• Matthew Whiley

The Unofficial Euro 2020 Awards

And… breathe.

Have we recovered yet? I certainly haven’t. I’m fairly certain the events of that Sunday night almost a fortnight ago will be etched into my footballing memory for a long while yet. Just as those in the generation above me have the Euro 96 semi-final, my generation and I will have the Euro 2020 final.

Those events will be tough to forget. They will take a while to digest. And they will be painful when we remember them, years from now.

But here’s what they will do. The agony provoked in that moment can, and will, be harnessed by this magnificent group of players we currently have representing England. It will drive them forward.

Connecting 1996 and 2020 is a man I’m proud to call my national football team’s manager. I’m usually against saying that any individual or team in football deserves success, but if there’s one man I’m prepared to suspend that for, it’s Gareth Southgate.

This kind, decent man, this leader, this manager shaped by his own experiences, deserves vindication for his approach. He understands what it is to manage England, and he is developing a generation of talent that understand what it is to play for England. What’s more, if the England that he represents becomes the permanent and invariable reality across the country, then that will do for me.

But to go on about that moment, and about England, does a disservice to what was, on the whole, a thoroughly well-organised and enjoyable tournament for all concerned. Despite taking place in the midst of a pandemic, the romantic dream of hosting the tournament across Europe came true, and it largely went off without a hitch.

With that in mind, I wanted to make this latest post a review of the action over the last month, and I’ve decided to do it in the style of an awards ceremony. Therefore, there will be five categories, for which there will each be a certain number of nominees. The reasons that each nominee should win their respective award will be outlined, before an overall winner is crowned.

Ready? Excellent. Black ties on, red carpet rolled out, and curtain lifted.

It’s time for the “Unofficial Euro 2020 Awards Ceremony”. Nominations, please, for…

Best Player

Nominee A: Giorgio Chiellini (Italy). Grizzled defensive warrior Chiellini turned in his usual commanding centre-back performances throughout Italy’s victorious campaign. The Azzurri did not concede a single goal in the group stages, and shipped just four across the whole tournament. Chiellini will be missed when the 36-year-old calls time on his international career.

Nominee B: Federico Chiesa (Italy). A quick winger with tricky feet, Chiesa was another Italian who enjoyed a standout tournament. His two goals came at crucial moments throughout the tournament, against Austria in the round of 16 and Spain in the semi-final, and his reputation burgeoned throughout the tournament. At only 23, the Fiorentina (and most likely future Juventus) man will go far.

Nominee C: Jordan Pickford (England). There was doubt over the position of England’s number one prior to the start of the tournament, but Everton stopper Pickford proved why he holds the position right now. A run of five successive clean sheets, from the Three Lions’ opening game up to the quarter-finals, brought Pickford the Golden Glove, with his passion clear for all to see every time he made a save.

Nominee D: Pedri (Spain). Barcelona have a gem here. Precocious Pedri, who joined the Catalan club from Las Palmas last July, had a stunning tournament in Spain’s midfield. His intelligence, and in particular his off-ball movement to create space, belies his tender age, and his quality with the ball is equally high, as he completed 429 of the 465 passes he attempted.

Nominee E: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). There’s little else you can say about the man who is definitely Europe’s, if not the world’s, most famous footballer. He finished joint-top-scorer at the tournament with five goals, despite holders Portugal’s elimination in the round of 16, in the process becoming the leading goalscorer of all time at the men’s European Championships. A living legend.

Winner: Federico Chiesa (Italy). It has to be Chiesa for me. A key part of Italy’s renaissance as an attractive, fast, attacking team under Roberto Mancini, he looked dangerous at all times, and chipped in with a pair of delightful goals.

Best Young Player

Players who were 22 or under when the tournament started.

Nominee A: Mikkel Damsgaard (Denmark). He capped a fine tournament with that scorching free kick from distance against England, playing a key role in dark horses Denmark’s run to the semi-finals. He bagged a goal and an assist, embarked on 17 dribbles, and had four shots on target, the joint-third most of any Dane. Sampdoria will have a battle on their hands to keep the 21-year-old.

