As we meander into the final round of the group stage, it is difficult not to argue that Euro 2020 is a tournament stuck on cruise control.
We must always be on guard against the romanticism of nostalgia, but Uefa’s decision to expand their international showpiece event has watered down its quality – like replacing the whisky you drank last night with apple juice.
If they were hoping we would not notice the difference, too drunk on the novelty of tournament football to realise, they were mistaken. We saw it five years ago in France and we are getting the same again.
The Euros have, to this point, lacked drama, tension and intrigue. The big nations may not all have played well, but they have not really needed to. All look likely to reach the knockout rounds, either as one of the top two teams or as one of the four best third-placed teams.
The fact Portugal are the defending champions has probably not escaped you, but do you also remember that they finished third behind Iceland and Hungary, needed penalties twice to reach the semi-finals and then completed one of the greatest party crashes by beating hosts France in a turgid final in Paris? They needed extra-time to do that as well. They were worthy but not great champions.
The fact Portugal could end up doing exactly the same – finish third behind France and Germany in Group F – again five years later makes a mockery of things.
In its original 16-team tournament the thing that made the Euros engrossing was that something was riding on every game. With it came the excitement, even in the group games. When you know how disastrous a defeat is, the euphoria of winning becomes intensified.
- Euro 2020 wallchart and predictor
So, while England’s goalless draw against Scotland was frustrating and there was plenty of disappointment, that was mainly down to the performance and the identity of the opponents rather than the result.
A draw was ok for both countries and that’s the problem. Imagine if Scotland had needed to win at Wembley, they would have been forced to take risks and the game would have opened up in the second half rather than fizzle out into a gloomy stalemate.
Scotland know a famous win over Croatia will be enough for them to qualify, while England need only a point against Czech Republic to go through, although the four points they have may already be enough.
Harry Kane will be desperate to score against Czech Republic on Tuesday
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The Euros were distinctly different from the World Cup because the weaker national sides were cut out of it before the tournament began, not during it. That was what made it distinct and, for many of us, special.
Even in the “Group of Death” involving France, Germany and Portugal, the fact four of the best third-placed teams go through offers a safety net.
For the other nations who are good enough to win the tournament, Belgium, Italy and Holland all qualified with two wins out of two and can rest players for the final group game if they wish. That is far too many dead rubbers in the final round of group fixtures which is when things should be cranking up tension-wise.
Euro 2021 TEAM GUIDE
Even the novelty of being able to watch so many matches on television feels less captivating after a year of enduring football behind closed doors and the relentless diet of Premier League and cup games through the week.
Even the novelty of being able to watch so many matches on television, from afternoon to night, feels less captivating after a year of enduring football behind closed doors and the relentless diet of Premier League and cup games through the week.
For those of us who have been lucky enough to fly out for games abroad, it is strange to be in a hot city like Amsterdam and not have any idea a tournament is going on. There are no fan zones, no banners. It is a carnival without any floats.
The Dutch government is not renowned for party-killer vibes, but a decision to prevent bars from showing any football on television, let alone the Holland matches, mean this is a tournament being consumed almost entirely in living rooms.
Tournaments are made when people congregate. Many people in Amsterdam are angry about it, but after a year in lockdown, of varying degrees of severity, this was a tournament that needed to be played, not postponed again. At least there are fans inside the stadiums.
Uefa cannot be blamed for a pandemic – although it was always a silly idea, and a terrible one environmentally, to play group games scattered across the continent – but this expanded version of the tournament has lost some of its old magic.
Uefa will not see it that way. While we moan about falling standards and predictable outcomes, none of it was done for our benefit.
England are used to qualifying for tournaments and expect to do so. So do all the other major nations. It is doing something more than turn up every other summer that troubles us.
For other, smaller nations and those without the same footballing resources, the expansion is ideal. That is who Uefa were pandering to.
So while Wales have still not qualified for the World Cup (only group winners automatically go through with a play-off for the team finishing second) since 1958, they have been involved in the last two European Championships, reaching the semi-final five years ago and the knockout rounds again this time.
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were in the 2016 tournament and Scotland, who had not played at a major tournament since 1998, are here this time. So are Finland, North Macedonia, Austria and Hungary.
But it has made the Euros weaker; less intriguing, less daunting for the fancied sides, but the phony war is almost over and the real action is about to begin. It is just a shame it will have taken so long.