Ronán Daly takes a look ahead at a European Championship that will be unlike any previous iterations of the competition, and considers the motivations behind the return of football fans to stadia across the continent.
The 2021 edition of the European Championships (Still keeping the brand-name Euro 2020) was one of the many sporting events that fell victim to the global pandemic last year. The 60th anniversary and 16th edition of Europe’s summer celebration of football was set to take place in 12 host cities to mark the anniversary. It is somewhat ironic that the tournament that was supposed to be a continent-wide festival of football is now taking place during a time where many people can’t travel outside their country and after 18 months of football fans being locked out of stadiums. Both in spite of and because of the backdrop of the pandemic, this summer’s tournament could be the light at the end of the tunnel.
UEFA has said that they plan for each host city to have at least some fans in the stadiums and had set an original deadline of April 7th for host cities to confirm whether or not they will be able to host some supporters. A final decision from UEFA will take place on April 19th, when an executive committee will meet on the matter. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has said that each host city must have fans at their games, meaning that should a city not be able to accommodate even a diluted version of the crowd regularly in attendance at these games, they risk being dropped from the tournament roster altogether. Some host cities such as London, Glasgow and Rome have confirmed they will have fans, however for others they must make the decision whether or not their national covid situation warrants thousands of people congregating for a game of football.
One of the host cities most at risk of being dropped from the ballot is Dublin where Ireland is still in the midst of its longest and most severe lockdown. FAI Chief executive Jonathan Hill has said they are committed to hosting their 4 games in the Aviva stadium however the April 19th deadline is looming, and UEFA has set a minimum 25% capacity for stadiums hosting games. This would mean having 12,500 people in attendance at each of the 4 games.
This puts Dublin’s chances of hosting their games in doubt as NPHET haven’t been able to guarantee that Ireland’s situation will improve greatly by the April 19th deadline. There could be some leeway given for the fact the tournament isn’t going to take place until June, giving the government 2 months to reduce numbers and vaccinate more people. The long-awaited easing of restrictions scheduled for April 26th may improve Dublin’s chances of hosting their games.
The debate of whether fans should be allowed back into stadiums has been going on for a number of months now. While the Euros might be used as a way to signal a continent of football fans returning to the game they love, it still raises serious questions about the necessity of these public health risks. The 12 host countries are Azerbaijan, Denmark, England, Germany, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, Romania, Russia, Scotland and Spain. Of these only Hungary and the UK have over 10% of their population vaccinated.
On the surface these are low numbers for some countries, Russia and Azerbaijan for example are only reporting about 4% of their populations vaccinated. These number mainly make up the oldest and most vulnerable members of society and with another 2 months before the tournament there is hope these numbers would rise significantly and the thought of hosting games would pose a lesser threat to public health.
England have offered to host the tournament in its entirety, but UEFA seem set on the continent-wide tournament that has been planned since it was first suggested by Michel Platini in 2012. Of-course public health should be the main priority but with the number of vulnerable people vaccinated growing every day fans should be hopeful that UEFA’s plans to bring football back to Europe and if all goes to plan it could be the light at the end of the tunnel for many football fans.
For Ireland it will be a nervy few weeks for the FAI to see if they get the approval of NPHET and the Irish government to open the Aviva stadium in some capacity for the tournament. Even though the Republic of Ireland aren’t one of the 24 countries that will be competing at this summer’s tournament it could still be a needed boost for the neutral Irish football fans who might be lucky enough to get to a game.
This will of course bring about more debates, with inter-county GAA returning at the end of April and Provincial and All-Ireland championships to take place over the summer there will surely be pressure put on the government to allow fans to return to GAA grounds around the country as well. There was uproar among the GAA community when League Of Ireland football was allowed to return before Inter-County GAA, fans being allowed to games between 2 foreign teams would likely see GAA fans look for similar allowances on attendances.
Regardless of whether or not Dublin makes the deadline Euro 2020 will be going ahead this year. If all goes according to plan it could be the catalyst for football fans returning to grounds for the start of domestic campaigns around Europe that will begin in late August. It will also provide entertaining viewing for Irish football fans, even if we don’t get to see our side in action. While it won’t be the same as tournaments gone by where we can go to crowded pubs and enjoy the summer tournament atmosphere we can hope that by June we can at least enjoy Europe’s elite battling it out in the company of our friends.