The Covid-19 pandemic inevitably looms over the 2021 European Championship, kicking off a year late on Friday across the continent in partly patronized stadiums. The one exception will be Hungary, where Viktor Orban's nationalist, authoritarian government is throwing caution to the summer winds and allowing the Puskas Arena to be almost full to capacity. Possibly something to do with Hungary having two home games there. In the meantime, Spain's captain Sergio Busquets has entered quarantine after testing positive for coronavirus last weekend. Spain has half of its U-21 squad on standby in case of a mass outbreak on its roster. Two Swedish players, Dejan Kulusevski and Mattias Svanberg, have also tested positive.
UEFA will be on tenterhooks about further virus-related hitches right up until the final whistle in London's Wembley Stadium on July 11. All teams must be able to name a game-day roster of at least 13 players, including one goalkeeper. If they can't, then the game can theoretically be re-scheduled for some point during the following 48 hours. If that proves impossible, the affected team will be forced to forfeit and automatically lose the tie 3-0.
When UEFA decided in 2012 to stage the tournament in a dozen cities across the continent (now 11, Dublin having been dropped because it couldn't guarantee spectator access), it could hardly have imagined the logistical nightmare triggered by a global pandemic. The original suggestion for the spread event came from the now disgraced former UEFA president Michel Platini, who -- with willing hosts ever harder to find -- saw it as a way around a single country, or joint hosts, having to spend vast amounts of cash on stadiums and infrastructure. It would also give more fans the chance to see their teams on home soil, he argued. From that point of view, it wasn't such a bad idea. A European tournament spread across the whole of Europe.
In reality, it means a skewed competition in favor of the few. The format's worked out well for teams like Germany and England, playing all their group games in Munich and London, respectively. By contrast, Switzerland has an insane road schedule, opening its group A campaign in the Azerbaijani capital Baku against Wales, then flying to Rome to play Italy, then returning to Baku to round off group play against Turkey. The flight time between the two cities is five hours and 15 minutes -- an outrageous and superfluous burden on both the players and the fans. Plus, the Azerbaijani government, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "continues to wage a vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices," including torture, media suppression and judicial interference. If you're questioning why UEFA would choose Baku as a venue at all given the country's shocking human rights record, and the fact that Azerbaijan has never qualified for the competition, then here's your simple answer -- Azeri's state-owned oil concern SOCAR is one of Euro 2021's main sponsors.
None of that will matter much to U.S. viewers, aside from the long term consequences of environmental degradation caused by numerous unnecessary flights. Most games for East Coast viewers will kick off at a lunch-friendly noon or 3 p.m., with some early group games next week at 9 a.m. For west coasters, it will mainly be the familiar story of European soccer accompanied by early alarm calls, cornflakes and coffee. The tournament will go out on ESPN, ESPN2 (on the final days of the group stage), ABC and Univision (and its new PrendeTV streaming platform).
During an exhausting season, it was easy to forget that the Euros were going to happen at all. Qualification had finished in late 2019, aside from the unwieldy Nations League playoffs that one year later allocated four final spots to Scotland, Slovakia, Hungary and North Macedonia. It's supposed that many players will be tired after a busy and stressful season with too many games and competitions squeezed into a tight calendar. Indeed, holding a tournament with the 24-team format that requires two weeks of play and 36 games just to lose one third of the participants makes no more sense than the 11 trans-continental venues. Welcome to the logic-quashing, revenue-generating world of UEFA.
Still, the Euros are the most watched and anticipated international soccer tournament outside of the World Cup. Part of the tournament's attraction is the greater chance of a surprise winner - dashing Denmark came from nowhere to lift the trophy in 1992, while the pragmatic Greeks upset the odds 12 years later. In 2016, Iceland (quarterfinals) and Wales (semis) were the joyous underdogs that eliminated England and Belgium. Portugal was a first-time winner, and there's a chance that we may see another new name on the trophy this time around. Belgium's "greatest generation" is aging but still highly capable, while a strong Croatia and a youthful England (2018 World Cup runner-up and fourth-place team, respectively) will also be expecting to do more than just show up. Dark-horses worth an outside bet to at least make the last eight -- Poland, Turkey and Switzerland.