Nominee B: Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy). Paolo Maldini once said that being Italy’s goalkeeper is “the easiest job in Europe,” because of the country’s famously tough defensive line. Not quite so these days, as Roberto Mancini’s side won the tournament with a noticeable move away from that. Although Donnarumma had defensive warriors Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in front of him, he still played his part in seeing Italy through to the final, and ultimately, with that final, fateful save, won the Azzurri the trophy.

Nominee C: Alexander Isak (Sweden). We’ll let him off not knowing who Gary Lineker is – his admission of that fact coming in a live TV interview with typical Scandinavian bluntness; “I am not that aware of him. It's an old player working in the studio?” – because of his excellent performances. His highlight was a mesmerising dribble from his own half to the edge of the Slovakian box in Sweden’s second game.

Nominee D: Pedri (Spain). The young Spaniard makes his second appearance in this ‘ceremony’, and there’s little else that can be said about him. At the age of just 18, it’s not remotely unrealistic to say this young man could have the best part of two decades among the European elite.

Nominee E: Bukayo Saka (England). To be frank, Saka probably deserves this award for that unicorn photo alone, but his footballing displays did his credibility no harm at all. He’s a real utility player, who will take on any new role across the pitch with enthusiasm, and he had a breakout tournament on England’s flank. The world knows who this 19-year-old is now.

Winner: Pedri (Spain). The tournament’s true breakout star. If he wasn’t already at Barcelona, the transfer gossip columns would be rife with speculation about which of Europe’s elite would be enquiring about him. Mes que un player.

Biggest Disappointment

Nominee A: Bruno Fernandes (Portugal). If we are honouring the marvellous, we must also draw attention to the disappointing. Manchester United’s Fernandes has been in sparkling club form over the past 18 months, but failed to make a mark on Euro 2020, registering neither a goal nor an assist, just one shot on target, and a passing accuracy of only 75%.

Nominee B: Kylian Mbappe (France). Heading into Euro 2020, Mbappe was – and despite a deeply underwhelming showing, probably still is – European football’s wonderkid. The sky remains the limit for this extraordinarily talented player, but he failed to fire this summer, and without his magic, so too did France. He did not net a single goal and managed just one assist, with nine of his 14 attempts fired off target, and his penalty miss against Switzerland ultimately hammering the final nail into the coffin of French hopes of a World Cup and Euros double.

Nominee C: Turkey. Yes, that’s right. I’m nominating the entire 26-man Turkish squad, of whom big things were expected heading into the tournament. Yet, they netted just once and were ignominiously dumped out as they lost all three group games. Along with North Macedonia, the Turkish were the only side to fail to register a point.

Nominee D: Wojciech Szczęsny (Poland). The former Arsenal stopper suffered the deep ignominy of becoming the first goalkeeper to score an own goal in Euros history when Robert Mak’s strike rebounded off him against Slovakia, but there was more bad luck to come. Juventus’ number one shipped six goals in three group stage games, the joint-third most of any goalkeeper, as Poland suffered an early exit.

Winner: Kylian Mbappe (France). This one is something of a Golden Razzie award, but it has to go to Mbappe, simply because the difference between what he could have achieved and what he did was so vast. His penalty miss to eliminate France just summed it all up.

Best Individual Match

Nominee A: Croatia 3-5 Spain (Last 16). If goals, goals, and more goals are your thing, you need to look no further than this cracker of an encounter. It began with a startlingly bad own goal by the Spanish, was almost sealed with five minutes of normal time to go before Croatia netted twice to send it to injury time, before finishing up as a truly stunning eight-goal thriller. It was the highest-scoring match in the Euros knockout stages since Yugoslavia defeated France 5-4 in the first ever Euros game, all the way back in 1960.

