I started watching soccer when my son was in the first grade. That is if you can call watching a bunch of 6-year olds crowding around a soccer ball, swinging their undersized cleats at each other’s shins, watching soccer. To be fair, the kids did more than just hover around the ball. There was also a good deal of joyous rough-housing on the sidelines among the players awaiting their turn on the field.
While I remained an enthusiastic spectator as my son moved on to club sports and eventually played for his high school team, I’ve seen fewer than a dozen professional soccer games. With the UEFA European Championship (Euro 2020) underway, I decided I’d try to follow the action and learn a bit more about the world’s premier soccer tournament. I’ve enjoyed the research and am eagerly looking forward to some excellent matchups in the coming days.
A Game Won Without Scoring
My interest was first peaked when I learned that France had won in a game against Germany after Germany scored the only goal of the game. You can be completely apathetic about sports and find such an outcome highly entertaining. Here’s a highlight reel that shows the goal-scoring kick early in the game.
Germany’s defender tried in vain to kick the ball over the goal to send it out of bounds but instead drilled the ball into the net. Oops! That’s got to sting.
Errors like this one are part of why soccer is by far the most popular sport in the world with over 4 billion fans. Anything can go wrong and unlike games such as baseball, no one has yet come up with a statistical model that does a decent job of predicting team or player behavior.
The Underdog Truly Has a Chance to Win
The unpredictability of soccer may help explain one of the first articles I came across to research this post: Euro 2021 : 10 raisons de douter de la victoire des Bleus. Before the tournament had even begun, l’Obs, a popular French news magazine was presenting reasons why you should doubt France’s capacity to win the tournament despite being the favored team of bookies throughout Europe.
When I first read that headline, I thought it was simply an example of the natural pessimism that permeates the French psyche. I love France, its people, history, language, culture, etc. But, the French have a tendency to view the glass half empty and I assumed this was further evidence of their often gloomy outlook. Now after learning more about European soccer and the structure of the Euro Championship, I have a greater appreciation for why people are skeptical of any predicted outcome.
The European professional soccer leagues include the best teams in the world. As a result, the UEFA European Championship is the biggest international tournament after the World Cup. Many fans consider it a harder competition to win since the teams, on average, are better. Like the World Cup, it takes place every 4 years. This explains the confusion with the 2020/2021 labeling. Were it not for COVID, the tournament would have been held in 2020 instead of now. The next Euro Championship will be in 2024.
Qualifying rounds usually take more than a year to conduct. The method for determining who plays who, where, and when is confusing at best but the formulation leads to an exciting series with some unexpected results. A handful of underdogs are almost sure to make it past this round. For the current tournament, 55 European nations began competing in March of 2019 and finished up last November. At that point, 24 teams had qualified to compete in what is called the Group Stage.
Normally, one or two countries agree to host all of the games. In this case, the host team automatically qualifies to compete in the tournament. This year, the games are being held in 12 different countries. So, there were no automatic host teams and everyone had to qualify. In 2024, they’ll go back to the old system with Germany hosting all the matches. If you happen to know why they chose to travel to 12 different venues when the pandemic isn’t fully over, please explain in the comments.
In the Group Stage, the 24 teams that survived the qualifying rounds are divided into 6 groups of 4 teams. Each team in a group will play every other team in that group once. If a team wins a match, they earn 3 points. If they tie, they earn 1 point.
The rules for choosing the teams for each group are once again confusing. Suffice it to say that the process for deciding who plays who seems much more random than the NFL playoff schedule, for example. The result again is that a lesser team has a decent chance of making it past this stage.
In France’s case, Les Bleus were in a group with Germany, Hungary, and Portugal–all solid to excellent rivals. Also, none of their games were played in France. So, even though France was a favorite, their chances of surviving the group round were perhaps lower than that of England which faced an easier set of adversaries and played all 3 of their matches in Wembley Stadium.
At the end of this phase, the two teams with the highest number of points from each group advance to the Knockout Round. That yields 12 teams. However, the 4 best third-place teams are also added to this set, making a total of 16 teams and yielding 8 different matchups for the Knockout Round.
