World

Enjoying the Plotless Fever Dream of Euro 2020

There is a reasonable argument that this year’s European soccer championship should not be happening. Like the Tokyo Olympics, the tournament is a holdover from last summer, when it was called off because of the pandemic. But it’s not as if the coronavirus has vanished, obligingly, from the scene. On July 1st, the World Health Organization reported a ten-per-cent increase in cases across Europe in the previous week, seeded, at least partly, by people going to stadiums and bars. In the United Kingdom, where the tournament’s semifinals and final will take place, a third wave of the virus, powered by the Delta variant, is potentially on its way: more than twenty-six thousand cases were recorded on June 30th, sixty per cent more than the week before. Hospitalizations remain low, but have also increased by more than fifty per cent in England in the same period. Germany’s Interior Minister has called the gathering of large, beer-drinking, anthem-singing crowds across the continent “utterly irresponsible,” and the Prime Minister of Italy, whose team has performed strongly so far, has suggested that the final should be moved from London to Rome.

The staging of the tournament, which was settled on in 2012, has unquestionable superspreader vibes. Since the opening match, on June 11th, forty-four games have been played in eleven nations, from Azerbaijan to Scotland, all with their own COVID infection rates and regulations. There have been sparse, sensible crowds, as in Amsterdam, and half-naked, frenzied, full-house ones, as in Budapest. Watching on television has meant seeing a range of parallel realities, in which life is coexisting more or less happily with the virus—all under UEFA’s turquoise, time-defiant branding of “Euro 2020,” a constant, jarring reminder that something weird is going on.

And, oh, it has been a joy. On Monday evening, in Copenhagen, Mislav Oršić, a Croatian winger, bundled in the hundred and ninth goal of Euro 2020—the most ever scored at the championships, with ten matches yet to be played. Oršić’s goal was the fifth in an eight-goal humdinger with Spain, the highest-scoring match witnessed in the competition since the very first: a 5–4 win for Yugoslavia over France, sixty-one summers ago. It’s hard to tell why the games have been so riotous. Maybe Europe’s best players are tactically fried, after a year of non-stop competition, since professional soccer started up again last summer? Maybe, like the rest of us, they are thrilled by the sun and the songs and human contact again? In keeping with the rest of the tournament, Monday night’s games were played with little or no narrative coherence. Spain, European champion in 2008 and 2012, tied its first two games of Euro 2020, scoring a solitary goal. The team’s forward line was impotent, led by Álvaro Morata, a tall, anguished-looking striker, who seemed too polite to score. After that, Spain scored five times in consecutive matches. Against Croatia, Morata smashed in the decisive goal—making the score 4–3 in extra time—as if he were simply putting the ball back where it belonged.

A couple of hours later, in Bucharest, the world-champion France led Switzerland by three goals to one, thanks to a wonderful, parabolic shot by Paul Pogba. It’s unclear why they were playing in Romania, whose team did not qualify for the tournament. But that’s not a reason to miss out on Euro 2020. Pogba watched the ball dip into the goal and stood quite still, crossed his arms, and nodded vigorously as he was mobbed. The game was all but won. But the Swiss stuck at it. In the last ten minutes, they scored twice, to send the match into extra time and, ultimately, a penalty shootout. The pivotal kick fell to Kylian Mbappé, the twenty-two-year-old French forward who is arguably the game’s most exciting young talent. Mbappé had a strange tournament. He shimmered with grace and purpose. He scored a sumptuous goal against Germany, which was then ruled out by the video-assistant referee. (Even V.A.R. has been disconcertingly excellent at Euro 2020.) Addressing his penalty against Switzerland, Mbappé was as nerveless as a god. Only Yann Sommer, the Swiss goalkeeper, looked more surprised when he saved the kick. France, the team widely expected to win the tournament, crashed out. Sport, in all its mystery, was manifest.

Only two top teams in Euro 2020—Belgium and Italy—played with anything like equanimity. The Belgians are the top-ranked team in the world. They grind. They dominate. The Italians, uncharacteristically, have been having fun. The other teams that progressed to the last eight appeared to be powered by forces larger than themselves. In the forty-third minute of the Danish team’s first match, against Finland, its talisman, Christian Eriksen, suffered a cardiac arrest. His teammates formed a stricken circle around him on the field. A German emergency doctor named Jens Kleinfeld, who had just trained the Danish medical staff in resuscitation techniques, ran out of his seat in the stadium and administered the defibrillator himself. “Are you back again?” Kleinfeld asked the footballer, as he came back to life. “Yes, I am here,” Eriksen replied. “Oh shit, I’ve only just turned twenty-nine years old.” The Danes lost that match but have played with fervor since then, beating Wales by four goals last weekend.

England, meanwhile, a perennial underachiever at major tournaments, has stuttered into a familiar state of wild, unfounded optimism. On Tuesday evening, at Wembley, the team played Germany, with whom it enjoys one of sport’s great one-sided rivalries. (Until this week, England had not beaten Germany in a major knockout tournament game for fifty-five years.) Raheem Sterling, a nimble former scapegoat for the national team’s struggles, scored a deft goal in the seventy-fifth minute. Harry Kane, who is supposed to be the team’s hero and main goalscorer, lumbered around roughly a year behind the action. With ten minutes to go, Sterling gave the ball away, and a German forward, Thomas Müller, who calls himself a raumdeuter, or space interpreter, streaked toward the English goal. Fans breathed in. Order waited to be reasserted. And Müller pushed the ball past the post. “That never used to happen! Never, ever!” Guy Mowbray, the BBC’s commentator, yelled with relief. Six minutes later, Kane stooped and headed a second goal into the German net. Wembley shook, the rain fell, and England fans went online and started buying tickets for the final.

Euro 2020 will enter its concluding stages, with the quarterfinal matches, this weekend. According to the tournament’s surreal logic, this means that it is necessary for the Danes to play the Czechs in Azerbaijan. It will probably be a classic. It is tempting to imagine that, at some point, the competition must revert to something more predictable: the deluge of goals will peter out; the more skillful, experienced teams will win; the fun will stop. But I don’t think that’s what the tournament—which is out of time, and out of place—is going to offer. It is a fever dream, an escape from sense, a barrel inside the wave. Reality will intercede, eventually. On June 30th, Scottish health officials reported that almost two thousand people had caught coronavirus after going to Euro 2020 events: three hundred and ninety-seven fans contracted the virus after going to Wembley, to see Scotland play England a couple of weeks ago. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister has asked regional authorities to ban meetings of more than five hundred people, as the Delta variant takes hold there. But, on Friday evening, more than thirty thousand fans will gather in St. Petersburg to watch Switzerland take on Spain. The plan is for the final of Euro 2020 to be played at Wembley, in London, on July 11th, before a crowd of sixty thousand. It’s not hard to see the virus winning that.


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