The Euro 2020 felt like the real thing from the moment the opening ceremony began. This was no longer football at Madame Tussauds, but febrile and fevered nights of shared cultural experience. Football’s hibernation came to an end, a stripped-back tournament in which collective endeavor replaced star power took hold. Across the continent, Europeans rejoiced at the game’s reawakening, the tribalism of club football forgotten.
From the Caspian Sea to London, fans slogged their way to far-flung cities to attend matches at corporate cathedrals, often traveling in the wee hours of the night, and staying at shabby, overpriced hotels. All the while with Covid-19 lurking in the background. In Saint Petersburg, the virus seemingly didn’t exist. A 40-men strong Russian TV production crew invaded my Petrogradskaya basecamp, all unmasked and unvaccinated at the height of a third wave. In Amsterdam, the testing system simply collapsed, and in Copenhagen, masks were a rarity.
The endless testing and rules wore down even the most vigilant travelers. Overall though, fandom in the pandemic was different: more sanitized, more sterile and with less mingling, the joyous scenes of cultural exchange from the World Cup a distant memory.
Even so, on a base level, the tournament did unite Europeans. How often, after all, do a Frenchman, a Portuguese and a Swede share a communal experience? Political scientist Benedict Anderson argues that in a large society, one will never meet the vast majority of those who claim to have the same identity as us – an Englishmen from Brighton cannot meet all his fellow countrymen – and thus a sense of community is produced not by face-to-face interaction, but in the collective imagination — and football is the perfect lubricant, on TV or in the stadium. The Danes’ tournament was an exercise in nation-building, the North Macedonians flooded Bucharest and the Belgians once again turned into 90-minute patriots.
The final however symbolized existential divides, a matchup between England and the continent, between English exceptionalism and the commendable values of Gareth Southgate and his young stars. Football, in 2021, has never been more political.