Euro 2020 is finally set to start — 12 months after it was originally scheduled due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. One year on, the 24-team pan-European tournament has one fewer host city, reduced stadium capacities, strictly enforced coronavirus protocols and a labyrinth of travel restrictions and testing requirements.
It all adds up to the reality that there could still be significant disruptions between now and the final in London on July 11.
But the good news is that the European Championship will kick off as planned on Friday when Italy face Turkey in Rome (U.S. viewers can stream the game LIVE on ESPN+). From that point on, who knows what unexpected problems will arise during the 51-game football feast?
UEFA resisted calls to stage the tournament in one country, preferring to stick with the blueprint of a continent-wide competition, with the withdrawal of Irish capital Dublin ensuring that the 12-venue plan has been reduced to 11, with Seville stepping in to replace Bilbao as Spain’s host city.
With Europe still attempting to deal with the pandemic amid spikes in some countries and concerns over new variants in others, UEFA faces the acid test of its decision to go ahead in the original format.
How will COVID protocols work?
We have already seen one significant change designed to reduce any potential impact of a COVID outbreak, with UEFA increasing squad sizes from 23 players to 26.
This is to ensure that competing nations have enough depth within their squad to fulfil their fixtures, even if a number of players test positive for the virus or are forced to self-isolate as a consequence of coming into contact with an infected person.
Scotland were forced to omit six players from their pre-tournament friendly against Netherlands last week as a precaution after midfielder John Fleck tested positive for COVID. Fleck is isolating at Scotland’s training camp in Spain and may miss their opening game against Czech Republic on June 14.
Spain’s Sergio Busquets is also in isolation after testing positive, meaning the under-21 squad will have to fulfil Tuesday’s friendly against Lithuania. The Barcelona player is unlikely to be able to play against Sweden in Seville on Monday. Spain have called up four new players to take part in a parallel training bubble in case Busquets has to be replaced.
If any teams are hit by positive tests during the tournament, players or staff will have to just isolate as Fleck and Busquets have done.
There is scope within the schedule for games to be delayed by up to 48 hours if teams have fewer than 13 available players and for additional players to be called up, but only if quarantined players are “definitively withdrawn,” from the 26-man squad, according to UEFA. However, if a team can’t fulfil a fixture within 48 hours of its original kick-off time, the game will not be played and the team with the positive tests will forfeit the game 3-0.
The hope within UEFA is that the existing protocols of secure bubbles including players, staff and key personnel, as used throughout the club game last season, will ensure minimal disruption.
Players and staff will not be expected to fulfil media commitments in person, in order to reduce the prospect of transmission, so press conferences will continue to be done via video link and there will be no mixed zones for players to speak to media.
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What about the fans? Will the stadiums be full?
All venues have committed to hosting a reduced number of spectators within stadiums, with only Budapest preparing to have a 100% full stadium, though with enhanced safety procedures and entry requirements for everyone who attends.
Local regulations have limited Munich’s Allianz Arena to 14,500 fans (approximately 22% capacity) while Wembley will house a minimum of 22,500 fans (25% capacity). In Seville, Estadio la Cartuja will be 30% full for its four fixtures, with 18,000 fans in the stadium, while in Baku and Saint Petersburg the stadiums will be 50% full.
Some venues may increase their numbers as the tournament progresses, depending on the easing of restrictions in each country. Wembley, which will host both semifinals and the final, could be at full capacity of 90,000 fans for the latter stages if the UK plan for an end to all COVID regulations on June 21 remains in place. However, sources have told ESPN that, even without government-imposed restrictions, it is unlikely that Wembley will stage the final with a full stadium.
A 12,500-capacity fan zone at Trafalgar Square will be open for England games as well as the semis and final, but only fans with a ticket will be admitted. COVID testing is not required for fan zones, leading to Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, a public health director in England, describing fan zones as potential “super-spreader events” unless fans are tested before entry. Fan zones in each city are subject to local regulations.
In terms of accessing stadiums for games, each venue has different testing requirements for fans. For instance in Budapest, a valid match ticket and negative test or proof of vaccination are required to secure a COVID-19 wristband. Across the board, ticket holders will be given 30-minute time slots to enter the stadium, with temperature checks or rapid COVID tests also possible, depending on the venue. It means some fans could be inside venues three hours before kickoff.
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What about travel between venues?
While competing teams have sporting exemptions enabling all accredited players and staff to travel freely between venues, movement between games is likely to be the most problematic area for fans due to the differing regulations in each of the 11 host cities.
Azerbaijan has granted a quarantine exemption to fans from teams playing in Baku, provided they return a negative COVID-19 test. Hungary has an identical policy for the games in Budapest.
The Russian government has waived quarantine for visiting ticket holders in Saint Petersburg, but due to concerns over the so-called Delta variant in the United Kingdom, any fans travelling from Great Britain must quarantine in a Russian hotel for 14 days. England could play a quarterfinal in Saint Petersburg on July 2, which would prove problematic for fans, as they’d be unable to successfully isolate that long before the potential last-eight fixture. In Munich, the Delta variant has also led to arrivals from the U.K. being forced to quarantine for 10 days.
But while English, Scottish and Welsh fans may find it difficult to travel to some venues, the U.K. is also a tough place for fans of competing teams to enter.
The U.K. government has adopted a strict testing regime for all arrivals, but with all Euro 2020 nations on the UK’s “amber list,” visitors from those countries must quarantine for 10 days on arrival. They can self-release after five days, but must still post negative tests on day 2, 5 and 8 after arrival.
The U.K.’s refusal to offer exemptions to UEFA staff and sponsors resulted in last month’s Champions League final being staged in Portugal rather than at Wembley, following the decision to move the game from Istanbul, Turkey.
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Anything else we need to know?
Sources have told ESPN that the Euros will be football’s version of the so-called Austerity Games, when London hosted the 1948 Olympics just two years after the end of World War II.
Everything has been stripped back because of the pandemic. Typically, these tournaments are big parties with fans from all over the world congregating in host cities, with fan zones and pubs full to capacity but with commitments to supporters, broadcasters and national associations, UEFA had to get the tournament on in whatever shape or form possible.
It will lack the colour and buzz of a typical major tournament, but the positive is that fans will be attending every game.
Euro 2020 is a year late, but from UEFA’s perspective, it is better late than never.