It seemed ambitious nine years ago when UEFA said it would organise the 2020 European Championship in 13 different cities around the continent.
It seemed optimistic last year when UEFA decided to stick to a 12-city plan after postponing Euro 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. Now, Euro 2020 will kick off in 11 cities, separated by four time zones and up to 4,700 kilometres (3,000 miles).
Yet the quirky, one-time-only hosting plan looks to be the best result fans could hope for with the coronavirus continuing to limit international travel.
Nine of the 11 hosts — all except Azerbaijan and Romania — qualified for the 24-team tournament are giving tens of thousands of fans the chance to see at least two home games.
That’s a better outcome than having a single host nation, like France in 2016 and Germany in 2024, which most likely would have had to shut borders to many visiting fans. Back in 2012, the strongest bidder for the 2020 tournament was Turkey, a country which just had the Champions League final taken away for the second straight year.
“We have a big advantage that we have a lot of home teams,” UEFA tournament director Martin Kallen told The Associated Press.
More than 50,000 Hungarian fans could be inside Puskas Arena in Budapest to watch the host play World Cup champion France and defending European champion Portugal in Group F. About 30,000 Russians should be allowed in the stadium in St. Petersburg to see their team host top-ranked Belgium and neighbour Finland in Group B.
Kallen acknowledged the logistics of a late move to a single-host option were “in principle impossible" as the pandemic surged through Europe during winter.
UEFA hired Switzerland’s top public health official overseeing the pandemic response last year, Dr. Daniel Koch, as an advisor on Euro 2020 crowd issues. He saw the risk in having 24 sets of fans moving around a single country.
“I think it was a wrong estimation to think it'd be much easier if (Euro 2020) was only in one (place),” Koch told the AP. Having 12 different hosts, until Dublin dropped out in April, gave UEFA flexibility and a wide sweep of governments focused on health and security issues.
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Fan issues was the uncertain factor this year because UEFA proved last August with the Champions League and Europa League mini-tournaments that teams can travel and play safely. Travel by private jet and strict UEFA-managed protocols at airports and hotels, limiting contact with staff and other customers, are now the norm for international players.
Only two national team games were cancelled, both in November. Norway’s public health officials stopped the team from traveling to Romania, and Ukraine players were quarantined in Switzerland. One widely reported lapse involved two young England players in Iceland during the season’s first international break in September.
Team-wide PCR tests are mandatory the day before games organised by UEFA, which hired a German laboratory last year to run the program and give results at least six hours before kickoff.
And UEFA is prepared for an outbreak at Euro 2020. Games can be postponed for up to 48 hours if more than half of a squad tests positive, with replacements brought in. Kallen said players testing positive is his biggest concern for Euro 2020, which adds one month and 51 games to an already stressful and congested season.
“There is a legitimate concern that the quality (of play) will be impacted by the level of fatigue,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, general secretary of players’ union FIFPRO. End-of-season games are where most is at stake, he warned, after “the longest period of exposure to the intensity. They are already exhausted when they get there.”
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