Nominee B: France 3-3p Switzerland (Quarter-Final). Goals, tick. Penalty shootout, tick. Favourites dumped out, tick. Swiss man in glasses going from sheer despair to sheer delight in minutes, tick. With mere seconds of normal time to go, Mario Gavranović found Hugo Lloris’ bottom corner to level the scores, and ultimately force a penalty shootout. Step forward, Yann Sommer.

Nominee C: Germany 2-2 Hungary (Group F). It was no surprise that Group F, the so-called group of death, remained competitive right through to the final round of games, but it was a little more surprising that Hungary, the apparent whipping boys of the group, retained a chance of progression. They twice took the lead against Germany in a high-octane encounter, before an 84th minute equaliser from Leon Goretzka ultimately saw the Germans progress to face England at Wembley. No history associated with that one at all, was there?

Nominee D: Italy 1p-1 Spain (Semi-Final). For sheer footballing quality, the first semi final at Wembley will be tough to match. Both goals were of a superb standard, with Federico Chiesa’s curving strike cancelled out by a deliciously-created Alvaro Morata finish at the other end. It’s a shame one of them had to come out as the loser, and it’s a shame this match had to end at all.

Winner: France 3-3p Switzerland (Quarter-Final). This one had absolutely everything. The celebrations of Yann Sommer after he denied Kylian Mbappe to send the Swiss through, alongside the delighted roar of the now-famous bespectacled Swiss fan in the crowd, will be the endearing images of a night that will live long in the memory of European football.

Best Goal

Nominee A: Mikkel Damsgaard (England v Denmark, Semi-Final). You can’t beat a direct free kick nestling in the back of the net, least of all one from 25 yards out. Damsgaard’s strike powered past Jordan Pickford in the England goal to hand Denmark the lead after half an hour, and although the Danes would ultimately go on to lose the tie after extra time, Damsgaard still had his nation, and the neutrals, in raptures.

Nominee B: Luka Modrić (Croatia v Scotland, Group D). This type of goal is truly majestic. I can barely hit the ball with the inside of my foot, so to see it struck sweetly into the far corner with the outside of a boot is awe-inspiring. Modric picked up Mateo Kovačić’s pass just inside the Scottish ‘D’, and unerringly swerved a shot with the outside of his right foot beyond David Marshall. Outrageous skill.

Nominee C: Álvaro Morata (Italy v Spain, Semi-Final). Sometimes, the most beautiful goals are not because of how they are finished, but because of how they are created. Spain demonstrated that to maximum effect with a wonderful flowing team move against Italy at Wembley, as Morata drove forward from midfield, played a one-two with Dani Olmo to split the defence, and fired beyond Gianluigi Donnarumma. Hot knife through butter.

Nominee D: Patrik Schick (Scotland v Czech Republic, Group D). There is still a lot to be said for screamers, and the most stunning of all came from the boot of joint-top-scorer Schick at Hampden Park. The ball rolled free to Schick just inside the Scottish half, and the Bayer Leverkusen man made zero mistake to unleash an outrageous 50-yard lob that caught David Marshall off his line. Schick probably couldn’t believe what he’d just done, either.

Nominee E: Andriy Yarmolenko (Netherlands v Ukraine, Group C). An inch-perfect curling strike into the top corner? Yes please. West Ham forward Yarmolenko played his part in a thrilling five-goal arm-wrestle between his nation and the Netherlands with his effort to cut the deficit 15 minutes from time, as he collected a ball from Roman Yaremchuk, cut inside, and dipped a 25-yard scorcher beyond the fingertips of Maarten Stekelenburg.

Winner: Patrik Schick (Scotland v Czech Republic, Group D). Goals like that one are once-in-a-career. To hit with that kind of power, accuracy, and at the same time, delicacy, deserves all the plaudits. Schick’s screamer will take a lot of beating.

And drop the curtain. Farewell, Euro 2020. You were a hell of a lot of fun.

Congratulations to Italy, but even as fifty-five (although it’s actually fifty-three, but that’s a debate for another day) years of hurt go on for England, we still cling to the hope that one day, just one day, that barren run will end. We still believe.

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Signing off,