This is where the competition sits today. The Group Stage ended on Wednesday and all players have a two-day break before the Knockout Round gets started on June 26, 2021. Happily, Les Bleus won their group.
Now the excitement really heats up. Over the next two weeks, the best players in the world will face off. If you like sports at all, it’s worth tuning in for a match or two. In the Group Stage, games proceeded at an efficient clip. They lasted 90 minutes, period. No extra time added to the clock. No penalty kicks. No overtime.
In the Knockout Round, the normal rules of soccer apply. If a game ends in a tie, 30 extra minutes are added to the clock. If the game is still tied after extra time (AET), a penalty shootout takes place, where each team alternates taking a shot at the other team’s goal with only the goalkeeper defending. Five different players from each team take the shots. The team with the most goals wins. However, if the shootout ends in a tie, the teams enter into a sudden-death round where alternating penalty shots continue, shattering the nerves of goalkeepers and spectators alike. The first team to score a penalty shot wins the match.
The Knockout Round takes place over four days, with two games per day.
Some Recommended Face-Offs
Two matches that many across Europe will be watching take place early next week.
France vs. Switzerland on Monday at 3:00 pm EDT. Again, France is expected to win but everyone loves an underdog and if Switzerland manages to take them down, it will be an incredible battle to witness. The winner of this game will go on to play the winner of Croatia vs. Spain. The possibility of France facing Croatia is particularly dramatic because the two teams made it to the final game in the most recent World Cup.
England vs. Germany on Tuesday at 12:00 pm EDT. This is a face-off between two of Europe’s highest-ranked teams, with England again having the home-field advantage in Wembley Stadium. The winner of this game will go on to play the winner of Sweden vs. Ukraine. Neither of these teams would normally be favored to win against England or Germany but England and Germany will have just played in their hardest contest of the championship. They will be battling fatigue and injuries, and potentially playing with a reduced roster.
The Path to Victory
The 8 winners of the Knockout Round will advance to the Quarter-Finals, held on July 2 and 3. The 4 teams that make it to the Semi-Finals face off on July 6 and 7. The final game is scheduled for July 11 at 3:00 pm EDT.
Who Should You Bet On?
I’d be the last person to know which team will win, but it appears that even the experts have many contrasting predictions. If you like to wager, however, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Only the Superbowl has more betting options. The site DraftKings Sportsbook will let you bet on everything from who will win a given match to how many corner kicks will be scored.
Les Bleus continue to be the overall favorite. England is the second favorite. However, England has never won this tournament. Does that make them a more determined adversary or give their opponents a psychological edge? It’s anybody’s guess.
One thing is certain, your soccer-obsessed friends in Europe may be unavailable in the coming days/weeks. Be prepared to send them a bottle of champagne or a box of tissues.
July 2, 2021 Update
In an absolutely incredible match against France, Switzerland prevailed last week when France’s youngest superstar failed to score on the last kick (number 10) of a tie-breaking penalty shootout!
The quarter-finals begin today with Switzerland vs. Spain and Belgium vs. Italy. Tomorrow, the Czech Republic faces off against Denmark and England plays Ukraine.
If soccer isn’t enough to appease your appetite for world-class sports, the Tour de France begins tomorrow.
- Sky Sports, Euro 2020: Fixtures, venues, full schedule and kick-off times for 2021 tournament
- Youtube, (European) Soccer Explained for Americans
- Youtube, Previewing the top EURO 2020 Round of 16 matchups to watch | Pro Soccer Talk | NBC Sports
- Le Monde, Euro 2021 : la France s’impose en champion du monde pour ses débuts face à l’Allemagne
- Bloomberg Opinion, Celebrating the Goldman Sachs Soccer Failure
- DraftKings Nation, It’s the Euro 2021 Finals: Why you should care
- UEFA.com, EURO 2020 qualifying rules: how it works
- UEFA.com, UEFA EURO 2020 fixtures and results
- SportingNews, Euro 2021 tiebreakers: How groups were decided if teams were tied on points
- The Guardian, Lothar Matthäus: ‘We’re favourites if England v Germany goes to penalties’