Euro 2020(1): Day Four – Echoes

by | Jun 16, 2021

Perhaps I’d been suspending my imagination for as long as I could. Any previous match in this year’s Euros, I could be persuaded that I was watching a World Cup group match in front of just a few thousand semi-interested locals, as many freebies as they could give away, and the few hundred supporters of each team foolhardy enough to make such a difficult journey for a group match.

With France and Germany, though, it’s always an event. You could play this match halfway up K2, and be sold out of tickets in no time. Or maybe it was something about the grey-seated Allianz Arena. I could certainly hear echoes of players and fans bouncing off its steel and concrete more noticeably than I had for any match previously.

Greenpeace also seemed to understand the importance of this particular match sending one of their protestors to parachute into the stadium and onto the pitch before kick-off. The protestor, however, didn’t seem to have taken into account the various wires that run from roof to roof in order to carry cameras, clipped a wire, and only narowly avoided crashing head-first into the crowd. There were reports of some injuries, but it wasn’t as bad as it might have all been. For the third time since Saturday, following Christian Eriksen’s horrors last Saturday and a fan falling from a stand at Wembley the following day, death continues to skirt this tournament.

If the atmosphere inside the stadium was affected, it certainly wasn’t fault of the crowd, whose renditions of the national anthems before the match were louder than a crowd of that size had any right to be. And it wasn’t the players, either, France sparkled but were ultimately wasteful of the attacking jewels at their disposal. Germany were obdurate but ultimately ineffective, though they did put the squeeze on their opponents for much of the second half.

It’s not difficult to see the quality in the France team. Confidence on the ball oozes out of them, and they move around so much more fluidly than their opponents, no matter who they’re playing. Last night it was Germany who were left looking a little mechanical and predictable. France always look as though they could conjure up a goal from anywhere, if they really wanted to. Germany, by contrast, kept pushing the ball through the same old channels and running down the same cul-de-sacs on the edge of the penalty area.

To their credit, though, they did get back into the game after a first half that that largely consisted of France languidly stroking the ball about and Germany winning it back from them, and which was punctuated by a needlessly conceded goal. In the absence of a heroic goalscorer, Paul Pogba got the French praise for his elegant, sweeping pass across field to Lucas Hernandez, who used Mats Hummels as a bumper, driving the ball against his legs and in.

In the second half, though, Germany started to give something back. Kroos, Gungondan and Havertz all had chances. France broke and had a beautilfully finished goal from Mbappe ruled out for offside, but it really was very offside. This was one of those evenings when the losing side will have walked away with their heads held high. France were good value for the win, but Germany played their full part and still look capable of making a second round place. Their next match against Cristiano Portugalo, however, now falls into the “must-win” category.

What, though, of the holders? They travelled to Budapest for an away match like nothing we’ve seen for the last year and a half, with a crowd of more than 55,000 turning out for their match yesterday afternoon. For all the “nature is healing” social media engagement at the footage of large crowds making their way to the stadium yesterday afternoon, though, there was a vague sense of unease to be seen at it all.

Firstly, all the footage that I saw showed an almost completely maskless crowd. Hungary has lost almost 30,000 people to Covid-19, and with yet another wave apparently now just about to hit Britain, it’s difficult to look at such images without idly wondering how many people might pay very dearly for their desire to go to the football. It is understood that the testing requirements for those attending the match were not exactly strict.

And then, of course, there’s the small matter of the politics of this particular country. To look at a crowd of Hungarians at a football match is to see a cross-section of a country that actively votes for the horrendous Viktor Orban, whose greatest hits so far have included “a poison” and “Muslim invaders”, employing anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of the 1930s in election literature, anti-LGBTQ policies and emergency pandemic legislation which pays little attention to science and instead is more interested in Orban’s own prejudices, such as giving him the ability to jail politicians and newspaper journalists that he doesn’t approve of and to extend the “state of emergency” for so long as he chooses.

So when I see tens of thousands of Hungarians marching and chanting in unison, I don’t necessarily see a good thing. Not in the current political environment, I don’t.

The actual football team itself did a decent job of shutting Portugal for 84 minutes, but the closing stages of the game were a little bit of a nightmare for another Orban; Willi, of RB Leipzig. With six minutes to play, his leg deflected Rafael Guerriero’s shot in to finally break the deadlock, and two minutes later he tripped Rafa Silva, which allowed Ronaldo to put the game beyond doubt. Cue a weird, gurning celebration which hinted that he might now have gorged himself on so many goals that he doesn’t even like the taste of them any more.

Ronaldo added a third in stoppage-time, and the negative goal difference means that Hungary now almost certainly need to take four points from their games against France and Germany to have much chance of even sneaking into one of the third placed qualifying spots. Portugal, meanwhile, made harder work of this match than they probably should, and they’ll have to play better than they did for the first 80 minutes of this game if they want to leave an impression on better teams than this.