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Penalty heartache for Southgate; Messi & Argentina bask in Copa glory

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

For England manager Gareth Southgate, history repeated itself 25 years on from his nightmare penalty miss at Wembley in the 1996 FIFA World Cup semi-final. Southgate and England were once more denied celebrating title success on home soil as Italy clinched a 2nd European title.

Elsewhere, Lionel Messi ticked the final accolade on his illustrious CV to hush any remaining doubters as Argentina were crowned South American champions for the first time since 1993.

After a most grueling and compacted season, players linked up with their national teams at a major tournament for the first time since the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

The 16th UEFA European Championships got underway a year later than expected following postponement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, almost five years on since Cristiano Ronaldo & Portugal lifted the Euro 2016 crown in France.

For the first time in competition history the Finals were staged across 11 host nations. Prior to this edition there had been a maximum of two co-hosting countries at a single Euro tournament (Euros 2000, 2008, 2012) and each and every one was co-hosted by neighboring nations (i.e. Belgium-Netherlands; Austria-Switzerland; Poland-Ukraine).

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has declared that we may never again witness a similar theme of a plethora of host nations due to the discrepancies in travelling distance amongst participating teams.

Moreover Covid rules fluctuated throughout Europe based on government regulations in each given nation, meaning that Euro matches were contested with inconsistent capacity crowds.

Matches held in Hungary, for example, hosted full capacity crowds in excess of 55,000 fans, while the majority of other nations had to settle for roughly 10,000-15,000 each game.

Countries like England eased restrictions during the course of the tournament which saw Wembley's attendances rise from 18,000 in the group stages up to 40,000 in the first knockout round, followed by more than 60,000 spectators for each of the semi-finals and Final.

From the six groups Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, England, Sweden, and France all advanced to the Round of 16 as group winners. Wales, Denmark and Austria all finished as runners-up in their respective groups, as did Croatia, Spain and Germany.

Portugal, Switzerland and Czechia all finished in 3rd spot with 4 points and qualified for the R16. Finland, Slovakia and Ukraine also came in 3rd on 3 points apiece but it was the Ukrainians who snatched the final spot in the first knockout round, by virtue of goal difference.

The final day of the group stage made Euro history as 18 goals were scored – the most on a single day since the tournament’s inception. Germany vs Hungary, and France vs Portugal both ended 2-2 while Spain put 5 past Slovakia, and Sweden edged Poland 3-2.

The conclusion of the group-stage brought and end to the tournament for Finland, Hungary, North Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Slovakia, and Turkey.

The tournament peaked during the Round of 16 and quarter-finals as a handful of the initial favourites crashed out relatively early on, including defending champions Portugal who exited the tournament in the first knockout round, together with Germany, Netherlands as well as both of France and Croatia – finalists from the 2018 World Cup.

Portugal were dealt a tough hand throughout Euro 2020, with three out of four of their opponents ranked inside the top 10 within Europe. Ronaldo and Portugal ultimately succumbed to the extreme pressure and the defending champions were sent packing in the Round of 16. Ronaldo and Portugal fell short to Belgium, 1-0, before England got one over old foes Germany, 2-0, at Wembley.

Also in the Round of 16, Spain and Croatia produced a fun-filled eight-goal thriller after 120 minutes as La Roja won 5-3.

The biggest upset came in Bucharest where Switerzland stunned world champions France. Paul Pogba scored a clear contender for Goal of the Tournament however the match astonishingly ended 3-3 after regular time, despite Les Bleus leading 3-1 after 75 minutes. French starboy Kylian Mbappe failed to convert the decisive penalty and the Swiss were overcome with exuberant emotion to advance through to the quarter-finals, their first for 67 years.

Following Germany‘s exit, midfielder Toni Kroos announced his retirement from international football with 106 caps in German colours.

Head coach Joachim Löw also stepped down from his post after 15 years in charge of Die Mannschaft, during which time they lifted the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Löw‘s successor has been named as Hansi Flick, who was assistant manager at the time of Germany's WC success in Brazil seven years ago.

In the quarters, top-ranked team Belgium met the resilient Italy in what was a battle of the Roberto's: Martinez vs Mancini. These two managers last met in the 2013 FA Cup Final when Martinez's Wigan Athletic shocked Manchester City in what was Mancini's last match as City boss.

Ahead of this feisty quarter-final clash, Mancini's mighty Azzurri had yet to concede inside 90 minutes.

Italy scored twice before half-time vs the Belgian Red Devils and the match ended 2-1 in favour of the Italians, to dump out Martinez's Belgium outfit.

Belgium's alleged golden generation are running out of time to capture continental success as star players such as Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne have already reached the wrong side of 30 years.

