It was nine years ago in an airless conference hall in Kiev that Michel Platini floated the idea that the 2020 European Championship should be held across 12 countries.
It seemed a grand, ill-thought-out and totally vacuous plan. Entirely suitable, then, that such a grand and vacuous man should think of it.
Asked about the cost for supporters trying to get from venue to venue, Platini — then the president of UEFA — arched an eyebrow and replied: ‘There are such things as low-cost airlines.’
Euro 2020 is, against what at times have seemed to be insurmountable odds, finally here
It was nine years ago that Michel Platini floated the idea that it should be held across 12 cities
Platini was pleased with himself back then but is less so now. The former French playmaker is currently banned from football after being found to have received a £1.8million bung from former FIFA president Sepp Blatter a decade ago.
So he will not be present in Rome on Friday evening when, somehow, his strange, expensive and utterly impractical vision finally becomes fantastically and gloriously real.
A year later than planned and with three venues — Dublin, Bilbao and Brussels — having fallen by the wayside, Euro 2020 is, against what at times have seemed to be insurmountable odds, actually here.
Some of those budget airlines Platini so pithily mentioned in 2012 have not survived the pandemic. The movement of supporters between host nations will be almost non-existent anyway.
But he will not be present in Rome on Friday evening when his vision becomes reality
But the tournament has made it through the chaos and now that it is upon us, it feels a little like a shot in the spiritual arm for anyone who has ever shown as much as a passing interest in a football.
Sport echoes life. We have long known that but perhaps we understand it even more so today. This is a tournament that will be played against a background of ongoing uncertainty regarding the pandemic. We will not escape it. Smaller attendances, lateral flow tests, masks. They will be part of this tournament’s fabric and we will not forget.
But anybody lucky enough to have been to a football match since restrictions began to lift last month will testify to what it can do for the soul.
The FA Cup final last month was a fabulous occasion. Wembley thrummed to the pulse of blood returning to football’s veins that day. With that in mind, Sunday’s England game against Croatia will not feel as though it is being played in front of 65,000 empty seats.
The FA Cup final last month was a fabulous occasion, as the pulse of blood returned to football’s veins
In our hearts and minds, the next four weeks will feel as though we have regained a hold on a fundamental part of our lives. That is what we should all hope it is remembered for in years to come. The month that another corner was turned, a time when yet another small light in the room was switched back on.
We should have high hopes for the football too, even if that seems to matter a little less than in previous editions. There are too many teams in the tournament, for sure. That is the way it will always be from now on. There is no going back, no reframing of the FIFA/UEFA miscomprehension that bigger is always better.
But the last World Cup was a bloated affair, too, and that did not impact on the quality of the tournament.
The football was played largely on the front foot in Russia andA good number of the European coaches involved in the latter stages of that tournament — those of France, Croatia, Belgium and England — are continuing their progressive work three years down the line.
Gareth Southgate is continuing the progressive work three years down the line from Russia
Premier League interest will litter the tournament and all but the very smallest of small minds will pull for England, Scotland and Wales. But this is time to try to look at the bigger picture, to celebrate the health of the European game as a whole, to shake hands competitively with traditional adversaries once again. A time to meet old friends.
We hope that controversy over taking the knee does not become a theme. Those countries who choose to do it should be able to do so uninterrupted. Those who choose to take another path? Well that is their right, too. They should not be denigrated for that.
Of course it is a regret that many more people will not get to enjoy the joys of Euro 2020’s eclectic mix of venues. St Petersburg, Seville, Budapest, Amsterdam, Rome, Munich, Copenhagen. It reads like a hitch-hiker’s bucket list.
But this is a month not to worry about what have lost or what we don’t have but to revel in a little bit of the world that we have managed to take backfor ourselves. We hope there will be no letting go.
We hope that controversy over taking the knee does not become a theme at the tournament
Rome’s Stadio Olimpico will look splendid when Roberto Mancini’s soft and expensive leather loafers lead the Italians out against Turkey this evening. From there the caravan takes us east to Baku and St Petersburg on Saturday before re-routing west on Sunday en route to London.
Only a mind like Platini’s could have fathomed such a thing. Only the stubbornness inherent in a body like UEFA could have somehow pulled it off.
Platini didn’t have everything wrong back in Kiev that day, mind. Asked by a reporter for his thoughts on goal-line cameras, he replied: ‘I am against it. If we allow it, technology will eventually invade every area of football.’
VAR will be with us over the next four weeks, of course. Not even Covid could get in the way of that.