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.