The corresponding quarters saw England demolish Ukraine, 4-0, to send Andriy Shevhenko's yellow army on their way home, meanwhile Denmark pipped Czechia, 2-1.

Switzerland played in their first major quarter-final since 1954 and competed with Luis Enrique's Spain. The teams could not be separated after 90 nor 120 minutes and another penalty shoot-out ensued. Switzerland could not replicate their shoot-out success against the French, as La Roja won 3-1 with three out of four Swiss players missing their penalties.

Final four. Italy v Spain. England v Denmark.

The Italians proving an obvious force to be reckoned with and showing clear progress since missing out on qualification for the 2018 World Cup, under then-manager Gian Piero Ventura. Mancini was named Azzurri boss in May 2018 and since his appointment Italy had gone 27 games unbeaten ahead of the tournament.

Mancini notably gave minutes to 25 of his 26 squad members at this year's Championships, with everyone except for 3rd 'keeper Alex Meret afforded playing time. Mancini was part of Italy's set-up at the 1990 World Cup on home turf, but never made an on-field appearance and he seemingly made it his mission to make each and every one of his players receive minutes this time around.

Leonardo Spinazzola was enigmatic down the left flank for the Azzurri before he ruptured his Achilles' tendon during their quarter-final win over Belgium.

Italy meant business and were out to get Spain, nine years since the Euro 2012 Final in which La Roja trampled the Azzurri, 4-0. The latest affair between the two nations was goalless up until half time but the teams upped the ante in the second half. Federico Chiesa curled home past the Spanish backline before Spain responded through substitute Alvaro Morata who was chomping away at the aging defensive duo of Leo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.

The match ended 1-1 after regular time and remained the same beyond extra-time. Both Manuel Locatelli and Dani Olmo failed to score the nations' opening penalties but both converted their following 2 kicks. Morata went from hero to zero as the monstrous Gigi Donnarumma saved his penalty before Jorginho calmly slotted home to send the Azzurri into their fourth Euro Final.

Few teams had a tournament more emotional than Denmark, whose world was flipped upside down in their group opener with Finland. Playmaker Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest in-game before he was stabilized in hospital in Copenhagen.

The match resumed and the Danes lost 0-1 but were quite obviously still in shock from Eriksen's horrific episode. Denmark remained firm and held it together to advance from Group B as runners-up to Belgium and they later put on a clinic in the Round of 16 against Wales, cruising to a 4-0 victory in Amsterdam as striker Kasper Dolberg netted twice.

Denmark are by no means strangers to the European circuit having won Euro 1992 when goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was named Player of the Tournament. Kasper Schmeichel, son of Peter, has earned 71 caps at national level and serves a colossal gig in the Danes' line of defence, together with established centre-halves Kjaer, Christensen and Vestergaard.

Denmark defeated Czechia 2-1 in their quarter-final clash in Baku where Dolberg scored his third goal of the tournament. In the semis Denmark were up against England at Wembley. Mikkel Damsgaard stunned the stadium into silence with a peach of a free-kick to give the Danes the lead on the half-hour mark.

The Three Lions immediately pressed for an equaliser and found one, minutes before the half interval. The score remained 1-1 until 90 minutes and into extra-time as Schmeichel was immense in between the Danish posts – making 9 saves (including Harry Kane's penalty), the most ever by a Danish 'keeper in a single game at the Euros. Heartbreak for dark horses Denmark who gave everything but could not keep out Kane's penalty rebound.

Italy had previously met England four times at a major tournament, with the Three Lions failing to subjugate the Azzurri on all four occasions (Euro 1980, WC 1990, Euro 2012, WC 2014).

Southgate's men got off to the brightest of starts on Sunday as Luke Shaw fired home just 117 seconds after kick-off, his first international goal on the eve of his 26th birthday. Mancini's Azzurri were knocking on England's door and inevitably equalized through Leo Bonucci in the 2nd half, with the defender now the oldest player to score in a Euro Final (34y 2m).

The score stayed at 1-1, the 7th final in Euro history to go beyond 90 minutes, but only the 2nd to be decided on penalties.

In the end, Italy prevented football from coming home and there could hardly have been a more crushing way for Southgate and his men to be denied continental success, given England's horrible hoodoo with penalties. Rashford, Sancho and Saka all failed to convert from the spot as Italy extended their unbeaten streak to 34 matches and also became the first team to win two penalty shoot-outs in a Euro tournament.

Italy are on the verge of more history as their unbeaten run is just one game shy of the all-time record held by both Brazil and Spain for the longest undefeated spell (35). In addition, Italy are the 4th nation to become multi-European champions, level with France and behind only Germany and Spain.

