PARIS (AFP) – In different circumstances, the eyes of the football world would have been on Rome for the opening game of Euro 2020 tomorrow night, but instead the tournament was postponed by a year and UEFA are considering changes to the unprecedented format in a Europe shaken by the coronavirus pandemic.
The competition will still officially be called Euro 2020 when it finally kicks off on June 11, 2021, presumably at the Stadio Olimpico which was supposed to host the first match between Italy and Turkey.
That was before the health crisis forced European football’s governing body to take action in mid-March and delay the tournament by 12 months as the continent became the epicentre of the pandemic.
Fast forward almost three months from then and Europe has been traumatised by the impact of COVID-19, with more than 180,000 confirmed deaths and well over two million cases in total.
Italy, supposed to be the first port of call for a European Championship staged for the first time in 12 different nations, has suffered 34,000 deaths.
Only the United Kingdom (UK) among European countries, with over 40,000 deaths, has been harder hit. The semi-finals and final of the Euro are due to be played at Wembley in London.
Many European countries are gradually coming out of lockdowns but their economies are reeling and there remain fears of a second wave of infections.
It will take time for international travel restrictions to be lifted and possibly longer before governments consider it safe to allow gatherings large enough to fill the large stadiums set aside to host matches during the Euro.
These are two major unknowns that UEFA must deal with. The body was already facing criticism, including from climate change activists, for its decision to spread the 24-team tournament across the entire continent, with games being played in venues as far apart as Dublin and Baku.
However, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin recently hinted that the number of host cities could be reduced. In an interview with beIN Sports, he admitted to having “some issues” with three cities.
“So we will discuss further, and in principle, we will do it in 12 cities. But if not, we are ready to do it in 10, nine or eight,” Ceferin said.
A key UEFA Executive Committee meeting set for June 17, could see an announcement made regarding that as well as regarding a likely change of venue for this year’s postponed Champions League final.
It is not clear which host cities are being called into question, although organisers in Glasgow have insisted that the Scottish city is not affected.
UEFA have plenty more to consider, including the issue of reimbursing supporters who had bought tickets for matches before the postponement.
It must still work out when to reschedule the play-offs to decide the final four qualified nations for the Euro, but it says that the 2020/21 Nations League competition will still go ahead as planned.
Meanwhile, the postponement was not necessarily bad news for competing sides.
England manager Gareth Southgate might have been without injured captain Harry Kane and his fellow striker Marcus Rashford had the tournament gone ahead this year. Now he can look ahead in the hope that all his key men will be raring to go in 2021.
Currently the top ranked team in the world, Belgium recently moved to tie down coach Roberto Martinez, extending his contract through to 2022.
The Netherlands, another of the co-hosts, should have Memphis Depay, one of their standout players, fully fit again after a knee injury, and coach Ronald Koeman will hope to be back on form after being hospitalised with a heart problem in May.
However, the delay may not be great news for holders Portugal, whose talisman Cristiano Ronaldo will be 36 by the time the finals eventually come around. All going to plan.