Two and half weeks ahead of Euro 2020, the England manager, Gareth Southgate told reporters he thought no other squad, preparing for a vast tournament under the constraints of a pandemic and a compressed schedule, had it as tough as his.
“Our situation is more complicated than any other country,” Southgate reckoned, looking at his long list of injured and unavailable players.
At least 23 men would have disagreed – the managers of every other nation readying themselves for what, in terms of scale and global audience, will be the most ambitious showpiece to be staged since the Covid-19 crisis upended the way live, elite sport is organised.
Southgate, who is always measured in his comments, believed what he said. But he would not currently envy the position of Luis Enrique, the manager of Spain, who tonight, in Spain’s last warm-up game, will field none of the players he has selected for the tournament.
The reason for that is Covid. Spain's captain, Sergio Busquets, tested positive at the weekend, and concerns about possible contagion within the camp means the national under-21 team will replace the seniors for a fixture, against Lithuania, now rendered obsolete for Luis Enrique. His players, isolating from Busquets and one another, will train individually over the coming days.
Elite footballers have had well over a year to get used to the protocols when there is a positive test in the squad ‘bubble’.
In the last 18 months, much has been learned about how to contain infection in team environments and even in stadiums with a thin spread of paying spectators allowed in.
But there have been few enterprises as ambitious as Euro 2020, whose organisers, Uefa, have insisted should keep ‘2020’ in its name, although it is scheduled to kick-off, on Friday in Rome, 12 months after the original start date.
It was postponed because of the ravaging effects of the disease during the spring of last year.
It was always an unusually unwieldy tournament, with no single host nation but 11 venues scattered from Spain in the west to Azerbaijan in the east.
England player ratings for final Euro 2020 warm-up against Romania
It was a concept originally designed to emphasise inclusion, so that supporters in places such as Baku, Budapest and Bucharest could be part of a tournament that is generally hosted only in the wealthier nations of western Europe. But sport in a pandemic is directly opposed to too much inclusion: People packed alongside one another in their tens of thousands invites cross-infection.
There will be crowds at Euro 2020. Hungarian public health authorities have given a green light to sell as many tickets as there are seats in Budapest’s Puskas Arena – 61,000 – provided spectators show they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or have had a negative test. In the remaining 10 venues, capacity is restricted to try to maintain a level of social distancing.
The risks are significant, and the images of the event, which will be broadcast around the world, will remind many millions of watchers that Europe believes it has made greater advances than almost everywhere else in its battle against the pandemic, with the distribution of vaccines. Euro 2020, with its vibrant flag-waving fans, will certainly look like a very different sporting festival to most others – not least the Copa America, its South American equivalent.
All the Euro 2020 kits ranked from worst to best
The Copa, a showpiece featuring stars such as Lionel Messi and Neymar, was also postponed for a year. It is now scheduled to begin on Sunday.
There is no absolute certainty it will. It was due to be jointly hosted by Colombia and Argentina, but given the alarming Covid contagion rates in both countries, and civil unrest in Colombia, it was moved last month, Brazil offering to take over the staging.
Brazil’s case for doing so is weak. The country has recorded the second highest rate of deaths from Covid-19 in the world, behind only the USA.
A Brazilian Senate Commission reported at the weekend that the country “does not have the sufficient health safeguards for an international tournament of this magnitude,” and criticised “a false sense of normality” that staging the 10-team, 28-match event would create.
Brazilian players have threatened to boycott the tournament and there have been discussions between senior players from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay about the viability of refusing to take part.
Somewhere between the bold optimism that will push spectators in stadiums at Euro 2020 and the ever louder voices protesting against Brazil’s Copa America are the arguments around the Tokyo Olympics.
The games are due to begin, having been delayed for a year, on July 23rd. Polls suggest as many as four out of five Japanese residents believe they should be cancelled or postponed again.
A vibrant, secure Euro 2020 might yet build faith in sport’s capacity to manage a vast event function with an acceptable level of safety. But nobody, not the managers of England and Spain nor anxious European governments, are pretending it is business as usual.