From full steam ahead to putting the brakes on and then resuming the journey, we examine the long road to EURO 2020 through the eyes of UEFA and some of the key figures involved.
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With around 100 days to go, EURO 2020 was firmly on track to kick off on schedule in June. Thanks to close collaboration between national associations, local authorities and UEFA, preparations were nearing completion in each of the 12 cities due to host the competition’s 60th anniversary edition.
The sudden outbreak of a pandemic left European football’s governing body with no choice but to postpone the entire tournament by 12 months. While a difficult decision, it was the only way to ensure the safety of everyone involved, avoid burdening public services unnecessarily and provide sufficient time for domestic leagues to complete their seasons.
Over the past 15 months, European football's governing body has had to adapt to unprecedented circumstances, working closely with hosts, commercial partners – broadcasters, sponsors and licensees – as well as key suppliers such as television production services, and technical and operational service providers to put everything in place for the rescheduled tournament to start on 11 June in Rome.
Red for Stop
March-June 2020: Protecting preparations
From the moment that the Executive Committee announced its decision to postpone EURO 2020 by 12 months, UEFA focused on putting the competition into hibernation until November 2020. - essential to minimise costs, preserve well-laid foundations and ensure preparations could pick up where they left off later in the year.
As a priority, UEFA addressed the biggest question facing all of the national associations, cities and stadiums due to host the original finals: given the uncertain evolution of the pandemic, could they still stage the rescheduled 2021 event?
Finding an answer meant negotiating significant legal, operational and logistical obstacles. For example, adapting more than 250 supplier contracts and securing the continued commitment of associations to deliver EURO projects.
Thanks to excellent collaboration, by June 2020, all 12 EURO hosts, including city and national governments, stadium and airport authorities, had signed up to stage the 2021 tournament on the same terms as before.
Key quote: Sharon Burkhalter-Lau, UEFA operations director
"It was like the feeling of preparing for a party, for three years, and then just when the guests are about to arrive, the party’s called off. Then you’re left paying the bills, cleaning up, and you haven’t had the party.
"I think a lot of people talk about the decision to restart, but first there was the decision to stop. You really want to safeguard all your work. So, you need to stop in a safe way, so that you can later restart in a safe way."
Amber for Get Ready
August 2020-January 2021: Resetting and restarting
As the 2020/21 season began, with club and national competitions following UEFA’s operational Return to Play Protocol, an online workshop helped EURO 2020 host associations to identify key priorities and key milestones on the roadmap to June 2021. This wuld put particular focus on understanding the potential impact of the pandemic on staging matches and events.
On the field, Hungary, North Macedonia, Scotland and Slovakia were victorious in November's play-off matches to claim the final four places at the tournament.
By the start of the New Year, the Return to Play Protocol had proved to be a huge success – allowing for more than 1,000 matches to have been safely played since August, with more than 125,000 COVID-19 tests conducted.
Dr Daniel Koch, a former head of communicable diseases at Switzerland’s Health Ministry, was appointed as a EURO 2020 medical advisor. Over the past months, his expertise has proven critical in guiding UEFA and EURO’s host countries on maximising fan attendance while minimising health risks.
Also in January, UEFA met once again with all 12 host cities. Recognising the need for flexibility around final decisions due to the fast-changing nature of the pandemic, the governing body set April as the final deadline for submitting plans to accommodate supporters inside stadiums.
Key quote: Walid Bensaoula, UEFA host country relations manager
"The EURO is one of the world’s biggest sports events. It is so complex to organise that you cannot force it on anyone. We approached host cities as partners, asking if they still wished to stage the competition.
"Recommitting to host the EURO came with a condition for each city: to replicate the same level of delivery planned for 2020, from fans and transportation to communication and promotion. Given the constantly changing nature of the pandemic, it was very difficult to secure agreements with all the different authorities involved, but the cities have done a tremendous job."
Green for Go
April-June 2021: the final straight
UEFA was able to confirm the presence of fans at EURO 2020 after receiving assurances from eight of the 12 host cities in early April. Several host countries factored tournament planning into their national recovery strategies.
UEFA's decisions were guided by close collaboration with national governments and the UN World Health Organization (WHO), whose COVID-19 risk assessment tool was adapted for EURO 2020.
Finally, on 23 April, EURO 2020’s final host venues were publicly announced. Despite close cooperation with national and regional governments, as well as other local stakeholders, the cities of Bilbao and Dublin decided not to host games. Seville stepped in to stage matches scheduled for Spain, while the Republic of Ireland’s allocated games switched to existing venues in Saint Petersburg and London.
The final schedule was confirmed, and with refereeing teams appointed and special rules introduced to help participating teams, UEFA could finally give the official green light to the first international sporting event to take place since the start of the pandemic.
Key quote: Aleksander Čeferin, UEFA president
"We have been working diligently with the host associations and local authorities to ensure a safe and festive environment at the games and I am really pleased that we are able to welcome spectators at all matches for a celebration of national team football across the continent.
"EURO 2020 will leave us with countless memories to cherish – goals, matches and performances that will go down in football history and be talked about time and again in the years ahead."