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//Gill Sherry//

After so many months of frustration, when flights were grounded, restaurants were closed and concerts and sporting events were cancelled, it was good to finally have something to shout about. Regardless of your sporting preferences, there’s no denying the UEFA European Football Championships (or the ‘Euros’ as they’re affectionately known) restored that sense of excitement that had been absent for so long.

Originally due to take place last year, Euro 2020 finally kicked off on 11th June 2021, with Italy beating Turkey in the opening group stage match. Twenty-four teams would compete, including the World Cup holders, France, their squad boasting big name players including Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Karim Benzema. But it was their neighbours, Belgium, who began the tournament as favourites, their in-form striker Romelo Lukaku and Manchester City midfielder, Kevin De Bruyne, just two of the players responsible for propelling Belgium to the top of the FIFA World Rankings.

Matches would be hosted by eleven different countries, with the semi-finals and final taking place at Wembley Stadium in London. Significantly, the final would be watched by a crowd of 60,000 fans, the first of its size since the global pandemic began.

There were no major surprises in the group stage which saw Turkey, Russia, North Macedonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Finland and Scotland eliminated after three games. It was Scotland’s first major tournament since 1998 but they failed to register a win. That said, they did manage a goalless draw against their old rivals, England, a minor victory in the eyes of the Scottish.

All other eyes, however, were on Denmark. In their opening match against Finland on 12th June, former Tottenham Hotspur favourite, Christian Eriksen, suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch, a shocking and deeply upsetting incident that overshadowed the football. Thankfully, and despite initial fears, he recovered from the trauma and is recovering well. Controversially, the decision was made to continue with the match which Finland went on to win 1-0. But while Denmark may have lost the game, they won the hearts of football fans worldwide, with many adopting the Nordic nation as their new tournament favourites.

Denmark’s second group match saw them lose to Belgium but a 4-0 win over Russia in their third game resulted in a place in the last sixteen where they knocked out Wales in a 4-0 victory of their own. Italy defeated Austria on the same day and a win for Czech Republic over the Netherlands followed.

Christiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, having scraped through to the last sixteen, faced Belgium in their first knock-out game. But there would be no winner’s medal for the Madeira-born striker this time, Thorgan Hazard’s 42nd minute goal enough to give victory to the Belgians. Ronaldo, however, didn’t leave entirely empty handed. His two goals against Hungary saw him become the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Euros. His goals also meant he’d scored in all nine of his major tournaments, including four World Cups. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t deny his exceptional talent and, thanks to his five goals, he was still favourite to win the Golden Boot.

Spain secured a hard-earned victory in their match against Croatia, winning 5-3 after extra time. The game between France and Switzerland also required an extra thirty minutes but, with neither side able to produce a winner, it was decided on penalties. Kylian Mbappe stepped up to take the deciding kick, an unconvincing attempt that was saved by the Swiss goalkeeper, Yann Sommer. Au revoir, France.

England were up next against the Germans. England’s top striker, Harry Kane, had yet to score in the tournament and they hadn’t beaten Germany in a knock-out match in fifty-five years. The Germans, however, were no match for Gareth Southgate’s ‘three lions’ and with Kane finally finding the net to add to Raheem Sterling’s opener, the Germans were heading home.

The final game of the last sixteen saw Sweden take on Ukraine. Extra time was again required in which substitute, Dovbyk, scored a winning header in the 121st minute, sending a jubilant Ukraine through to the quarter finals.

Spain’s quarter final match against Switzerland also required extra time and penalties. It’s fair to say most of the spot kicks were poor, the penalty scoreline of 3-1 telling its own story and sending Spain through to the last four.

The Belgium/Italy quarter final was highly anticipated. The world’s number one team against an Italian side unbeaten in thirty-one games promised to have viewers on the edge of their seats. It was a close contest with Italy’s tireless teamwork ultimately overriding the individual skill of Belgium’s big-name stars. It ended Belgium 1, Italy 2.

