As it turns out, it was a good thing that Euro 2020 was delayed a year. That pause allowed the soccer tournament, which begins on Friday, to fulfill its true purpose.
That isn’t deciding which country will be the favourite going into next year’s World Cup. It’s giving everyone involved a breather from resenting Europe, and allowing them to get back to resenting each other.
The Brexit vote took place in the middle of the previous Euro – June, 2016, in France.
I was in Paris at the time. Like another election still a few months away, I went to bed early figuring there was only one way this was going to turn out. I woke up in the morning and got the news from the BBC.
What I recall from that early morning coverage is an endless streeter featuring commuters passing through a London train station. A shocking number of them had to be told what had happened. This may go some way to explaining how Brexit happened in the first place.
There was no triumphalism. Every interviewee reacted with varying levels of horror and/or regret. A couple of them cried.
This was heady stuff. “The European Dream has died.” But I turned the dial over one to French TV and they were back to talking about the suddenly inaptly named soccer tournament.
In France, they didn’t seem to care all that much about Brexit. After all, the French soccer team was finally good. England’s was about to eliminated by – checking to see that this is right; yes, it is – Iceland.
So there you have it. Europeans 1, Former Europeans 0. It was pretty clear whose side God was on.
In the time since, the foul mood has spread over to the continent. The rest of Europe has begun to bicker with itself. The pandemic didn’t help.
A poll released this week showed that a majority of Europeans believe the European Union is “broken.” A larger plurality used the same word to describe their own domestic politics in countries such as Italy, Spain, France and Portugal.
Politicians, public-health officials, journalists, essentially anyone who tweets for a living – time to move aside. The athletes are back to take care of your problems.
The Euro is not the world’s great sporting tournament. That’s either the World Cup or the Olympics, depending on your preferences and where you’re from. But it is the world’s great sporting diversion.
Despite referencing just one part of the globe, it is watched in every corner of it. It can be watched closely or haphazardly; by die-hards or neutrals; by old-timers and newbies.
People you know who would never say: “You know what I’m really into these days? Bumper pool. I am going deep on bumper pool,” will claim over the next month that they’ve suddenly figured out soccer. It’s this sort of rush to the bandwagon that biennially convinces the people who run Major League Soccer that their league will some day be as big as the NBA. They’re wrong, but you can understand why they do it.
In Europe, the Euro’s purpose is building up and then draining off the bile. It is no longer cool to hate (Insert Country Name) for that time it (Ancient Conflict) to (Whatever Country You Come From).
But it is still permissible to do that in the context of soccer.
For instance, Ukraine has been told to alter its jerseys. The Russians have complained. Union of European Football Associations had to wade into the middle of it. The verdict: Ukraine can keep a logo that features the entirety of the country, including Crimea, which the Russians claim is theirs; but they must remove the phrase “Glory to the Heroes,” which is stitched on the inside lining of the neck.
Political grudges reduced to sporting ones remain the lingua franca of Europe. This steam-releasing back-and-forth is the reason why soccer would have to be invented if it did not already exist.
As usual, most of the pretournament onus falls on England.
That’s not because England matters more than any of the other countries, but because England is the Toronto Maple Leafs of soccer. No country wants it more, and no country is so regularly undone by that wanting.
Will England win? No. You can never go wrong with that answer.
Who will win? France.
But failing that, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Italy or Spain. You know. The usuals.
Who should you root for? Not the usuals. Their bandwagons are full. If you go looking for a hand up, they will know you weren’t there for qualifying in Latvia last November. You are a Gianni Come Lately.
You know how every World Cup, there’s that guy in your neighbourhood who suddenly starts going to work in a Brazil jersey? If you’re not Brazilian, do not be that guy. If you don’t look good in yellow (most people don’t), do not be him either.
Root for a true underdog. Try North Macedonia. It’s okay if you didn’t realize until just now that is a country. They’re friendly people in that part of the world. I’m sure they’ll appreciate your effort.
There is no better country in which to watch the Euro (or the World Cup) than Canada. Every country represented therein is also represented here.
It’s an excuse to get out in your city every day and see a little bit of what makes this sport the world’s most popular. You can be part of it without getting, you know, lost in it. It’s the ultimate viewing experience for the neutral.
In Europe, this tournament represents a coming back together after five years spent being slowly pulled apart. I imagine it may be cathartic for some of them. It may even push their deteriorating debate back a few steps from the edge. That’s the power of games.
Here, it’s a diversion. Never underestimate the value of that, either.