DUBAI: Even-numbered years are the best ones — just ask any football fan.
But while 2020 will be remembered for many things, football — or the lack of it — will be well down a depressingly long list.
For the first time in six decades, an even-numbered year will be without a major summer football tournament.
Not an Olympic football tournament. Not a Copa America, an Africa Cup of Nations, or an AFC Asian Cup. Many of those often take place in odd-numbered years, but there will, nevertheless, be a gaping hole where a World Cup or European Championship would often be.
Every two years, the three or four weeks that straddle June and July are booked for a festival of international football. However, the coronavirus crisis has ensured that will not happen this year.
Euro 2020 and Copa America have been postponed until 2021, and though domestic competitions will return to complete an interrupted and now-prolonged 2019-20 seasons, this is quite simply no substitute for the different kind of excitement that these tournaments bring.
In recent times it has become fashionable to see international football as inferior to club football, which in purely technical terms, it surely is. But make no mistake, these tournaments are like bookmarks in our lives, their mere mentions evoking memories of unforgettable, sun-stroked summers.
It’s in the way we reference them. World Cups are easily recalled by the name of the host country followed by the year: Mexico 86, USA 94, Germany 2006. European Championships, on the other hand, are more esoterically addressed Euro 84, Euro 96, Euro 2000. If you remember, the thinking must go, you remember.
In a different reality, we would now be looking forward to the opening match of Euro 2020 between Italy and Turkey at the Olimpico Stadium in Rome next Friday.
Making plans with friends to watch the match. Organizing office sweeps. Selecting your fantasy teams.
Hotels and cafes would be preparing big screens in expectation of increased attendance by people who barely give football a second thought at any other time of the year. And they, in turn, add to the color, excitement and inclusivity of summertime football. Big tournaments are for everyone.
There’s the issue of who to support. If your country is taking part then you’re sorted. But for many orphaned football fans, those whose countries are not invited to the party (i.e. not good enough), it’s time to adopt a team.
The World Cup brings out the usual suspects. Over the years, the likes of Brazil, Argentina, West Germany, Italy, France and England have amassed armies of fans from all corners of the globe. So have the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.
Some will throw their allegiances behind African, Asian or Arab teams. Others for any underdog.
Euros are no different. And while the likes of Germany, Italy or France will again be the big draws, many fans will simply support players that play for the clubs they support.
Above all, tournament football is about overindulging in the sheer amount of football on offer. Like at a brunch buffet, this is no time to nitpick over quality.
There is a modern tendency to over-analyze the standard of tournament football. Mexico 70 remains the gold standard. The 80s gave us two wonderful tournaments in Spain 82 and Mexico 86. Italia 90 was, technically speaking, a poor competition. Germany 2006 was fun, but South Africa 2010 wasn’t.
Over the years the Euros has come to be seen as a competition of higher quality than the World Cup.
The eight-team Euro 84, for those who remember it, is one of the finest tournaments of all time, lit up by Michel Platini’s genius and the emergence of Denmark’s wonderful team. Euro 2000, with 16 teams, was a joy to watch. Euro 2004 was dull.
Today, there is a type of fan who sees dilution in quality with more teams taking part, who turn up their nose at early-tournament matches which include the weaker teams.
But even casting aside the lack of generosity of spirit toward nations getting a rare spot in the sun, those skeptics are still missing the point.
It is precisely the sheer volume of football that makes those tournaments so enjoyable in the group stages. Quality football can wait — three or four matches is what makes those hot summer days so memorable.
We want plenty of goals, mistakes, red cards and controversies. We want underdogs to emerge, and players we’ve never heard of make a names for themselves.
We want that odd shock where a footballing giant gets humbled by a no-hoper, a match that will be referenced in years to come. Or those magic moments in the group stages that sometime outshine the semifinals and finals.
We want Algeria humiliating West Germany in 1982. We want Denmark 5, Yugoslavia 0 at Euro 84. We want Morocco destroying Portugal at Mexico 86. We want Cameroon beating Diego Maradona’s Argentina at Italia 90. We want Paul Gascoigne scoring an absurd goal against Scotland at Euro 96. And Greece crashing the Euro 2004 party like no team has ever crashed a major competition before.
When it comes to summer tournaments, you have to sit through, and embrace, the quantity in order to be rewarded with the quality.
Once we’re into the knockout stages, matches rapidly start to disappear into thin air.
After the eight matches in the round of 16 — which had followed the 32 World Cup or 24 Euro group fixtures — you’re left with only seven, and those are spread over nine or 10 days. The binging days are gone.
Watching the hour-glass drain, you wistfully look back on those dead rubber group matches, even as the best teams prepare for the business end of the tournament.
In theory, at least, this is where the highest-quality football will be played between the best teams left in the competition.
That doesn’t always happen. But when quarterfinals and semifinals deliver, they deliver big. And more than likely it will involve one version of Germany or another.
Italy’s 4-3 win over West Germany in the 1970 World Cup semifinal is dubbed the Game of the Century for good reason.
There is arguably the greatest World Cup match of all time; a Paolo Rossi inspired Italy stunning Brazil 3-2 at Spain 82. A few days later, West Germany overcame France on penalties after extra time in the semifinals, the 3-3 draw one of the most dramatic and controversial matches of all time.
In turn, France’s 3-2 win over Portugal in the Euro 84 semifinals is a match for the ages, one that has to be seen to be believed.
At Mexico 86, Diego Maradona produced a once-in-a-lifetime performance against England, scoring two of the World Cup’s most controversial and greatest goals minutes apart. Three days later, he conjured up an arguably better two-goal performance against Belgium as Argentina progressed to the final, where they eventually beat, you’ve guessed it, West Germany.
A decade later — in a repeat of the Italia 90 last four clash — England and Germany played out another excruciatingly tense Euro 96 semifinal at Wembley, before you know who progressed on penalties. Again.
In 2006, Italy beat hosts Germany 2-0 in a superlative World Cup semifinal, easily superior to their final win over France.
And perhaps the most jaw-dropping World Cup story of all time came when Germany annihilated Brazil 7-1 in front of their own fans in 2014.
Finals, over the decades, have increasingly failed to live up to those heights.
The eight World Cup finals from 1958 to 1986 delivered an astonishing 38 goals. The eight since have contributed only 16, with six of those coming two years ago in France.
Three of the last Euro finals, meanwhile, have finished 1-0.
Finals are at once a celebration and lament.
It’s what the whole summer has built up to. And then, just like that, its all over and you’re left feeling like it’s New Year’s day with a long, joyless January ahead.
But this year we will be denied even that. Sure, there is the resumption of domestic league football across Europe and the rest of the world. But played behind closed doors and clearly a means to finishing the season as quickly as possible, they have all the sterile excitement of a Zoom business meeting compared with the summer festival feel of a World Cup or a Euro.
Sadly, in the future, we will never refer to this big tournament match or that from the summer of 2020. It’s not the end of the world; that is seemingly happening elsewhere. But it does feel a bit odd.