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Euro 2020

Italy vs England – the perfect finale for a great tournament

As the host of the 2024 European Championship in Germany, I am naturally concerned about the appearance and impact of the home team.

It is important for the atmosphere and aim of a tournament that Germany play courageously and spread optimism. That the team has characters in its ranks with whom the fans can identify. That it knows and that you can tell that it is playing at home.

The public wants to measure players by the way they take responsibility and see a team grow in the course of the tournament.

If, in addition, they develop a national style on the pitch, which happens inevitably, the scope of national teams and the social significance of European or World Cups become obvious.

Football history knows concise examples of such added value of the game: England 1996, France 1998 or Germany 2006.

In the 2021 pan-European tournament, we have seen several hosts, two of which are in the final.

England let the enthusiasm of their compatriots carry them through the five games at Wembley. The England players rely on their tremendous athleticism and heading power – as football is known from the Premier League and also England’s history.

Coach Gareth Southgate is giving his team two things.

With his open letter to the nation in which Southgate addresses the issue of racism, he has made it clear that he sees his post as national coach as a social mission. And his team believes in his sporting plan, which is: Nobody will score a goal against us that quickly. England only conceded a goal in the semi-final against Denmark.

Up front, Southgate can rely on the many talents, above all Raheem Sterling. It is also remarkable that he uses some players from clubs that do not belong to the “Big Six”, namely Leeds United, Aston Villa, West Ham United and Everton. This also strengthens England’s identity.

A big winner of this tournament is England’s opponent in the final.

Since kick-off in the opening match in Rome, Italy has left the impression of a stable unit that impresses opponents with a clear approach. The team combines the old Italian virtue of defending, which was particularly in demand in the semi-final against Spain, with international elements.

Italy is not relying on catenaccio, but has recently been gaining a lot of possession in the opponent’s half.

In this way, the team is going beyond what is known from Serie A. The mobile midfield around Marco Verratti, Nicolò Barella and Jorginho has short contact time on the ball. This creates a flow of play.

Tactically, this is the best the tournament has to offer. The team acts almost as homogeneously as a club team. This is a great achievement by Roberto Mancini and his players.

Their connection can be felt in the coach’s post-match press conferences. Italy performs with conviction. The old football nation is back.

Denmark also impressed as hosts. In the Parken in Copenhagen, the COVID-19 rules were interpreted very liberally. But who would blame the Danes for their euphoria after this tournament participation, the disaster with Christian Eriksen just averted?

When he was resuscitated on the pitch, everyone could immediately relate to what that meant – and the relief his rescue caused later. Thus, despite two defeats, the team grew into a unit with its audience.

In the all-or-nothing games that followed, they performed and celebrated football. The stars Martin Braithwaite (FC Barcelona) and Pierre Emile Hojbjerg (Tottenham Hotspur), with their energetic runs and tackles, showed that they are embedded in national unity. That they feel like Danes. And the country celebrated its players.

Physicality, mentality, fighting spirit, team service – these are the classic assets of the Danish Dynamite. Under the charge of coach Kasper Hjulmand, who is popular in the team and at home and whose style is based on that of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, the Danes, the Brazilians of Scandinavia, were also reminiscent of their great days in the eighties and early nineties at this tournament. They ran out of steam in the end against the physically superior England in the semi-finals.

And in Seville, every Spaniard could immediately recognise from the way La Roja played. This is my team playing. Spanish football thrives on its clear training idea, from the U-15 up to the senior team, all play technical combination football.

Luis Enrique’s team needed a bit of a run-up this time, initially lacking effectiveness. But in the last preliminary round match, they redeemed themselves with a 5-0 win over Slovakia.

Spain, the most ball-playing team of the tournament, also has outstanding footballers this year. There is a high probability that Pedri, Dani Olmo, Ferran Torres, Rodrigo or Mikel Oyarzabal will one day follow in the footsteps of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso or Fernando Torres.

This time, the team lost very narrowly in the semi-finals. However, it can already be seen that the Spaniards will hardly fall below their high level at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar or the 2024 European Championship in Germany.

One could also observe elsewhere how teams are inspired by home advantage.

The Hungary team in Budapest became a collective that defends its goal and lurks for its chance. Holland allowed itself to be pushed towards traditional attacking football by the fans in Amsterdam.

All these examples show the value of a national football identity and that of a European Championship. It is a playful competition among nations negotiating their co-existence.

Germany, my home country, also had the chance to benefit from its status as host in the three games in Munich.

But it only succeeded in the 4-2 against Portugal. In the round of 16 in England, the team did not appear with the necessary dynamism and determination. A hierarchy was also not discernible.

It can’t have been down to the potential of the players, for that you only have to look at their careers. Most of the German national players are employed by top international clubs, many have already won the Champions League, some the World Cup.

Germany has no problem with the quality of its players and talents. This is also evidenced by the U-21s winning the European Championship title again this year.

World Cup exit

In the last three years, however, the early exit from the 2018 World Cup and the elimination in the round of 16 of this European Championship has led to a loss of trust among the fans – in the team’s performance and, of course, also in German Football Federation (DFB).

Joachim Loew will now be succeeded by his former assistant Hansi Flick, who won six titles with Bayern Munich in one and a half years as head coach.

He will have to rely on the younger generation and redistribute their duties as soon as World Cup qualifying resumes in September.

The Champions League winners Antonio Rüdiger, Niklas Süle, Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner can be used to form a defence, midfield and forward line. Also a team in which Germany recognises itself.

Gareth Southgate and Roberto Mancini set an example. Over a few years, they have developed a style of play with their teams that is adapted to the country and the players.

Southgate has also managed to convey to his highly-paid stars that they are not only playing football. He also lets them take on social responsibility. That creates identification.

In three years, it will be Germany’s turn.

The European Championship 2024 can also be an atmospheric celebration in which the host team carries its country along.

Just like this year’s tournament, which is a success despite all the adversities. In the final, there are two teams with unmistakable national style. And all of Europe wants to know who will prevail.

The European Championship format works. We all see it.

Author

  • Philipp Lahm is the tournament director for Euro 2024. His “Views of a footballer” column will appear regularly in The Sunday Times of Malta. It is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.

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