Football may not have quite found the way to its so-called traditional home. Nevertheless, it was an epic journey for England, Denmark and to a lesser extent, Spain to reach the semi -finals. Their achievements (especially that of the Danes, using the trauma of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest as motivational fuel and to remind us of their own actual footballing quality) further paints the greed-fuelled European Super League as a total mood misread, surely Voldemort’s idea of a bad joke upon us muggles.
One thing that makes tournament sport so super and earnestly appealing to neutrals is its wonderful randomness, impulsively pitting big hitters off against one another, constantly providing a David vs Goliath narrative and showing that the backstage crew can provide as much drama and increasingly feverish goodwill as the main cast.
Of course, a tip of the hat is due to the less well-sung nations, the back-ups to the back-ups, guards guarding the guards. Failsafe’s should somehow, Hungary the 37st ranked team by Fifa’s standings, heroically perish in the death group containing the last trio of World and European Champions. Hungary lived up to a sweepstakes pun of hungry, after nibbling Portugal fruitlessly, they discovered a purposefully pleasant chewing in how France, a starting XI resembling exquisite pain-au-chocolats were reduced to crumbs of stale baguette. North Macedonia also epitomised an underdog sense, their magnificent feats in being here at all a rowdy finger to greed-fuelled intruders, Goran Pandev their heroic ‘elderman’ scorer was certainly a mischievous presence for defences to be wary of. Ultimately, these types of teams are blunted by the lack of a big name, one who has a hybrid engine. Roaring acceleration, smooth close control and dogged defensive duties. Or you know, a world-class midfielder in the ilk of Pedri, Luka Modric, Mason Mount, Mikel Damsgaard. A midfielder most evocative of N’Golo Kante or prime McA (see Wigan’s 2013 FA Cup final XI) double axis.
Only these deemed ‘lesser’ teams found unearthed new, freshly shiny diamonds as well. Kieffer Moore morphed into 2016’s Hal Robsun-Kanu, Switzerland’s Haris Seferovic was treated to Roger Federer’s Instagram adoration whilst Andriy Yarmolenko for four games transformed from just another expensive West Ham flop to devastating, can-hit-them winger. Renato Sanches soared high again, released of his disguise as a flightless bird at Swansea. There were other, more unremarkable remarkability’s. Autumnal mogul Kyle Walker has, as Luke Shaw at Manchester United by Alex Telles, been the beneficiary of pushed competition for places at club level, spurred on by Joao Cancelo, reviving his career for club and country. An experienced head battling back against a plethora of young right-sided choices, Walker treated as a reliable cola bottle from Gareth’s pick n mix factory of right backs. Leonardo Spinazzola, Italy’s plundering rocket launcher left back, has caught numerous eyes with ball at feet combined with his hair curls brimming and bobbling everywhere like freshly refilled pints wriggling worriedly on a wobbly bar stand. Spain, this time, after the daunting vagueness that envelops former prowess, found certainty in crazy, loveable, goals galore, cahoot defences bedlam. The Swedes played decent ball without their Zlatan messiah, pushing and progressing together as a team as opposed to Tottenham lumping the ball forward, the lazy punt really communicating “Cmon Harry, do your thing, we’ve only left you half the pitch to make up”.
For the final itself, as we scoured Belfast’s pubs to the devastation of England’s early score, Wembley was properly awash with noise and buzz, after all the prodigal son, yes football himself had just strutted into the building. England’s experienced pros turned up as experienced pros. Harry Maguire conducted things with the authoritative swagger of an £80Million player. Kane, when he wasn’t limbering after the ball or feigning laughter at whatever Giorgio Chiellini humour, directed a smooth script, barking and pointing at nippy wingers, grizzling with the mighty grizzle of Azzuri defence, lip muscles twerking impermissibly to not reveal his glee at forward players actively buzzing about, making decoy dallies and Sterling shooting, near him. Kalvin Phillips would have made Marcelo Bielsa beam. While Luke Shaw, as he glided in on the far post like a renegade missile, leathered what he could have conceived as Jose Mourinho’s mocking face with all the might he could muster. It mustered rather well, disintegrating the net with a thrilling whack to cue pandemonium.
At this stage, football was settled home, its shoes off and feet up. Then Italy returned. Their first half meandering meant they merely resembled football’s Uncle Bryn innocently popping by for gardening tweezers. Mancini tinkered accordingly and quickly, Italy and England were determinedly tugging football to and fro in the garden porch. The effervescent Manuel Locatelli skittered about with precision, the third choice in Chelsea’s left back society, Emerson rattled the crossbar after raiding in the left flank, almost yanking football out the window out by pure stealth. Jorginho stirred, his engine revving once more. Lorenzo Insigne hovered with menacing purpose. While that eternal partnership, of Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini grizzled and growled, snapping disruptively at Kane’s lack of service, hurtling into headers, football’s old men outgunning the young uns as tackles topped tiki-taka.