You can list Spain, Portugal and possibly Germany among the usual favorites, but unbeaten Italy (see below) and reigning world champion France will be the teams to beat. A French squad already spolied on world-class talent seemed to be almost mocking the rest of Europe when it called Real Madrid's Karim Benzema, 33, back out of the international desert and into the national team's fold. He'd been dropped five years ago due to an alleged blackmail attempt on teammate Mathieu Valbuena -- something to do with a sex act recorded on a mobile phone that we'd all probably rather not know about. Benzema's trial in that case won't come to court until October, and anyway, Valbuena's no longer on the roster. With the forward still in sharp form (a knock against Bulgaria in a friendly this week is not expected to keep him out of the opening game against Germany), coach Didier Deschamps decided to look the other way and renege on the French FA's vow never to pick him again. All, no doubt, in the greater interests of the sport and the nation.
Here are the individual groups, with kickoff times for the first round of games:
Group A: Italy, Turkey, Wales, Switzerland
June 11: 3pm ET: Turkey vs. Italy (Rome), ESPN, Univision
June 12: 9pm ET: Wales vs. Switzerland (Baku), ESPN, PrendeTV
Italy have astonished the soccer world the past couple of years by looking like a team that not only scores goals, but enjoys doing it too. Defying the graven image of Italian teams built on hard fouls, counter-attacking opportunism and twists of timely genius, Roberto Mancini's team is unbeaten in its last 27 games and finished off its warm-up schedule by whupping the Czechs (see Group D) 4-0. A solid, versatile Switzerland team in its prime should take second place, while the battle for third spot between unpredictable Turkey and a Wales team featuring Gareth Bale in his final tournament will be one of the most interesting early focal points of Euro 21.
Poetic-sounding Italian players that make you wish you were a TV commentator with a penchant for affectation: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Giacomo Raspadori and Lorenzo Pellegrini.
Group B: Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Russia
June 12: noon ET: Denmark vs. Finland (Copenhagen), ESPN, PrendeTV
June 12: 3 p.m. ET: Belgium vs. Russia (St. Petersburg), ABC, PrendeTV
A well-balanced group, including Finland at its first ever major tournament. Sated with the fire power of Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens, Belgium should be able to bear the short term absence through injury of Premier League Player of the Season Kevin de Bruyne (broken nose and cheekbone in the Champions League final), and advance as comfortable group winners. Russia lost to Belgium twice in qualification, including a 4-1 home defeat, and has struggled with results in the past year, including a 5-0 loss to a Serbian side that didn't even make the tournament. In-form Denmark should deal with Finland no problem, and will be eyeing its final game against Russia on home soil in Copenhagen as the key to making the knockout rounds.
Player that most sounds like a plastic kid's toy: Teemu Pukki (Finland). As in, "Logan, give the little boy his teemu pukki back now!"
Group C: Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, North Macedonia
June 13: noon ET: Austria vs. North Macedonia (Bucharest), ESPN, PrendeTV
June 13: 3pm ET: Netherlands vs. Ukraine (Amsterdam), ESPN, PrendeTV
Missing Virgil van Dijk and Donny van de Beek through injury, a Netherlands team in rebuilding mode after missing the last World Cup will hardly have been encouraged by only scraping a 2-2 home draw last week with Scotland. Ukraine started its World Cup qualifying campaign well with a draw in France, but was then held at home by Finland. It's also injected some geopolitical controversy into Euro 2021 by etching the country's map on its shirt design to include the Crimean Peninsula -- invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014 just as soon as the bunting from the Sochi Winter Olympics (international brotherhood etc.) had been pulled down and stowed away for the next sportswashing event. It's only three months since North Macedonia sensationally won a World Cup qualifier on the road to Germany, at the same time as Austria was being hammered 4-0 at home to Denmark in the same competition. In short, this is anybody's group. Should be a blast.
