The Beautiful Game Is Back
By Stephen Starr
Rejoice, soccer fans! Over the coming four weeks, the world’s top men’s players will strut their stuff in stadiums across Europe and Brazil, with the European Football Championship starting tomorrow followed by the Copa América on Sunday. Around the world, day and night, millions of fans will be glued to their screens. But the premier soccer championships of Europe and South America are being held under the shadow of political unrest and COVID-19 risks. As the beautiful game returns to a global scale, can it unite the world as it has in the past? Or will it come at a cost to players, fans and soccer itself? Will it score a win or is it setting itself up for an own goal? Read on. It’s time for kickoff.
sport’s clinical trials
Can Soccer Unite Europe? There’s not much that Germany and Hungary agree on, and little where England and Russia are on the same page. Yet they’re all together hosting the European championships — called Euro 2020 — along with Azerbaijan, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Scotland and Spain. It’s the first time the event, usually hosted by one or two nations, is being held across the continent. The idea? To send a signal of unity to a divided Europe. But can it work when participating nations like Russia and Ukraine are at war, the U.K. is negotiating thorny post-Brexit details with the European Union and countries like Hungary and Poland are trying to actively undermine the EU’s authority? Don’t hold your breath.
Experiment for the Future: But soccer’s ability to unite isn’t the only thing on trial in Europe. In a pandemic-era world where unknown crowds are likely to leave us anxious for a while, the championships represent a bold experiment at seeing whether it makes more sense to spread visiting fans across multiple nations in future global sports events. Fans attending games at Glasgow’s Hampden Park will be assigned 30-minute windows in which to enter the stadium. London’s Wembley Stadium will use Britain’s first “vaccine passports” to determine whether a fan can enter. And Budapest’s Puskas Stadium will be at full capacity, though spectators must meet strict entry requirements. Sports administrators around the world will be watching to see what works — and the lessons they can learn.
Quick Pivot: While Europe spreads its soccer extravaganza across a continent, South America has been forced to make the opposite choice. Until a few weeks ago, Colombia and Argentina were gearing up to co-host Copa América 2021. But violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Colombia, and a surge in COVID-19 cases in Argentina meant the tournament was taken from the two nations. Brazil stepped in at the last moment to host the event. If the continent’s largest nation can pull off an even remotely successful tournament, it would demonstrate that events that are typically planned for years can be moved nimbly. In an uncertain world, that’ll be a relief for sports fans.
Deadly Price?: But will all the experimentation come at a cost? Brazil is home to the world’s second-highest number of deaths from COVID-19 after America. Only 17% of the country’s population has received vaccines and its government has consistently underplayed the crisis. “What doesn’t really make sense was taking it to Brazil,” says Santiago Ortega, a Medellín-based engineer working in renewable energy, and a devout football fan. “(Because in Brazil) there is both a complicated social situation and also a COVID emergency.” Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Colombia, all battling COVID-19 surges, are participating in the event, so their fans will throng cafes and bars, potentially inflaming an already dangerous crisis.
European Error? Is Europe making a mistake too? With pubs, cafés and restaurants in many countries now open to appease fans desperate to enjoy pints and footie together — and businesses starved of income — COVID-19 cases from Belfast to Baku could spike. Scotland, where Glasgow is set to hold four games, has seen COVID-19 cases more than triple over the past month. Already, some of the top players in the game, such as Spanish captain Sergio Busquets, have tested positive, resulting in canceled warm-up games. Is Europe really on the ball?
watch their moves
The Next Steven Gerrard: Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham has been a revelation since bursting onto the scene in Germany’s Bundesliga last season. A promising showing for England at the Euros — likely off the bench and driving at tired defenses — would only see the 17-year-old prodigy’s star rise even further. He’s already drawing comparisons to Liverpool and England legend Steven Gerrard. It won’t be long before the biggest clubs like Manchester City or Real Madrid come calling for his services — but he won’t come cheap.
Turkey’s Rock at the Kabak: With the youngest squad in the competition, Turkey boasts a plethora of new and exciting talent. And 21-year-old Ozan Kabak is the rock upon which Turkey’s defense is built, having spent part of last season at Liverpool when the club was champion of the English Premier League, before returning to Schalke 04 in Germany. If Turkey’s Group A games against Italy, Switzerland and Wales are low-scoring, Kabak might be centrally responsible.
Belgium’s Secret Star: In a squad oozing world class talent (Belgian players have won club leagues in England, Italy and Spain in recent weeks), watch out for winger Jérémy Doku. The 19-year-old of Ghanaian descent could be the surprise package of the tournament. He’s been on the radar of top clubs like Liverpool since he was 16. Belgium’s opponents will be keen to shut down familiar threats such as Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne — potentially leaving space for Doku to make his mark.
