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At Large | After Uefa Euro 2020 it is soccer, not just England, still dreaming of home

The European Championship of men's soccer was a source of pride and compelling drama with an outstanding winner, but it also brought reminders that reality cannot be left at the door.

12 July 2021 Eoin Connolly

Where have we all been, anyway?

It seems Baddiel and Skinner were wrong again, the Henri Delaunay trophy is on its way to Rome. The best team for more or less all of Uefa Euro 2020, Italy, took the title away from England at Wembley Stadium in London. The same weekend, Lionel Messi’s long hunt for international honours ended when Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 in the final of the Copa America at the Maracaña in Rio de Janeiro. 

That tournament was meant to be held in Argentina, before Covid regulations intervened. Maybe home is overrated. 

Back on this side of the Atlantic, the men’s European Championship has been held in much of the continent and not that much of it at the same time. The one-off 11-nation format allowed plenty of Europe a taste but public health conditions prevented the sort of crisscrossing, planes and trains and bumper fan park feast that would have first been imagined. 

While easing restrictions allowed for bigger gatherings as June and July went on, it has often seemed as though the whole thing was limited to the stadiums, and to television. That would be a slight misreading.    

Much of it, for example, has played out in the imaginations of supporters compelled to derive personal and national meaning from it all. It may not always have been easy to ascribe a sense of place to Euro 2020 but there has been no mistaking the time, even with that upfront act of mislabelling. But there are always echoes and rhymes with tournaments past, legends to honour, beasts to slay, ghosts drifting between the lines. 

They appeared again in mid-June in the Italian capital with Nessun Dorma, and Andrea Bocelli summoning the spirit of Italia 90. Italy remembers keenly the anguish of a semi-final exit in their last home Fifa World Cup, and more pointedly the failure to reach the last edition in Russia three years ago. 

For a whole month since that kick-off, all of England has been writing itself stories of redemption for 55 years of past agonies. Most of all for that penalty shootout defeat at home to Germany in Euro 96, fleetingly more vivid than ever in the national consciousness, even though many of the current squad had not been born then. For Gareth Southgate, the unlucky man on that north-west London night, and a spirited, talented, likeable and principled young team, another defeat from 12 yards seems cruel. It is cruel: a prankster’s hollow punchline of an ending. But they were just living through someone else’s tale of glory. 

Things will be built upon this. Things change. 25 years ago, as tournament branding and sponsors’ logos hung from streetlamps and roadside barriers, Brent was marked with signs promising a new dawn. They advertised a redevelopment of the Chalkhill Estate, where a brutalist high-rise housing block built in the 1960s was being replaced by low-rises and open space. Everyone knew, though, that the transformation the country would notice lay beyond.

Even, ironically, with its twin towers, the original Wembley Stadium never used to loom over the buildings around it. You could often hear it. As a kid, a mile away, I would hear cheers while playing outside and try and race the TV signal back to the living room, usually arriving just in time to find out who had scored. Some of my earliest summer memories involve my mum – who maintained a personal record by skipping Sunday’s final – eavesdropping on concerts in the garden with a glass of wine. 

But aside from the full view down Olympic Way – Wembley Way – the old ground would tend to peer round corners, glimpses of it coming from the odd street or park or vantage point. That was never the case with its replacement, the great steel and glass bowl rising high above its surroundings through the mid-2000s and its signature arch soaring further clear. England’s Raheem Sterling has spoken again in recent weeks about his childhood in the stadium’s shadow – he could mean that almost literally. 

Now, though, other buildings crowd around and even stand above it. There is a shopping centre, restaurants, cafes, pubs, hotels, and a theatre. Brent’s town hall was moved a few years ago to the foot of the stadium; its old location is now a French lycée. Then there is an ever-growing supply of accommodation, most of it targeted at young people with promises of hassle-free rental contracts and a short train ride into the city. The lead developer, Quintain, has installed ads telling visitors: ‘Look up. That apartment could be your home.’

This activity has been magnetised by the stadium, of course, lying in wait for matchday crowds. For decades, the area around the ground has been an afterthought – not just during the Football Association’s (FA) redevelopment but in its borderline dismissal by some media and passing fans. Wembley has its flaws but has long been home to a community reflective of England’s modern-day team – diverse and ever-changing, in a place where London’s rippling demographics collect.  

Today, all that building work has created a small town around the stadium itself. With fans finding their voice inside, that has been a beacon in the last week especially, as visitors thronged not just the fan zones and bars but the Olympic Way thoroughfare for hours before each game. By the time of Sunday’s final, it was the scene of a colossal gathering of ticket-holders and non ticket-holders alike. Finally, some might joke, the new Wembley Stadium is a place people cannot wait to get to, rather than away from. 

It is important to state at this point that this writer was watching the final from home, which has not been in Wembley for many years, so all of the following is based on other reporting. By many accounts, the heady buzz of the occasion was fringed with anxiety, tension, and too much booze. There were pockets of fighting and, embarrassingly, perhaps a few dozen people at least breached security and entered the venue without tickets. The Metropolitan Police, whose role in the affair will not escape scrutiny, had made 49 arrests at the last count.

This will leave serious questions in due course, which those involved must answer if English soccer hopes to maintain its reputation as a guardian of major events – Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 arrives next summer. It will have taken another layer of gloss off a difficult night, and deepened some sorrowful hangovers. Moreover, it was all another reminder that wherever Euro 2020 took place, it was not in a vacuum.  

Reality has been on the shoulder of this tournament from the outset. There was the near-tragedy of the opening weekend, when quick thinking and sharp training probably saved the life of Christian Eriksen. His Denmark teammates, who had needed to crowd cameras’ views of his emergency treatment, were then left in a bind about continuing their game with Finland; it is an episode their subsequent excellence should not obscure. 

There were the weeks of grubby politicking, not least in this country, about the right of players to peacefully protest racism by taking the knee at kick-off – all compounded by some pretty shameless grabs for England’s accelerating bandwagon. There was Uefa’s equivocation over the use of rainbow flags and other Pride imagery, particularly in protest at co-host Hungary’s discriminatory legislation against LGBTQ+ representation. The governing body found itself outflanked by sponsors, players, and most of all, fans.  

There is the continued battle against racism and sexism in the stands and, more than ever, on social media – a flashpoint that flared again with the abuse meted out to England’s unfortunate penalty takers, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. The motivations for those pre-game gestures made by teams throughout the tournament have been made repeatedly, depressingly clear.  

Then there is Covid-19, the reason this competition happened a year late in its compromised shape. Euro 2020 in 2021 has been a relief from all that, a release of pent-up energy, but it has never been bigger than it. It never could be. 

There is no home that football can retreat to, no walls or fences or drawbridges it can pull up, to keep out the world beyond. The game can feel like life at times, but it is only a part of life. 

But it can be one of the best parts of life. If you cannot keep negativity at bay, the best you can do is to promote positive values, to make it clear what they are and to stand by them. Be open, be welcoming, be fair. It won’t always be easy, but it’s right. 

Listen again, if you can stand it, to that well-worn old Lightning Seeds song, adopted again with relish by England’s victorious opponents on home soil. Once more, with feeling: it was never about triumph or expectation. It was about casting off cynicism and embracing faith. It was about hope in the face of bitter experience. It was about the rediscovery of lost and cherished things in the gloom. 

It was about belonging. And maybe, trite as it probably sounds, that is what football’s home can be built upon.     

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