EURO 2020: Overcoming unprecedented challenges

13.07.2021

Italy have won their second European Championship title after victory in 1968, denying England to win their first Euro title, which would have ended their 55-year wait for a major trophy. The final in London’s Wembley Stadium featured all that characterized the whole tournament; extra time and a penalty shootout to decide the winner, teamwork prevailing over star performances, incidents interrupting the game, and, most importantly, fans being able to enjoy the game after a year of forced isolation due to the Covid pandemic. Interestingly, the health crisis created fewer headaches than it could have caused, while the pan-European set-up triggered more controversy, particularly concerning the travel burden for some teams and also surrounding various cultural and political reactions, involving some host countries and sponsors alike. Being the first and likely the last of its kind, the pan-European tournament has seen some thrilling matches, several records broken and the emergence of some new stars.

A full month of almost day-to-day football is over: for the second time in its history, the European Championship featured 24 teams playing altogether 51 games, with up to four matches played per day in the group phase. Moreover, the 2020 edition, postponed to 2021 because of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the football schedule, was the first EURO to be a pan-European national team tournament staged in 11 cities across the continent, introduced as a  one-off event to celebrate the 60th "birthday" of the European Championship competition. In combination with the implications caused by the coronavirus pandemic, organizers faced indeed an unprecedented logistical challenge. In a recent interview for BBC, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin admitted that the multi-country set-up was difficult to implement and he "would not support it anymore”. "We had to travel a lot, into countries with different jurisdictions, different currencies, countries in the European Union (EU) and Non-EU, so it was not easy”, he argued.

From a sporting perspective, the EURO was unique too, studded with notable records. There were 142 goals at the tournament – the most of any EURO finals – with an average of 2.79 goals per game also being a record high. There were 11 own goals at EURO 2020, more than the combined total scored in the 15 previous editions of the European Championship. Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded the top scorer trophy of the tournament, having hit five goals and assisted one – he also became the top goal scorer at the European Championship with a total of 14 goals in his five tournaments, also a record. The ties in the knockout stage were also big fights: in fact, eight out of the 15 knockout games were decided in extra time. Italy, the new European Champions, lifted their second EURO trophy, 53 years after they won their first in 1968 – the longest gap between titles for any nation in the competition's history. Spain’s 18-year-old Pedri was named the Young Player of the Tournament: the Barcelona midfielder was instrumental in every one of Spain’s six matches and produced a passing accuracy of 92.3%.

Despite playing only four games (360 minutes) at the EURO 2020, Cristiano Ronaldo finished as the tournament’s top scorer with five goals and one assist. Although Czech Republic's Patrik Schick also racked up five goals at the finals, Ronaldo finished on top thanks to his assist against Germany, and having also played fewer minutes than Schick. The Portuguese became the first player to appear and score at five consecutive EURO final tournaments and also setting a new landmark of 14 goals at the finals.

While global viewership data are yet to come, live matches of the tournament were expected to be followed by over 2b spectators globally, with individual games to attract an audience of around 140-150m viewers. It is known already, that the final between England and Italy broke records in the UK with 31m viewers, 4m more than the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. The highest ratings related to football (25.2m) were recorded earlier at the West Germany v England semi-final at the 1990 World Cup, which also concluded in a painful penalty shootout exit for England. Meanwhile, US broadcasters ESPN reported an average audience of over 2m viewers for the four quarterfinal matches, a 16% increase compared to the same phase matches seen in 2016.

Surprisingly, the pandemic exerted fewer effects on the tournament than feared. The most significant impacts were related to fans, as, with the exception of Budapest’s Puskás Aréna, all venues were to be filled at capacities of between 22% and 50%. However, during the event, conditions allowed easing some restrictions – for example, the UK government approved boosting the capacity of London’s Wembley Stadium from 25% to 50% for the knockout stages, and to 75% (up to 60k spectators) for the semi-finals and the final. In several cases, fans also had to undergo strict safety procedures, including negative tests, to be allowed to enter the stadia – as well as quarantining after travelling to games abroad. As a consequence, supporting one’s own team in away games was difficult, giving a real “home advantage” to host nations. England were arguably one of the beneficiaries, as due to travel restrictions, fans based in Denmark or Italy were not able to cheer on their teams at Wembley in the semi-final and the final against England – instead, some 6,000 tickets were made available to Danes and Italians living in the UK.