With the Danes still ‘doing it for Christian’ they pulled off an impressive 2-1 win over Czech Republic earning them a place in the semi-final – their first since 1992. They were also the first team to reach the semi-final after losing their first two games in the competition. Was their name on the trophy, perhaps?

The last game of the quarter-finals saw Ukraine take on England in Rome. It was a comprehensive victory for the English in which Harry Kane added two more to his goal tally and Harry McGuire and Jordan Henderson both scored impressive headers. Final score: England 4, Ukraine 0.

On to the semi-finals in which Italy would play Spain and England would face Denmark. A little surprising, maybe, but no less exciting. In fact, the prospect of new names and new heroes was a welcome one.

Spain and Italy were up first, an exciting competition between two teams in excellent form. They were evenly matched and could not be separated, even after extra time. So, the dreaded penalty shoot-out followed, a tense contest with mistakes from both sides. Ultimately, Italy came out on top, Morata’s failure to convert capitalized on by Chelsea’s midfielder, Jorginho.

On to England and Denmark. Doubtless, England could benefit from the home advantage, their vocal fans easily out-singing the 7,800 Danes inside Wembley. It was an enthralling game and a spectacular free kick from Mikkel Damsgaard saw Denmark take the lead. But just nine minutes later, the in-form Raheem Sterling forced an own goal from Simon Kjaer and it remained at 1-1 after ninety minutes. It was a contentious penalty decision that saw England steal the win in extra time. The referee blew for a foul by Joakim Maehle on Sterling in the box and although the incident was looked at by VAR, the decision stood. Harry Kane’s spot kick was saved by keeper, Casper Schmeichel, but Kane was first to the rebound, firing the ball into the back of the net and firing England into the final.

Denmark would, rightly, feel aggrieved but it’s fair to say England had the edge. The Danes had made five substitutions in normal time and had already made the sixth when Mathias Jensen was forced off injured. As a result, they played most of the second half of extra time with only ten men and were no match for the fresh legs of England’s extra time substitutes. Much to the disappointment of most ‘neutral’ fans, Denmark were out.

The number of substitutions allowed during the Euros caused confusion for many fans but EUFA had confirmed the rules prior to commencement of the tournament. According to their official statement, each side could make five changes in ninety minutes and would have three opportunities to make substitutions, plus the half-time break. In the event of extra-time, sides would be permitted a sixth change.

So, could England win their first major tournament since their famous World Cup victory in 1966? To do so, they would need to beat an impressive Italian side managed by Roberto Mancini. The three lions had not beaten the ‘Azzurri’ in their past three meetings so Gareth Southgate’s men would need to play the game of their lives.

Thanks to Luke Shaw’s unforgettable strike just two minutes into the game, England took an early lead. But the Italians fought their way back and scored an equalizer in the 67th minute. It remained 1-1, forcing extra time. But neither team could find a winner and a penalty shoot-out was inevitable. With this in mind, Gareth Southgate made two last-minute substitutions, bringing on two youngsters (Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka) in the dying seconds of the game.

Unfortunately for England, the plan backfired with both players unable to convert their spot kicks. Italy’s goalkeeping giant, Gianluigi Donnarumma, saved their attempts after Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford had already failed to hit the target. And although Jordan Pickford stopped Andrea Belotti’s and Jorginho’s shots, the Italians won the shoot-out 3-2. It was heartbreaking for England’s players and particularly painful for those courageous enough to step forward.

The one consolation for the England team was the Golden Glove, awarded to Jordan Pickford for his five clean sheets. He only conceded two goals (excluding penalty shoot-outs) in the tournament and was arguably one of the three lions’ best players.

The Golden Boot was, indeed, won by Christiano Ronaldo for his five goals and one assist, the latter giving him the edge over Patrik Schick of Czech Republic who also netted five times.

But the glory, of course, went to Italy. After thirty-four games unbeaten, they were crowned Champions of Europe. They may not have been the favourites, but they were most definitely worthy winners.

As for the fans, regardless of nationality, sporting favourites or team allegiance, it was good to see supporters back in the stands. Roll on Qatar!

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