Euro 2020(1): Group F – France, Germany, Portugal, Hungary
There are groups of death, and then there are groups of death. As though leaving us in suspense until the very last possible minute, the draw for the finals of Euro 2020 brought together four countries whose combined stories could fill the narrative for a dozen tournaments. First up, you’ve got the current world champions and the favourites to win this summer’s competition. Then you’ve got the current European champions, who feature a still-potent but now ageing global superstar, probably the most famous footballer on the planet.
So the current champions of world and European football are all present and correct. But you’ve also got historically the most successful team in the history of this very competition, who flopped spectacularly at the last World Cup and who will be coached this summer for the last by the man who has been in charge for the last fifteen years, and even the group’s presumed also-rans are one of European football’s most heavily-storied countries, which has laboured for decades in the shadow of one of the greatest teams the game has ever seen.
This group isn’t just storied. This is Finnegan’s Wake, War & Peace, and Ulysses rolled into one. Indeed, it’s a group with so many plots, sub-plots and assorted intrigues that it would make for a fascinating mini-tournament in itself. And if that wasn’t enough to throw into the mix, both the World and European champions will be playing all their games away from home, while the other two countries play host to them. On top of everything else, Group F is a reminder that some fine football venues will sit empty and unused throughout the next few weeks.
France are the clear favourites to win this competition, and it’s easy to see why. Five years ago anticipation was in the air when they hosted the European Championships, only to be stifled at the last minute, when an extra-time goal snatched the tournament from their grasp. Such incidents have been traumatic for entire nations in the past. France picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and won the World Cup two years later.
Their pre-tournament build-up has become dominated by the decision to bring Karim Benzema into their squad. In 2010, Benzema was one four members of the French team investigated for their roles as clients in a prostitute ring operated inside of a Paris nightclub, but charges against Benzema were dropped because of a lack of evidence. In November 2015, he was implicated in allegations of blackmail against fellow France international player Mathieu Valbuena over the alleged recording of a sex-tape on a mobile phone. He was suspended from playing for the national team a month later. In March 2020, he made insulting comments about Olivier Giroud during an Instagram livestream. In January of this year, the public prosecutor’s office in Versailles announced that Benzema would face trial for his alleged involvement in the blackmail attempt.
Set against all of this, it seems worth asking the question of whether Benzema is worth all of this risk? Tournament football is a rarefied atmosphere, and squads have fallen apart before in the past because of rows between players. There is no doubting Benzema’s abilities as a footballer (he’s scored a goal every other game over 12 years for Real Madrid), but it’s hardly as though France have run out of attacking options. They’re taking eight forwards to the tournament, and amongst the other seven are Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. It seems like a strange decision for coach Didier Deschamps to make, to take such a potentially disruptive influence to a tournament when it simply doesn’t look necessary, from the outside.
Their form, of course, is terrific. They’ve played 13 games since September 2020, and have won ten of them, and if Benzema’s presence is noxious, that hasn’t shown itself in their two last matches, although notably Giroud did score twice in their last match, a 3-0 win against Bulgaria earlier this week. This, however, is a group of players like no other in this tournament, and playing two matches as effective away matches won’t help them, either. Were it anybody else, we’d be looking at these circumstances and wondering whether these favourites could be heading for a fall. The sheer volume of brilliant players at France’s disposal, however, still makes this impossible.
It feels a little at times as though we’ve already collectively forgotten how bad Germany were at the last World Cup, and it’s slipped further from view with the news that Jogi Low, after fifteen years in charge of the team, is finally standing down as manager. Germany qualified at a canter – they finished eight points clear of third placed Northern Ireland – and handed out a seven goal spanking to Latvia earlier this week. It might be considered that normal service has resumed.
