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EURO 2020, a tournament like no other: Q&A with Martin Kallen

UEFA Events SA CEO Martin Kallen, a veteran of five EURO tournaments, reflects on his toughest ever challenge – staging the world’s biggest sporting event to take place since the start of the pandemic.

UEFA via Getty Images

Even before a ball is kicked, UEFA EURO 2020 is already a major international tournament unlike any before.

Whether it is staging matches across 11 different venues, postponing the event due to a global pandemic or adapting regulations to protect the players and welcome fans back into stadiums, this European Championship will live long in the memory.

With the last preparations firmly under way ahead of Friday's big kick-off, we catch up with UEFA Events SA CEO Martin Kallen, responsible for making the impossible, possible.

Martin, how can you describe the period since UEFA’s decision to postpone EURO 2020 by 12 months?

"It was a challenging time. At first, it was a shock – it was the first time that we had this situation where we suddenly needed to postpone the EURO by one year.

"We have it in our contracts that such things can happen, but this really came as something new, and it was not something for which we could be prepared.

"We had to really consider how to move forwards. At the beginning, we thought the pandemic could last a few weeks, and then a few months, but it became clear that the only chance we had, with all the parameters of the football calendar, was to postpone the EURO by a year and then discuss how to move forward."

"You have to speak to all your partners and stakeholders - governments, host cities, stadiums, commercial partners and broadcasters, plus our many suppliers.

"Within UEFA, we have a lot of fixed-term contract employees, so we had to consider how we could honour these contracts, continue without people or bring them back. There has been a lot of administration, a lot of legal work, but we can say that everybody has played the game and done their utmost to get us to a position where EURO 2020 can begin."

Learn more about how UEFA kept EURO 2020 on track

How does organising EURO 2020 compare to the previous four European Championships you have been involved with?

Martin Kallen has been in charge of UEFA European Championships since 2004
Martin Kallen has been in charge of UEFA European Championships since 2004©Getty Images

"We had a pattern from past competitions – how to organise a EURO, how to organise a big event, what is important, what is less important, what you have to focus on. This year, we had to do a lot of these things completely differently.

"Each EURO has its own major subject or point of concern. This year, of course, it is dealing with the pandemic.

"In 2004 in Portugal, we only had 21 months to organise it, with lots of new stadiums, so construction was a very important subject. In 2008, in Switzerland and Austria, the weather was a challenge. We had to change the grass in Basel, we lost the television signal and power due to the weather, and we also had big fan zones for the first time.

"In 2012, with Ukraine and Poland, there was a whole new infrastructure to be built in two countries, and, in 2016 in France, the main issue was security and terrorism, and they did an excellent job in creating a safe and secure environment for fans.

"In 2020, it was already unique with so many different countries, but the pandemic meant nothing was certain anymore and has brought new issues every day – how we clean and disinfect stadiums, how we deal with testing, how we can bring spectators back."

Fan safety is of utmost importance. What is your message to supporters attending matches?

"The first priority, second priority and third priority at a tournament is always fan safety. It’s important for everybody that we have spectators back – it represents a step towards normality for all of us in society.

"But, with that, we ask that supporters are sensible and plan ahead. Come on time; don’t rush to the stadium. Wear a mask. Keep a distance from others when possible and make safety a priority in all that you do.

"Football without fans is not the same and it's very important to have them back, so I will be very, very happy to see supporters throughout the tournament and we can feel satisfied that we managed to make this happen."

View the EURO 2020 event guide for each of the 11 host cities and stadiums

Can you describe the process of keeping players and teams safe at the tournament?

"The UEFA Return to Play Protocol has allowed the game to return around Europe in a stable way, but for EURO 2020, it is a different proposition. In addition to the Return to Play Protocol, which is the main document, we created a medical operational concept during the past season which is a lot more detailed, for the understanding of and operation in all 11 cities, for the 24 teams and officials involved.

"Teams will live in a bubble with no contact with the public, they have to take regular PCR tests and their temperatures will be taken upon arrival at the stadium. There are many procedures in place that have been agreed with medical authorities and the UEFA Medical Committee."

What happens if a player tests positive for the COVID-19 virus?

"During the season, we had a small number of positive tests, so it is possible we could have players test positive during the tournament.

"There is a procedure in place where the player will go into quarantine, but the others will be tested again and then they can play. This principle is the same across all 11 host countries and the same process is in place for referees and match officials."

There will be 11 host cities rather than the 12 planned – can you talk about the situation with Dublin and Bilbao?

Seville will now host four matches at UEFA EURO 2020
Seville will now host four matches at UEFA EURO 2020

"We looked at different scenarios over the past 12 months, and in the end, the best scenario was to remain with what we started with – if you have more countries, it can help to share the risks, and with so many host nations qualified, there is less international travel for many supporters.

"Unfortunately, it proved impossible to stage matches with supporters in Dublin and Bilbao, but we have a very good relationship with Dublin, the Football Association of Ireland and the Irish government. The same goes for Bilbao and the Spanish Football Federation, and we were able to move those matches to Seville, where the lead scenario is more positive and we are able to welcome 30% of supporters for the four matches."

What legacy plans are in place for UEFA EURO 2020?

"Each EURO has a legacy and, each time, the legacy gets a little bit better. For EURO 2020, we only constructed one new stadium, in Budapest, which is a positive step, not to build any 'white elephants'.

"Social responsibility is important to us and we have developed several existing programmes as well as creating new ones, with programmes differing across the 11 venues.

"A big event is never 100% sustainable, that would be impossible, but we have done our utmost to make sure EURO 2020 is environmentally friendly. So, we have already paid to offset the carbon and have agreed free public transport in some of the host cities."

How can football help create a more sustainable world?

What will your own schedule be like during EURO 2020?

"Along with Theodore Theodoridis, the UEFA general secretary, I will be visiting each stadium and each venue team. It is a challenging mission but also a pleasing experience to meet staff and the many volunteers.

"From the beginning of June, when the participating teams are coming together, we can see the excitement rise and the competition will become central to our thoughts, more than the administrative tasks and dealing with the pandemic.

"We have a fantastic team in place at all of our venues, as well as a senior team at UEFA's headquarters in Switzerland, all looking forward to getting the tournament started."

Finally, how proud are you of the way UEFA staff have adapted to the challenges of organising this unique tournament?

"I’m very proud. I have to say, everybody tried their best, everybody went the extra mile to find new solutions and everybody has been taken out of their comfort zone. Everything has been done with a positive team spirit and I have found this really inspiring.

"When we wake up on 12 July and the celebrations are over after the final, we can be very thankful to everyone who was involved and who gave their all for making the European Championship happen. It will be a time to reflect and feel very proud of absolutely everybody."