poster children for their respective World Cups. How FIFA must have yearned to place Messi on that list.
CR7 has gone now, maybe never to return. Where will UEFA’s great hope come from? France, Belgium, Spain? Or will it be 25 year-old Patrik Schick of Czech Republic and Bayer Leverkusen? A relatively unknown player who is now the top scorer among players still involved in Euro 2020, with four goals. He could be bought for around € 30 million before the competition, but his valuation must be going up by the day. It’s worth recalling that before 1976, not too many knew about a certain Antonín Panenka!