On the other hand, several venues did not see their stadiums filled to the capacity allowances. That was the case for some of England’s group matches at the Wembley Stadium, while Hungary’s 67k-seat Puskás Aréna, the only venue allowing for a full-house, also saw only an average of 55k spectators at the four matches it hosted.

In regard to the health of football players, few incidents occurred. Spain’s EURO 2020 preparations were plunged into difficulty after two players tested positive for Covid-19, with all group training being suspended ahead of the tournament start. Furthermore, England’s Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell had to self-isolate after being in close contact with their Chelsea teammate Billy Gilmour, who tested positive, after the England vs Scotland game. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization (WHO) blamed EURO 2020 for a rise in COVID-19 cases across Europe. The mixing of crowds at the football competition in host cities, as well as travelling and the easing of social restrictions, had driven up the number of new cases by 10%, according to the WHO.

Due to the organization of the tournament with venues spread across the continent, travelling was also a big burden for a number of national teams. UEFA president Ceferin also pointed out that EURO 2020 has been unfair for fans and for teams because of the vast difference in distances they had to travel during the tournament. While some national teams played all three games of the group stage in their respective home country, others had to travel between each game. Interestingly, all four semi-finalists – Italy, Denmark, England, and Spain – played at home for the entire group stage and therefore stayed at home in the first two weeks. It can only be speculated whether travel really had impacts on the performance of teams, in light of the knowledge that Germany or Netherlands, for example, also played all of their group matches on home soil, but were eliminated in the last 16.

Our chart shows the covered travel distance of “frequent traveller” Switzerland compared to host nation England. Despite playing two fewer games, Switzerland travelled more than three times as many kilometres compared to the Three Lions.

Major international tournaments such as the current EURO 2020 are always a great stage for players to flaunt their talents in matches played in front of a global audience. With today's interconnectivity, the popularity gained by individuals can even be measured with the help of social media. As the analysis below shows, Denmark’s Mikkel Damsgaard was the player to capitalize the most on his extraordinary performance during the tournament. The winger attracted attention with his extraordinary on-pitch performances and his stunning free-kick, which gave Denmark the lead over England in the Euro 2020 semi-final. In total, Damsgaard increased his social media followers by 605%.

In total figures, Cristiano Ronaldo underlined his dominance on social channels, having welcomed almost 21m new followers to his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Notably, in the analysis below we took into account only players whose social media accounts combined more than 100k followers after the tournament.

The pan-European set-up delivered a further, unexpected challenge as well – UEFA also had to deal with various cultural and political reactions, involving some host countries and sponsors alike. One incident included one of the main sponsors: a Greenpeace paraglider, protesting against car manufacturer Volkswagen’s climate impact, hurt several spectators, when his vehicle got tangled up in a rope and debris fell during Germany vs France tie in Munich.

UEFA was also forced to remind participating teams of their contractual regulations regarding tournament sponsors, after Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo and Italy’s Manuel Locatelli removed bottles of Coca-Cola, while France’s Paul Pogba, in respect of his Muslim faith, removed a non-alcoholic Heineken bottle from the table at a post-match press conference.

A human rights issue emerged in the wake of a recent law passed in Hungary, banning the dissemination in schools of content deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change. Amid wide-scale protests, the mayor of Munich wanted to light the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours during Germany’s group-stage match against Hungary, but UEFA rejected the request because of its "political context”. Later on, however, UEFA approved that several EURO sponsors display rainbow-coloured adverts in stadiums during the last-16 matches, but not for the games played in Russia or Azerbaijan. UEFA argued that it fully supports messages of “tolerance and respect”, but requested its sponsors “to ensure that their design complies with local legislation and this was not the case in Baku and Saint Petersburg”. The incident caused unwanted tension for UEFA with some host cities as well as with some sponsors, who, in contrast, may have seen the extra exposure as an opportunity to further position their brands. It will be interesting to see if and how sponsors and organisers may want to specify more details in sponsorship contracts in order to avoid such embarrassing incidents in the future.