Major tournaments such as the European Championships so often act as waymarks in players’ careers. Three or four weeks of football that can take a player to the centre of the footballing universe in a way only possible on the great international stages. Some return to the peripheries while others never look back from those perfect summers. Here, we take a look at some of the players for whom Euro 2020 could be that springboard.
UEFA may have opted for Italy stopper Donnarumma as their Player of the Tournament, but for many, the Chelsea midfield metronome lit up Euro 2020 like nobody else. Once an immobile scapegoat with nothing to offer, now a double European Champion at the heart of grand success for club and country.
Right now, there is nobody in the world game to rival him for the tag of being the ultimate thinking man’s footballer.
Having fit so well into Thomas Tuchel’s high pace possession game at Chelsea, Jorginho adapted seamlessly once again into a Mancini Italy side which seemed to suit him better still. The haste with which this supposedly ponderous, pedestrian midfielder sought to laser balls into the feet of frontman Ciro Immobile was enlightening to those who had spent most of three seasons of Premier League football perplexed at how this man had been the key to Napoli’s fabled ‘Sarri-ball’ which Chelsea never quite replicated.
Equally adept at just retaining possession alongside the brilliant Marco Verratti, the Italy midfield reminded us all of how the simple five-yard pass can be a joy to watch.
Were it not for Lionel Messi’s Copa America exploits, we would be discussing a very real Ballon D’Or contender.
Sticking with the champions, we simply cannot ignore the Azzuri’s flying left-back. Spinazzola shone on the opening night in Rome against Turkey, surprisingly emerging as Italy’s star attacking outlet, buccaneering into space vacated by Lorenzo Insigne in front of him to cause all sorts of problems. Despite missing the last two games of Italy’s run to glory, Spinazzola beat Luke Shaw and Joakim Mæhle to make the UEFA Team of the Tournament.
Now 28, this should have been a summer which took an injury-hit career to new heights. An injury that could keep him out for a year is beyond cruel and could well mean this star of the summer of ‘21 will miss his chance to advance in the club game, but for his three weeks at the very top Spinazzola has more than most ever get in their careers – a European Championship medal.
Picking a handful of players from the finalists is a tricky thing to do.
Veratti, Federico Chiesa and Insigne all shone in blue while modern greats Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini gave us all one last masterclass in defending in the colours which have always fitted the great defenders best.
In white, Raheem Sterling rediscovered his golden touch, Jordan Pickford finally put his critics to bed (well, until about twenty minutes into the new Premier League season at least) and Kalvin Phillips finally expanded his fan club to beyond those from West Yorkshire.
But it is the Leeds man’s midfield partner who gets the attention here. Rice’s tournament was summed up best by his performance in the final. Arguably England’s best outfield player on the night, the West Ham man was as combative as ever against that brilliant Italy midfield, while also epitomising the confidence and bravery of Gareth Southgate’s young England team, repeatedly earning vital respite for his backline with driving runs forward.
While he has the physique to be a battering ram, Rice instead carries possession with an elegance very few players of his mould could replicate. The air of calm he brought throughout the tournament was a world away from the turgid Rice and Phillips seen in the March qualifiers. Still only 22, let Euro 2020 be the summer we all accepted that for Declan Rice’s career, there is no ceiling.
Spain looks a goal scorer and a central defender away from being serious contenders on the international stage once again. In Barcelona’s Pedri, they have the newest in their line of midfield magicians.
Pedri took no time to hit his own personal standards. About the only player likely to make anything happen in their opener, the Young Player of the Tournament dazzled throughout with his willingness to run through the centre of the park and the perfect passing we have come to expect from any midfielder considered fit to grace the Camp Nou stage. And that he most certainly does – the 18-year-old made 52 appearances for Barca last season, reaching a half-century at an age greater only than Messi and, err, Bojan, of Stoke City fame.
Having clearly not played enough football this season, and against manager Ronald Koeman’s wishes, Pedri seems now to be bound for Tokyo to become an Olympian with the young Spain side that will compete at the Games. In his own words, he wants to play as many games as possible because that is how he will continue to improve. If he continues to improve at the current rate, this teenage star of the present will become a truly terrifying force for the future.
Away from the big-hitters, we move to Sweden creator and goal-scorer-in-chief Emil Forsberg. The Leipzig man has long been known to followers of European football, but at this tournament hit new heights.
The technical ability and vision he showed throughout for the Group E winners, whose tournament showed promise of building on 2018’s World Cup quarter-final before ending disappointingly in last 16 defeat to Ukraine, put him head and shoulders above almost all of his highly functional teammates.
Stood behind the goal whose woodwork four-goal-Forsberg twice struck in the second half of that defeat in Glasgow, I overheard a question asked by one Sweden fan I can translate for you here: ‘Who is Zlatan?’. This summer, Forsberg ably filled that legend-sized gap.
Kasper Dolberg is a player whose stock has gone up no end over UEFA’s footballing festival. Since breaking through at Ajax, the striker has been a player tipped for big things without ever really delivering, but in spite of having to wait until the knockout stages for his first start, EURO 2020 was a stage on which the Dane showed just why a club fabled for its young players opted to pick him up out of his homeland at the age of just 17.
Dolberg shone in the Danes’ demolition of Wales, scoring twice, including the game’s opener which showed everything the forward is about. Picking the ball up just outside the box, Dolberg took two touches to get the ball out of his feet before lashing an early shot into the far corner, all with unerring speed and composure. He, and current club Nice, will hope consistency will now follow.
Last up, a player you may not have expected to find in the tournament’s showreel. But the oft-maligned Arsenal midfielder, in one game in particular, issued a timely reminder of just what an asset he can be.
Switzerland’s shoot-out win over everyone’s title shoe-ins, France, was surely the game of the tournament. And, aside from the second-half burst when France dazzled at levels only they can reach, the Swiss were the better side, with Xhaka at the heart of so much they did well. Leadership and tough tackling, yes, but also remarkable quality on the ball, epitomised by one of the passes of the tournament for Switzerland’s dramatic equaliser. Often accused of being a hot-head, the patience shown as he awaited the perfect option in the last minute of a Euros knockout tie against the world champions would suggest otherwise.
At 28, his impending move to Roma may deliver just what Xhaka needs to revitalise his career – an escape from Arsenal.