If Aleksander Ceferin has any say on the matter, there will never be another European soccer championship like the one that starts this week. And that decision has nothing to do with the coronavirus.
Ceferin, the president of European soccer’s governing body, quickly listed the headaches that came with organizing this summer’s championship. Matches in 11 countries, originally 13, meant finding 11 cities and 11 stadiums capable of hosting them. It meant creating teams to run each site and arranging for dozens of hotels to house everyone who would go. But it also meant navigating legal jurisdictions and linguistic boundaries, tax laws and big politics as well as soccer politics, currency values and visa rules.
And that was before the coronavirus made it all exponentially harder.
“I would not do it again,” Ceferin said in a phone interview late last month.
For the first time in its 61-year history, the European Championship, which begins on Friday with a game between Italy and Turkey in Rome, is being played on a continentwide basis. It will feature big players and small crowds, and host cities as far apart as Seville, Spain, near the southwest tip of the Iberian Peninsula, and Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, nestled on the Caspian Sea. The latter is closer to Tehran and Baghdad than it is to any of the other 10 tournament sites.
It will play out using a schedule that had to be fixed enough to ensure several countries would play the bulk of their games on home soil, yet flexible enough that it could change as coronavirus outbreaks and travel restrictions demanded. It meant coming to terms with what Britain’s departure from the European Union amounted to in practice, sometimes before even Britain was sure, and finding solutions after two cities were stripped of their games in April.
And it meant that whatever happens over the next month — however many goals are scored, however many thrilling matches are played — that there is certain to be only one overriding sensation for organizers when the final whistle blows on July 11: relief.
“It’s very complicated,” Ceferin said in a world-class understatement, “and now it’s even more complicated.”
And none of it, he is quick to point out, was his idea. The idea of a pan-continental European championship was the brainchild of Michel Platini, Ceferin’s predecessor as president of UEFA. Platini had proposed the idea of a Europe-wide celebration in 2012, after Turkey, the only bidder for the soccer event, refused to rule out also seeking the hosting rights for the Olympics that would be held in the same summer in 2020.
No country, UEFA felt, could pull off the Olympics and the European Championship — a soccer tournament second only to the World Cup in viewership and prominence — in close succession. Spreading the Euros around, Platini decided, could spread the joy of the event, but also serve as a valuable hedge in case Turkey had to choose between the games and the Games.
By 2015, though, Platini was gone, one of the soccer officials ousted in a corruption scandal. But his concept lived on. When Ceferin was elevated to the UEFA presidency in 2016, he decided to forge ahead with the multinational concept, which by that stage had announced several host cities.
While there were some hiccups — Brussels was forced out in 2017 after it could not guarantee a promised stadium would be ready — organizers believed they had pulled off what they once thought to be a Sisyphean task. By March 2020, almost everything that needed to be in place was in place, and the buzz around the tournament was beginning to grow. Some sponsors had activated their promotions, and Euro 2020 collectibles, cards and sticker albums were in stores.
And then the pandemic brought the world to a halt.
“Everybody was a little bit lost for a while,” Martin Kallen, the UEFA director responsible for the tournament, said of the feeling when it became clear the tournament would not be played as planned. “‘How are we going to do this? How are we going to go forward?’ Not only football, it was everywhere in society. We didn’t know what will happen next week.”
Cancellation, according to Ceferin, would have been a devastating financial blow, imperiling the future of some of the federations that rely on stipends from European soccer’s governing body for their existence.
“If you postpone, you can negotiate, and the loss is smaller,” Ceferin said. “But if you say, ‘We will not play at all,’ this is a big, big financial impact.”
After a couple of weeks of assessing their options — which included raising and then dismissing the possibility of staging the entire tournament in Russia or England — and discussions involving a dizzying array of partners, from politicians to stadium owners, sponsors and broadcasters, the hard work to save the multinational mosaic started again.
The first few calls were easy. Rescheduling the tournament for the same dates a year later solved the scheduling concerns, and since the merchandise with the Euro 2020 branding had been shipped, the tournament’s name would stay, too.
By the fall of 2020, in fact, it had been decided to stick as close to the original plan as possible, with one important guarantee: Even amid the pandemic, each host city would have to make provisions to allow fans to attend the matches.
The requirement seemed onerous and led to some tense exchanges between UEFA and national and regional governments. The decision, officials said, was partly made out of financial necessity — UEFA’s financial projections for the tournament have been revised downward by at least 300 million euros ($366 million) — but organizers also felt the return of fans, even in reduced capacities, was symbolically important.
“We want to come back to normality in life, and we want to come back to normality in football stadiums,” Kallen said. Crowds at a big event like the Euros, UEFA had decided, would send that signal.
With the virus raging, though, and several countries struggling with their vaccination programs, the demand for in-person crowds threatened the hosting ability of as many as four cities.
In the end, only two cities lost out. Dublin, where politicians had always said it would be impossible to play with fans, was the first to go. It was the easiest, too; Ireland had not qualified for the tournament, and UEFA considered it unlikely many fans would attend the games in Ireland given restrictions on travel. Bilbao, in Spain, was a different matter.
The largest city of the Basque region, where separatist feelings remain high, Bilbao was always a strange choice for UEFA. Spain’s national team has not played in the region since 1967, and it appeared to have made the list only because the since-ousted head of Spanish soccer had pushed its candidacy. Many of the city’s soccer-loving public had eventually come around to the idea of hosting other teams, though, and local officials welcomed the chance to take a turn in the international spotlight.
When the games were pulled after UEFA felt the conditions required for fans to attend could never be met, furious local officials publicly assailed the decision and vowed to extract damages. Ceferin expressed sympathy and suggested both cities might host future events, but within weeks he and organizers had a new fire to put out.
On the morning of the Champions League final in May, members of UEFA’s hierarchy held an emergency meeting at their hotel in Portugal after learning that new rules in Scotland could force an entire team into quarantine if even a single player tested positive there.
A decision was quickly taken to scrap team bases in the country for the Czech Republic and Croatia. (Scotland had already announced that it would train in England.) But two days later, Scotland revealed that one of its players had tested positive. He and six teammates were left home from a friendly at the Netherlands, but their absence highlighted another change instituted this year in deference to the pandemic: Teams have been allowed to travel with 26 players instead of the usual 23.
The challenges might not be over, either. There is anxiety about a quarterfinal match set for Munich on July 2, since one of the participants will be traveling from England, which is subject to new, harsher travel rules. (The game could still be moved.)
“We always have to have a plan, B, C or D,” said Kallen, noting that UEFA was now experienced in adapting to unforeseen circumstances after moving the Champions League on late notice two years in a row.
Even UEFA’s leaders have had to recalibrate their travel plans: They will split into two traveling parties in order to visit all 11 host cities, with one headed by Ceferin and the other by his top deputy, Theodore Theodoridis. Their itineraries have been meticulously planned through June 21, a key date the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, has earmarked to “unlock” England from most of the remaining pandemic-related restrictions on social contact.
Ceferin said that he had plans to speak with senior British politicians, including Johnson, before the tournament, and that he still hoped to receive the backing of the British government for a full stadium for the final at Wembley Stadium in London in July.
“I think it’s possible,” Ceferin said. “Why not?”
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