Most Scottish-sounding player ever to be capped by the Netherlands: Denzel Dumfries.
Group D: England, Scotland, Croatia, Czech Republic
June 13: 9 a.m. ET: England vs. Croatia (London), ESPN, PrendeTV
June 14: 9 a.m. ET: Scotland vs. Czech Republic (Glasgow), ESPN, PrendeTV
As a Scot susceptible to wild fancy (as all Scots are), I'd wanted to write the following: "After failing to qualify for the knockout stages of a major tournament throughout its history, Scotland are set to write off all the injustices and cussed luck of the past decades and not only progress to the final 16, but go on to lift the trophy. They boast Premier League stars at their peak - Andy Robertson of Liverpool, Scott McTominay of Manchester United, and Kieran Tierney of Arsenal - and a grand team spirit that will compensate for all technical deficiencies. Viva Scotland!" As a Scot prone to profound despair and rain-soaked stoicism (as all Scots are), my more realistic assessment is: after grinding out a 1-0 win over the Czechs and raising a nation's hopes, Scotland will lose to England and Croatia, but will still have a chance of qualifying as the third-placed team. However, due to a last minute and probably illegal own goal in the following day's Sweden-Poland game, the constellations will change and they will finish the tournament as 17th best, by the tiniest, unluckiest margin.
Most Scottish-sounding players in the Scotland team: Scott McTominay, Scott McKenna and Callum McGregor. Get right intae them, Scottie!
Group E: Spain, Sweden, Poland, Slovakia
June 14: noon ET: Poland vs. Slovakia (St. Petersburg), ESPN, PrendeTV
June 14: 3 p.m. ET: Spain vs. Sweden (Sevilla), ESPN, PrendeTV
Spain's 6-0 mauling of Germany last fall served notice that a new generation of talent has finally usurped the possession machine that won three back-to-back major titles from 2008 to 2012. That Sergio Ramos with his 180 caps was not picked for this tournament only serves to underline the passing of an era, but if captain Sergio Busquets remains sidelined due to his coronavirus infection (see above), there are questions about who will lead the new young pack - only midfielder Koke and defender Jordi Alba have 50 or more caps. Results since the Germany game have been modest, while opponents Poland (strength and depth in all positions, lead by World Player of the Year Robert Lewandowski) and Sweden (missing the megalomaniac Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but arguably the better for his absence) will be no pushovers. Slovakia are one of the few teams at this competition making up the numbers.
Name that most sounds like a character from a children's book: Peter Pekarik (Slovakia), who in interviews refuses to disclose whether or not he's ever picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Group F: France, Germany, Portugal, Hungary
June 15: noon ET: Hungary vs. Portugal (Budapest), ESPN, PrendeTV
June 15: 3 p.m. ET: France vs. Germany (Munich), ESPN, Univision
An absolute juggernaut of a group, with the current holder Portugal and two former winners, France (see above) and Germany. Outgoing German coach Joachim Loew dropped senior players two years ago in order to re-build the national team but, after losing 6-0 to Spain and at home to North Macedonia, he could no longer ignore the fact that he's failed to do so. So, back come attacking midfielder Thomas Mueller, 31, and defender Mats Hummels, 32, both in scintillating form for their clubs. Big question for Loew - can he afford to accommodate both Toni Kroos and Ilkay Guendogan into a "luxury" central midfield? Portugal's play can be maddeningly inconsistent and much will depend on whether Andre Silva (28 goals for Eintracht Frankfurt this season) can relieve Cristiano Ronaldo of the goal-scoring burden, and on Bruno Fernandes, Diego Jota and Joao Felix all finding form over four whole weeks. Hungary has one of its strongest squads since the 1970s, and with two home games in front of 61,000 fans, and two players at the back in excellent form for Leipzig in the Bundesliga this season - goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi and central defender Willi Orban - the Magyars should ensure this is a close and absorbing group right down to the final kick.
Name that you'd rather sing than say: Ousmane Dembele (France). Go on, sing it and see.