Here’s hoping Euro 2020 and Three Lions can bring us all some cheer - Stuart Rayner

Just the 364 days late, Euro 2020 finally kicks off in Rome this evening. We could really do with it being a good one.

Flashback: Paul Gascoigne celebrating his goal with Teddy Sheringham in the Euro 96 clash against Scotland. Photo: Neil Munns/PA Wire.
Flashback: Paul Gascoigne celebrating his goal with Teddy Sheringham in the Euro 96 clash against Scotland. Photo: Neil Munns/PA Wire.

The whole point of this diamond jubilee tournament was as a Europe-wide celebration of the beautiful game. That would have been nice then but where we are now, still far from out of the Covid-19 woods, the escapism could be so important.

Some tournaments are good in spite of the football. The killjoys revel in pointing out how miserable much of the action at Italia 90 actually was and revisionists can do the same with Euro 96. It did not stop either being great fun.

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That said, a bit of adventurous football would not go amiss, and England are well stocked to provide it. With potentially six out of seven matches at home, this is just about a home tournament and the only previous two – 1966 and 1996 – went pretty well.

England fans at Euro 96. Photo: Adam Butler/PA Wire.

The Three Lions doing well in a major tournament whilst the sun shines lifts the country, dragging with it people whose interest in football should only really have lasted as long as Slovakia were still alive in the office sweepstake. Before you know it the shops are sold out of waistcoats, St George’s flags are omnipresent and everyone can hold and give the John Barnes Rap word for word.

Such is the nonsensical format, getting off to a slow start and finishing second in the group could actually help England, although if it means dropping points to Scotland next week and never hearing the end of it from any fan of the “1967 World Cup winners”, some might think it too high a price to pay.

That the Scots and Welsh can brag and banter with the English adds to the fun. You miss rivals when they are not there and Welsh memories only need stretch back to the semi-finals of five years ago to believe they are not just making up the numbers. This time it is a generation of Scots who will discover what it is like to be proud of watching their team play in a major tournament.

This could be the month where we take a giant step back in the direction of normality, or it might be the one where “Freedom Day” is put on ice and England are knocked out early. If it turns out to be the latter, there will be angst-free games to enjoy, second teams to randomly adopt.

England's captain Harry Kane. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Even having finally made it to this stage 20 months after the first sides qualified, this will not be an easy tournament. Twelve relentless months of football have taken a lot out of the legs we hope can entertain us and the bloated format first used in 2016 will only exacerbate it. So will dragging players across Europe from Azerbaijan to Scotland.

The booing at England and Hungary’s June friendlies (the once-mighty Magyars are not taking part but Budapest hosts four games) of players taking the knee to protest against racism is a potentially ugly scar at a time when humanity has bigger things to fight against than each other.

Already there have been Covid cases in the Spanish and Swedish squads – Leeds United’s Diego Llorente positive test may have been a double negative – and we can only hope the 11-country format which was ludicrous when it was first suggested does not aid super-spreading. On the positive side, at least we will not have 600-plus footballers and the rest in one country if there is a spike.

England look to have lost much of the momentum of 2019 and have kept up the proud tradition of worrying over the fitness of key players before a ball is kicked. Still, expectations and outcomes rarely match up when the Three Lions play summer football.

And for all that could go wrong, there is much that could go right.

If the extra teams dilute the quality of the competition, it opens the possibility of more fairytales. Just ask Wales and Iceland.

Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling are exciting players worthy of a grand stage, and they are only the shining lights at the sharp end of England’s squad.

Every group features players and teams to get excited about and in the coming weeks all but the most anoraky of European football anoraks will learn about new names and new heroes.

Llorente will hopefully be one of 10 representing the Yorkshire clubs, plus Sheffielders have Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker and Dominic Calvert-Lewin to take pride in, Hull has Dan James and Barnsley John Stones.

Above all, there will be fans.

Wembley will only be quarter-full for its opening games but anyone who watched this season’s FA Cup knows that is more than enough to get it rocking. An atmosphere to match those when the old place last hosted the tournament, a quarter of a century ago, would be so special. Hopefully come the business end Wembley will have the same 100 per cent capacity Budapest is the only stadium to start with.

If not, we have had plenty of practice these last 18 months of making the most of what we have.

There will be problems. There will be disappointments. There will be boring matches. England might be rubbish or might be really good but end up in a penalty shoot-out against Germany. You might not successfully avoid Uri Geller spouting nonsense or predictions by octopuses for a whole month.

But there will be wall-to-wall football and if you have read this far down the article, the chances are that will not drive you to despair.

Enjoy it and immerse yourself in it. If the last 18 months has taught us anything, it is that we do not know when Euro 2024 will come around.