England's loss represents the 3rd time the home nation has lost in the final, after Portugal in 2004

and France 2016. Despite collecting the silver medal England and Southgate appear optimistic about the future and rightly so. Southgate boasted the youngest squad at the tournament, with an average age of 25 years & 4 months amongst the 26 players who completed the tournament.

Jude Bellingham became the youngest player to represent his nation in the history of European Championships. Bellingham played 25 minutes in England's group clash with Czechia, seven days shy of his 18th birthday.

Italy goalie Donnarumma was awarded Player of the Tournament for his heroics in between the sticks especially in Italy's two shoot-outs. Donnarumma also kept three clean sheets in the group-stage and he becomes the first goalkeeper to win the award.

Spain midfielder Pedri, 18, was named Young Player of the Tournament after featuring heavily for the Red Fury, displaying exquisite durability and flair, and gaining plenty of plaudits in the process.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored five goals in 360 minutes of action to win the the accolade for tournament's top scorer. Czechia striker Patrik Schick also netted five goals but played more minutes than the Portuguese talismanic skipper.

Karim Benzema scored 4 goals upon his return to the France camp, six years after he last played for Les Bleus. Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane also bagged four each for Belgium and England, respectively, as well as Emil Forsberg of Sweden.

11 own goals were scored at this year's Championships, the most in competition history.

The officiating and utilizing of VAR at Euro 2020 was generally effective in allowing the game to be more free-flowing. Officials from the Premier League could most certainly take a leaf out of UEFA's book, especially when considering what fans have become accustomed to in the Premier League in recent years.

Overall Euro 2020 was a splendid tournament which had just about everything, and is likely to live long in the memory of the wider football community.

Happening concurrently to the Euros, the 47th Copa América took place more than 9,000km to the west in Brazil. The tournament was relocated less than two weeks before the tournament was scheduled to commence. Argentina and Colombia were the original co-hosts of this year's Copa but due to the civil unrest in Colombia and the extensive Covid situation in Argentina, the tournament was shifted to Brazil, who hosted the last edition in 2019.

Defending champions Brazil were grouped alongside Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela in Group B. Argentina were dealt a much tougher group on paper as they were grouped with Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, and Bolivia in Group A.

With former club teammates Messi and Neymar in the thick of things, Argentina and Brazil breezed through the group stage – both with three wins and a draw.

Neymar and his Seleção teammates edged Chile in the quarterfinals while Messi & La Albiceleste conquered Ecuador, 3-0.

In the semi-finals Brazil met Peru who had beat Paraguay on penalties in the quarters. Brazil again won 1-0 to earn their berth to the Final at the Estadio Maracana.

Colombia had also advanced on penalties as 'keeper David Ospina saved two Uruguay spot-kicks to book their spot against Argentina in the semis. That match, too, was decided by shoot-out but this time it was Argentine goalie Emi Martinez who kept out three Colombian penalties to set a date with Brazil in the Final.

Colombia and Peru battled for the third/fourth place play-off and with extra-time looming after 90 minutes, Colombia forward Luis Diaz scored a last-gasp winner to secure the bronze medals for the men in yellow, final score 3-2.

Despite having in excess of 1million active cases of COVID-19 in Brazil at the time of the Final, a crowd of 8,000 spectators was permitted to attend the encounter at the Estadio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, which also previously hosted the 2014 World Cup Final.

This was the 11th time that these great rivals met in the Final of the South American showpiece, the first time since 2007 when Brazil walloped Argentina 3-0 to win their 8th Copa; the Seleção have added a further two titles to their collection since then.

The two nations also contested the 2004 Copa Final which Brazil won on penalties.

It was do or die for Messi and his countrymen who had previously lost as many as four Copa América Finals (not to mention the 2014 WC Final to Germany) in the span of 13 years, most recently to Chile in both 2015 and 2016 after which Messi temporarily retired from international football. La Albiceleste's last Copa América triumph came back in 1993 and Messi & co. were beyond desperate to end their nation's continental trophy drought.

Angel di Maria scored the game’s only goal as Argentina celebrated a 15th Copa América crown, tying Uruguay as the joint-most successful nations in the tournament’s 105-year history.

Messi ended the tournament with 9 goal contributions (4 goals, 5 assists), more than any other player involved. Messi was directly involved in 9/12 of Argentina's goals and played all 630 minutes across their seven matches. Messi duly collected the Golden Boot and also swooped Best Player of the Tournament. Emi Martinez was awarded Best Goalkeeper.

With international affairs done and dusted for now, pre-season across Europe is imminent as clubs gear up for the 2021/22 season. The next lot of international action comes in early September with most nations playing three World Cup Qualifiers.

A month later the UEFA Nations League semi-finals see Italy and Spain meet again while top ranked teams Belgium and France face off for a berth in the 2020/21 Nations League Final in Milan on 10 October.

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