In some respects, though, there does remain a degree of fragility about this German team. They might have had an excellent run in their qualifying group, but they conceded four goals at home to the Netherlands in the one match that they lost. Perhaps even more surprisingly, they lost 6-0 to Spain in the Nations League towards the end of last year and also lost at home to North Macedonia in a World Cup friendly at the end of March. They play all of their group games in Munich, but these two home defeats do raise a small question over how much of advantage this might even be for them, especially considering the quality of opposition they face in two of those games.
You write Germany off, of course, at your peril. After they were beaten 5-1 at home in a World Cup qualifier in 2001, they went on to get to the final of te following year’s finals. After failing to get through the group stages of the Euros in 2000 and 2004, they reached the final in 2008 and haven’t been kicked out before the semi-finals since. But Low has brought Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller back (though there’s no place for Jerome Boateng), and this is on top of players of the calibre of Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan, Kai Havertz and Leroy Sane. Regardless of who they have to play, with places available for third placed qualifiers and home advantage in all three games, it would be a disaster some degrees worse than the 2018 World Cup, should they not get through the group stage again.
The international stature of France and Germany has rather put Portugal in the shade in this group, but it seems unwise to overlook the team that won the last European Championships and the last Nations League, and which contains perhaps the most iconic player of the first two decades of this century. It’s not all about CR7, either, of course. He is, of course, 36 years old now and isn’t as quick as he used to be, but the truth of the matter is that there’s no need for him to be the axis around whic the rest of the team has to pivot any more. The midfield offers Joao Moutinho, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes, amongst others. There’s a lot of talent in this team to go around.
The big disadvantage that Portugal face is away matches against Hungary and Germany. Budapest to Munich isn’t the longest journey to have to make – it’s almost exactly the same distance as London to Glasgow – but it’s a trip that they’d probably sooner not be making and, as with other groups, while we don’t yet know the extent to which there will be an advantage conferred onto the teams that are playing two or three group matches at home, football’s received wisdom would seem to indicate that it is likely to be greater that none.
Portugal kick-off against Hungary in Budapest, and they need a strong start like no other team in this tournament because of who face in the two matches following this one. A win may be enough to offer them a decent chance of grabbing at least one of the four available third-placed spots. Should they fail to win that match, the scale of the task ahead of them will increase by a very substantial margin indeed.
As qualification campaigns go, Hungary‘s route to Euro 2020(1) was amongst the most dramatic of all. They’d only finished in fourth place in their group, behind Croatia, Wales and Slovakia, but their Nations League exploits were enough to see them in a place in the play-offs. After having won 3-1 in Bulgaria in the semi-finals, they were a goal down at home to Iceland in the final with just a couple of minutes to play when Loic Nego brought them level. Dominik Szoboszlai scored the winning goal two minutes into stoppage-time to send them for only the fourth time.
You have to be a pensioner to have any recollection of the team of the early 1950s, but their legacy has occasionally looked like an albatross around the neck of subsequent generations of Hungarian footballers, since. The current batch can’t hold a candle to Puskas, Kocsis and the rest, but they have qualified for the finals of the Euros for the second time in a row, so this is already the most successful Hungarian side since they last qualified for the World Cup finals, in 1986.
Unlike other smaller nations with those one or two big players, though, there are no star names in this squad, with arguably their best known players being goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi and defender Willi Orban, both of who play their club football for RB Leipzig. The defence would have to be on its game against Portugal, France and Germany under the best of circumstances, but this is all the more important considering that Hungary’s biggest issue comes at the other end of the pitch. Of their 26 man squad, only captain Adam Szalai and veteran striker Nemanja Nikolic have scored more than four goals for their country, and Nikolic has only scored eight.
Should they be able to eke out a win against Portugal in their first match they have a chance, sonlong as they’re not too heavily beaten in the two matches that follow. It seems unlikely that Hungary will be among anything like the most entertaining teams in this tournament to watch, but they have the small advantage of two home games – they play Portugal and France in Budapest – and them playing Portugal first and Germany looking as though they could be as wobbly as they were three years ago, it’s possible that those who have written off any possibility of them getting through could be a little premature.