In December 2012, UEFA announced that the 2020 European Championship will take place in “12 or 13” different European cities in as many countries, giving smaller soccer nations the chance to bring the European festival to their doorstep without having to shoulder the financial and logistical burdens of acting as sole or co-hosts.
UEFA President Michel Platini described the initiative as a “romantic,” one-off occasion to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the tournament that first took place in France in 1960, with the Soviet Union running out inaugural winners in the 4-team finals.
While host selection customarily allocates that nation an automatic qualification spot, as in Poland and Ukraine in 2012, the 2020 tournament will see all 54 UEFA national teams competing for all 24 places at the finals tournament.
This follows the competition’s expanded format that will see the number of finals teams rise from 16 to 24 in time for the 15th European Championships, to be held in France in 2016. The Irish and Scottish FA were largely behind this increase, noting the improved level of soccer from lesser teams, although the expansion was backed by 51 of UEFA’s Member Associations.
Though it seems far away given the proximity of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, those countries and cities that have shown interest must finalize their bids in time for September 25, when UEFA’s executive committee will meet to determine the 13 host cities.
As expected, bids have come flying in from cities and stadiums great and small. The likes of London, Munich and Madrid have registered their willingness to provide their world-class stadiums for the “finals package,” with Istanbul the most likely to host the final itself, but it’s the smaller nations that interest me — exciting dreams of balmy European nights, drinking foreign beer and watching European football from unique and quirky stadia, with unique and quirky local fans.
All smaller nations can apply for the “standard package” that entails hosting three group games and a knockout round match. With 51 games in total, that’s a lot of soccer to be played in cities or even countries that you’d never usually consider as capable.
Imagine for instance a weekend in Minsk, Belarus; sitting in the sun by the beautiful Svislach River as Dinamo Minsk fans flood the streets with color and noise, banging drums and lighting flares on the way to the 33,000-seater Stadyjon Traktar.
Then there’s Israel’s bid to host the football circus in Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, where they beat Argentina 2-1 in 1998. The unique backdrop of the shining golden Dome of the Rock, encircled by the city’s ancient stone walls, would surely instill that old spirit of adventure into the traveling fan that has been lost in the congested main boozing squares of Warsaw or Lisbon.
How about an impromptu holiday to Azerbaijan or Macedonia, or a road-trip through the Scandinavian countries to celebrate European football in Copenhagen or Stockholm before finishing down in Rome at the electric Stadio Olympico? Armenia, Serbia and Romania deserve a taste of that special intra-European camaraderie as much as Germany, France or Ukraine.
The thought of tens of thousands of soccer fans zigzagging across Europe on trains and coaches, in cars or on planes, chasing that ephemeral soccer utopia; the image of Turkish ultras chatting with Shamrock Rovers fans in a Glaswegian tavern; or the idea of Kazakhstan hosting the mighty Spanish national team, surely captures the very spirit of a competition that has gone form strength to strength since its conception.
Equally exciting for a Brit is the possibility of seeing the tournament come to Wales, Scotland or Ireland. Glasgow’s historic Hampden Park, home to the Scottish national team for over a century, must compete with Cardiff’s 74,500-seater Millennium Stadium and Dublin’s 51,700 capacity Aviva Stadium, for a position as host in 2020.
Given that the UK will most likely be seen as a “zone” and will therefore potentially only be limited to three packages at the most, the rival Football Associations of Ireland, Wales and Scotland will have to do their utmost to prove that their city and their stadium can provide the most in what will be a fantastic summer tournament in 6 years time.
It’s a tremendously exciting time for all Europeans to experience new cities and peoples. It’s a thrilling time for host cities to show off their identities, and it’s a stimulating time for non-Europeans to watch soccer’s most successful continent play out a very special anniversary.
As Platini put it: “The finals will be a great celebration of football across the European continent and the 60th anniversary edition will be truly special by really coming to the doorstep of all football fans.” While all eyes drift to Brazil for the kick-off of the 2014 World Cup, bear in mind that there’s plenty more in store for us in the remainder of this decade.