Forward forays were stealthy prowls though the Wembley grass in the hope of being undetected. To complete the look of nonchalance, all they needed were bowler hats and Tesco bags brimming with Dolmio. Extra time came and went as did numerous fruitless crosses. Chiellini miraculously recovered to shut out Sterling against all logic. Jorginho should have seen red for a reckless lunge on the increasingly reliable Walker. Gareth Southgate hurried to get Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho in place for penalties, like a man desperately wading through urban city puddles to hail down a 561 bus suspended by traffic lights. Rousing tactics were instructed, beer kegs inched nearer the telly, Cup quarter final shoot-out defeats doused from memory.
Football remained porch perched, its arm sinews strained by both England and Italy as it tremblingly lurched one way then the other. As the Azzuri teetered, pushed on the brink by Harry’s expertly dispatched kicks, Bonucci lumbered up. Jordan Pickford has enjoyed a wonderful tournament but was powerless as the penalty boomed home. Momentum shifted. Southgate’s late flings flung into the area. The giant, Gigi Donarumma channelled fellow Gigi Buffon as a paw-post-paw trio of penalty kicks saw football go Rome. Jorginho also botched his lines but as the crowd gawked upon Bukayo Saka, the understated midfielder, the Sarri stooge finalised his reputation as European Champion for club and country. Which, you know sounds rather impressive out loud. The slug-out of penalties wasn’t pot luck but who held their nerve, Italy played their cards astoundingly well. Some feel that with his late substitutions Southgate removed the aces he had played so well to reach this point. As the image of Saka being comforted resonated home, it reminds us that the responsibility lies not with a gallant, talented teenager. More with Italy’s awesome tidal wave of overwhelming second half dominance finally creaking a resilient, likeable England. An England, who I may begrudgingly add were worthy finalists and in Raheem Sterling possessed a lethally productive potency all tournament. The tsunami eventually thundered down and accompanying the wallops of waves that it brought were Italy. Surfing back into Rome with, football tucked under its arm, grizzled warriors, new-found stars, maligned Londoners and an elated Roberto Mancini all aboard.
As we emerge, tattered by grit and sweat after our 16 months of failed workout regimes in favour of hummus, out of the pandemic, it is not just sports teams attempting to work back. Broadcasting groups behind the mics from Mark Chapman’s pleasant tones to Alex Scott overcoming societal barriers in punditry and presenting. In the wider world too, brands and company teams, high street retailers, local marketeers are all rewiring, developing, changing the angle, an innovative new nook and cranny here, a blissful beer garden there. Even here “at” QUB, we merge together in a united cacophony of lively debate, furiously spitting flames as we read the latest QUB Love goss before demonically devouring the comments section.
Reuniting Friends was risky in its delivery but really outstandingly timed. When we are most seeking friendships and social circles again, nostalgically remembering happy drunken days, the idea to bring Friends back reminds why the show is such a wonderful hit. It is easily refreshing, six friends hanging out, wrecking mayhem, tanning badly, screwing exes and bosses, experiencing our own ups and downs of relatable stop start relationships. Those uncomplicated by social media. Further, the scheme of matching people by QUB Love was terrific for that same need for us to feed our urge of socialising anew. We are hardly elegant butterflies flying into, orange twanged skies. No, our beer belly’s and fruitless yoga efforts stop that dream. But let us adore the fact that we are morphing out in any form. It is, as Gareth Southgate will know some sort of evolution, clear progress forward. For some (looking at you here, Matt, Boris, Priti) this transition will not be enough.
Is BoJo so desperate to go clubbing again as to risk discarding face masks altogether? Why should a courageous teenager be scrutinised more cruelly than the racists scrutinising him? When, oh when will ‘Sweet Caroline’ bellow with such joyous gusto? Boojums are simply heaven in tinfoil. Who ever doubted Jorginho? As these crucial matters revolve around our battered minds, perhaps really we should take a moment, draw breath and appreciate the return of another lost prodigy. No, not football. He may visit again next year.
Returning sensory feelings, our range of emotions deliriously portrayed in hugs, shared space and glasses clinking. Gradual reopening and reuniting have been bliss, Euro 2020 the pot of gold at the end of Satan’s miserable and colourless rainbow. Cherish this, marvel at Federico Chiesa’s finishing (or his diving), deflatedly bow to the old guard. Then re-engage in your huddles and 4am pizzas with energetic delight, renewed satisfaction and above all with ‘compadres’ well worth waiting to reunite with.
Here’s hoping it won’t take another European Championship to let us live like this again.
The text accompanying the pictures within this article are to be attributed to The Gown Editor, Peter Donnelly.