Samba Stunner: Richarlison nearly gave up on soccer after he was rejected by multiple clubs early in his career. Now the 24-year-old could be the latest talisman for Brazil’s famed samba style of soccer, and is poised to make the Copa América his own. The Everton striker has already scored nine goals in 24 appearances for Brazil. But the next four weeks could see him go from sideshow to main man, playing in either a striker or winger position. With Roberto Firmino, his main competition for a starting place in the side having experienced a poor club season, this is Richarlison’s moment to grab. Brazil is going to need him.
Uruguay’s Answer to Messi: Many are tipping Uruguay to cause an upset or two, including taking Argentina’s scalp when the countries meet on June 18 in what’s sure to be one of the games of the tournament. Central to any successful plan will be 22-year-old Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde who has shown poise and class beyond his years. Born in Montevideo, the rangy, 6-foot tall box-to-box player will have his sights set on Messi, a familiar opponent from clashes in Spain’s La Liga.
it’s a political game too
Crimea Controversy: Ukraine’s recently unveiled new soccer jerseys depict Crimea as part of Ukraine — and so have predictably drawn Russia’s ire. Occupied by Russian forces in 2014, Crimea was the start of a low-intensity conflict between the two countries centered on Eastern Ukraine. Russia was quick to retort against Ukraine’s seemingly incendiary shirt. “Too bad they have to pin their hopes on this only,” Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said of the move. The U.S. embassy in Kiev was quick to jump in too. “Love the new look. Glory to Ukraine! #CrimeaisUkraine,” it posted on Twitter on Monday.
Money > Racism? Racist abuse of soccer stars on social media and opposition from the stands to players taking the knee before games have become an ugly side story to the beautiful game ever since Black Lives Matter protests broke out around the globe last year. But will governing organizations in Europe and South America act against transgressing fans? Delayed a year because of the pandemic and with ticket sales a tiny fraction of what organizers had planned for before the pandemic, UEFA — European soccer’s governing body — is already facing a $300 million loss, according to estimates. With soccer authorities and sponsors desperate to make as much money as possible from a captive audience with little else to do for entertainment, don’t bet your house on it.
Climate Cost: With games being held in 11 countries across three time zones, the Euros will mean lots of traveling for several teams. The Swiss squad will need to make multiple trips to Baku, with visits to Rome and Amsterdam, totalling 12,662 miles of travel if they reach the quarterfinals. That works out to 4 tons of carbon emissions for each player, or support staff member and fan traveling with the Swiss team — the average annual carbon footprint of a human being.
Economy or Health? Soccer administrators on both continents have picked the former. And it’s a choice that has support. “Ideally, this (competition) should not be allowed during the health crisis,” says Ortega in Medellín. “But the economy is in a very bad shape, and open places do help a lot of people to make a living.” Many people, he adds, are also just fed up with being locked in.” Food and drink establishments right around the world can expect a massive lift to their businesses as soccer fans come out to watch the games. But what about the players, many of whom are entering the tournaments after grueling club seasons? Will the quality of soccer live up to the expectations of fans?
Bonus for BoJo?: While several national teams will spend much of the next month on the road, the English squad won’t: The “Three Lions” can expect to play almost all games from the comfort of Wembley stadium in London. With thousands of home fans set to cheer them on, the deck is stacked in England’s favor. Now all that stars like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling have to do is deliver. Populist Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been under fire for downplaying virus deaths, wouldn’t mind.
Ditto for Bolsonaro: July 8, 2014. Every Brazilian remembers the date when Germany humiliated the home team 7-1 in the semifinal of the World Cup. July 10, 2021 could be a day of resurrection for Brazil’s soccer stars, should they reach the final of the Copa América at home and win it. If they do, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro will be credited by many for bringing the competition to Brazil, bringing happiness to millions. But if the Seleção does not live up to expectations and COVID-19 cases continue to ramp up in the weeks and months ahead, the protestors already crowding Brazil’s streets by the millions will grow ever louder.
Last Dance: You’ve met the next big stars. But the next month could also serve as the swan song for a generation of aging legends in their national colors. Whether it’s Argentina’s Lionel Messi (33), Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (36), Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani (34), Poland’s Robert Lewandowski (32) or Brazil’s Thiago Silva (36), the European and South American championships could represent a final shot at winning silverware for their country.
- Stephen Starr Contact Stephen Starr