Lockdown life in our house announced itself as a set of strange new domestic noises. There was the grim whirr of the printer churning out homeschooling worksheets, the halting robotic groan of the new coffee machine and, ah yes, the reliable alarm clock wail of children complaining about having to do Joe Wicks. But if there is one thing that soundtracked much of this housebound year for me — one constant that, somewhat unexpectedly, underpinned almost every waking moment — then it is this: the sound of televised football.
That is, in all honesty, barely an exaggeration. From the instant that spectator-free matches kicked off almost a year ago (and it seemed, suddenly, that there was a game on basically every day), football blared from each corner of the house and seeped into every part of my life. Whereas pre-Covid I would have characterised myself as a passionate but only peripherally engaged football fan — the sort to view people who devoted time to Fantasy Premier League with light disdain — suddenly, everything changed. Now, simulated crowd noise emanated from multiple TVs every weekend. Now, the configuration of my fantasy football team (yep) would be the first thing I looked at after my alarm went off in the morning. Now, I discovered that I couldn’t cook dinner without the accompaniment of a game (any game) blaring away on a sauce-spattered tablet and, on at least one occasion, my yelp of anguish while watching a Charlton Athletic stream causing my wife to thunder downstairs assuming I’d maimed myself.
It was all-consuming. But, of course, that was exactly the point. Because in the face of the pandemic’s nightmarish, intractable problems, the steady flow of fixtures offered a handrail-like degree of certainty. Compellingly dramatic, nearly constant, fundamentally meaningless; football in the time of plague was the perfect, safe distraction from the unrelenting hopelessness of life. But as the season sputtered out I found that my interest had waned a little; that, as restrictions lifted and pubs, restaurants and cinemas returned, my appetite for an inconsequential late-season game between, say, Newcastle and Sheffield United, was not quite as pronounced.
And so, on the face of it, the imminent, delayed arrival of Euro 2020 — a freshly expanded, 51-match international football jamboree that, insanely, starts less than a fortnight after the Champions League final — presents a problem. Is this all, well, a bit too much, too soon? Will football lose some of its status as an absorbing spectacle and security blanket when set against the novelty of a mostly reopened country? Does it not, for those of us who have harboured functioning football addictions, feel a little like we have all stuffed ourselves to the point of distended nausea, only to spot a massive, complimentary dessert trolley trundling over?
Yes, yep, absolutely. These are all valid points. But to fixate on the perceived bloat of another month of televised games is to miss a significant detail about the specific timing of this tournament. Because Euro 2020 — a multi-city, trans-European cup competition featuring, let us not forget, England, Wales and Scotland, plus games hosted in Glasgow and London — coincides with the moment when football can once again be enjoyed in its intended form: as a communal, tactile experience rather than something beamed through the ether into the gloom of our isolation pods. After being hidden beneath biosecure glass for so long, the game as we recognise it is finally able to burst free. And this competition will (barring any last-minute Indian variant calamities) be its glorious, mad coming-out party.
Euro 2020 will be a timely, thrilling festival of reunion
For those fortunate enough to have tickets to Wembley’s reduced-capacity games, the shift in experience from squinting at a screen to being in a distanced crowd will be stark. But it will feel just as rousing for those of us who are finally permitted to watch televised games with actual people outside our household.
Having counted out my various summers on this earth in international football tournament memories (trying to recreate Gazza’s Euro 96 goal on a concrete pitch in Abbey Wood; getting drenched by early morning pints of beer after Beckham’s penalty against Argentina in 2002; the whole giddy rush of England’s surprise semi-final run in 2018), I can’t quite believe that I’ll get to add to them. That after all that digital solitude there will be watching parties on friend’s sofas, heaving outdoor fan parks and that heart-swelling moment when an entire pub screams in unison at someone blocking the big screen.
It is those little interludes — of shared joy, communal disappointment and, for the first time in this competition, collective VAR-induced rage and bafflement — that Euro 2020 will deliver. It will, I think we can all agree, be exactly what we all need; a timely, thrilling festival of reunion, release, upended drinks and non-simulated live crowds roaring behind their masks.
I thought my pandemic-induced football addiction was under control. Consider this my relapse.