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'Uplifting carnival' Euro 2020: A wild, electrifying, ecstatic sense of coming together, of unlocking bolted doors

"From Wembley to Copenhagen to Budapest, we are witness to a rising above fear, a rebuttal of the dull thesis that people must forever cower before Covid or surrender to a malignant virus that would crush all those things that make life worth living"

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Players of Italy celebrate following their team's victory in the penalty shoot out after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Semi-final match between Italy and Spain. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Players of Italy celebrate following their team's victory in the penalty shoot out after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Semi-final match between Italy and Spain. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Players of Italy celebrate following their team's victory in the penalty shoot out after the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Semi-final match between Italy and Spain. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

The true value of this football festival is found in the feeling it fostered.

THE football has frequently touched the heavens, yet, at Euro 2020, the runaway player of the tournament has not even once stepped onto a rectangle of grass.

Because the Ballon d'Or at this uplifting carnival of delirious humanity goes to the sentiment generated by the playful masses dancing in the aisles.

These solstice days have felt like a spontaneous summer uprising against Covid-enforced misery, a bursting from shackles: A continent-wide Bastille Day, a mass breaking free of 16 months of penal incarceration.

A sonic boom of hope.

From Wembley to Copenhagen to Budapest, we are witness to a rising above fear, a rebuttal of the dull thesis that people must forever cower before Covid or surrender to a malignant virus that would crush all those things that make life worth living.

Instead of the white flag of surrender, it was the standards of Denmark and Italy and Spain and, yes, England, that were splendidly unfurled across Europe's mighty coliseums.

The Danes, Christian Eriksen's fall so close to forever pockmarking their Viking features with a tragic blemish, led the unstoppable and joyous insurgency.

On that midsummer night in their beautiful capital when Russia were crushed beneath the tsunami of love for Eriksen, Denmark gifted the world a fairytale beyond even their own Hans Christian Andersen's imagining.

To watch the players rush to the packed Parken Stadium bleachers at the end, the latent emotional voltage threatening to blow the arena to smithereens, was to experience a gorgeous, flawless snapshot of what it means to be alive.

People hugged and kissed and cried and felt the most profound welling at their core.

Near tragedy had morphed into something close to rapture: A vivid celebration of the human spirit.

You could live a thousand lives and not witness anything remotely as beautiful.

A man or woman could visit each of the planet's great art houses without locating anything as soulful.

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Earlier, London had surrendered to what felt like a June iteration of Hogmanay: A kilted, tartan fiesta of excess as Scotland rejoiced in a scoreless draw with England like it was revenge for William Wallace.

Everywhere we looked across a vast continent came celebrations not merely of national identity, but of the brotherhood of life.

It culminated in magic Monday, a Mardi Gras so exhilarating that it shut out every other aspect of the universe: The dimensions of the entire celestial heavens reduced to just you and these two immortal, imperishable, see-sawing, never-ending, theatrical epics.

Spain, Croatia, Switzerland and France offered us the kind of hallucinogenic, out-of-body experience previously only achievable by accompanying Hunter S Thompson on a narcotic-infused road trip to Las Vegas.

Hypnotised by the storyline, the audience in the Bucharest and Copenhagen playhouses - and those of us looking on from afar - fell under a spell.

It felt like a defiant declaration that society would not be broken by this malign pandemic.

That spirit invaded London on Tuesday, too.

Of course, there were the ugly, xenophobic traits in which the English football audience are world leaders: The booing of the German anthem was a jolting reminder that Europe has not, after all, relocated to a land of milk and honey.

But, as the game progressed, the Three Lions army caught the prevailing continental mood. As Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane saw off Jogi Low's team, the unbearable lightness of being infected even the ultras of north west London.

They trampolined childlike on the tarpaulins at the front of the stands; aggression gave way to giddiness, hostility handed the keys to the night to a lovely, demented, frothing-with-joy energy.

This piece was written before last night's quarter-finals, so maybe some English fans reverted to type in Rome.

Even if they did, the citizens of Italy's timeless capital have a semi-final involving their own Azzurri, brilliantly re-imagined by Roberto Mancini, to savour this week.

This new, carefree, expansive Italy threaten to become the upbeat face of Euro 2020.

Giorgio Chiellini, all retreating hairline, wrinkled features and bedraggled costume, a kind of Latin Rashers Tierney, might be the most antique 36-year-old on earth.

But if he seems as ancient as Rome itself, as if he is still recovering from the fever dream of a stag weekend in Near Gaul with Ben Hur and Maximus Decimus Meridius all of 2000 years ago, then he is also that fabled pair's equal as a gladiator.

And when his tiny, tattooed brother, Lorenzo Insigne, delivered the sonnet of his thrilling solo-goal to unstitch Belgian ambitions on Friday, Chiellini took him in an embrace that felt like a healing of all Italy's football ills.

The nation had simmered and fumed when the four-time World Cup winners failed to qualify for Russia 2018.

But their redemptive strides under Mancini - 32 matches unbeaten, 13 wins in a row, authors of an expansive, fearless game plan - feels like a metaphor for the entire Euro 2020 experience.

An event stillborn a year ago has risen above that desolate, forlorn narrative to been resurrected as something life-affirming.

A beacon of hope, a trumpet-blast of renewal, a reminder that, however strong and resistant a foe Covid has proven, the human spirit is stronger again.

Sterling and Insigne, the Danes and the Swiss, have all dappled these summer weeks in soothing pastel shades.

But the true value of this football festival is found in the feeling it fostered: A wild, electrifying, ecstatic sense of coming together, of unlocking bolted doors.

And of a continent telling Covid that even if it takes a penalty shoot-out: We will beat you.

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