Sporadic success cannot hide how European football lurched from one problem to another in 2021

Dealing with Covid wasn’t enough so the continental game opted to indulge in stadium riots, administrative mutiny, in-fighting and even a botched draw of the self-proclaimed best competition in the world

Karl Matchett
Wednesday 29 December 2021 14:57
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<p>Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci (centre) celebrates with the European Championship trophy</p>

Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci (centre) celebrates with the European Championship trophy

If 2020 was about dealing with catastrophe, setbacks and impossible-to-plan-for scenarios in football, 2021 was all about the comeback – with some countries proving far more capable than others to do so.

That wasn’t just limited to finding consistency on the pitch, but dealing with financial shortfalls, creating a safe route back to playing in front of supporters, and ensuring team-building continued. And, of course, trying to win trophies while doing so.

Italy triumphed at Euro 2020, a crowning moment indeed, though mainland European football as a whole did not see any true power (re-)emerge in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic’s initial waves.

Back in the early months of 1988, the then Derby County manager Arthur Cox made one of football’s all-time speeches – at least in terms of getting it spectacularly, memorably wrong. Referencing English football’s absence from the continental scene at the time, he pointed out that a perceived international rival who had some of the game’s most exciting individuals simply hadn’t translated that to enough on-pitch success.

“We dominated European club competitions when we were involved, while Dutch football is at its lowest ebb for years,” he said.

A few short months later, PSV Eindhoven had won the European Cup and Netherlands were victorious at Euro 88.

It didn’t quite get that good for English football during 2021, but was still within a penalty kick or two of doing so. Undeniably, indisputably, the stronghold of football in the modern day resides on these shores.

On the club scene, much of that has been dictated and reinforced by finances. The international agenda is slightly different, with England benefitting from a clearer strategic approach, a clutch of talented and youthful players and a schedule which had them playing on home soil an awful lot of the time.

It’s no longer precisely true to group the Three Lions and Premier League teams in European competitions into the same “national football” category as could be the case back in the Eighties due to the amount of overseas talent now displaced everywhere, but even so, football across the English game in all its guises remains at a tremendous level.

Europe, meanwhile, is still searching for a consistent contender to English football’s crown.

The plain truth is that five of the last eight Champions League finalists have been from the Premier League, including both of those competing in 2021. Another reached the Europa League final, while the national team made the final in the summer.

By contrast, while some of the other top nations in Europe have had moments, the odd trophy, individual honours or the mere promise of progress, none can truly lay claim to being even close to an overall assertion of the best country for football on the continent.

Italy, for example, had the Azzurri’s triumph at the European Championship so could be termed best-placed to challenge, but their domestic scene has now long been incapable of challenging in Europe. Juventus’s drop-off over the past couple of years has allowed a clutch of others to fight it out for domestic honours, yet none are remotely close to a Champions League title. Juve, Atalanta and Lazio all exited at the round of 16 last season; Milan and Atalanta have both already been knocked out at the group stage this term.

Spain appeared to have had a somewhat transitional year in 2021, with Atletico Madrid claiming the title, Real Madrid embarking on another period of renewal, Barcelona an utter shambles for most of the calendar year on and off the pitch, and the usual rotation of clubs potentially challenging behind them. Villarreal did claim the Europa League, but Unai Emery has again found consistent improvement evading him and they sit mid-table this year.

As for Los Blancos, they remain attempting to play a front-and-centre role in the failed European Super League, itself a dreadful farce of egotistical mismanagement, with Florentino Perez desperately trying to explain to the world how they are wrong and he is right – while also being caught short criticising several club legends.

At least the Spanish national team have reason for huge future optimism, even if they fell short in 2021. They struggled for goals and direction initially in the summer before getting stronger, while at the Olympics, too, there were signs of true quality emerging. No Real Madrid players in the Spanish Euros squad was one indicator of a drift in power, while overuse of young individuals was another concern. Ansu Fati and Pedri are still paying the price for that.

As for France, even good old Arthur Cox might be tempted to roll out his phrase again to describe that scene right now.

They flopped at the Euros amid reports of infighting, PSG still haven’t won the Champions League and the domestic game has set itself on fire.

Marseille midfielder Dimitri Payet is hit by a bottle of water during the Ligue 1 fixture at Lyon, on 21 November. The incident led to the game being abandoned and Lyon were docked a point

Serious crowd trouble has blighted several matches this season while there’s an unsustainable price to pay if any club wants success, thanks to the absurd wealth gap between the Parisian champions-in-waiting and the rest. Lille improbably bridged it mid-year to claim the Ligue 1 title but a few short months later sit eighth. Several clubs are fighting against serious financial concerns.

Even Germany, with all its reputation and consistency, hasn’t been able to keep pace. The national team were largely humiliated and needed a rebuild following a poor Euros, both big Bundesliga sides were knocked out in the last eight of the Champions League last term, and only one of the four in the competition this year has made it through to the knockouts. Meanwhile, parts of the country are once again prohibited from having fans in stadiums as part of their response to the latest Covid spread.

Bayern Munich are far from exempt from the furore, with Joshua Kimmich one of several who were central to the team being without unvaccinated stars and an in-club argument developing surrounding the issue.

Of course, there was one big feel-good story midway through the year – though even that was almost born of tragedy.

The collapse of Christian Eriksen at the start of Euro 2020 could have been so much worse, but the way Denmark rebounded, regrouped and surged through the tournament made them a must-watch second team for many neutrals. Switzerland and Wales too probably overachieved relative to expectations of them, while Portugal, Belgium and Turkey were at the other end of the scale – as well as the aforementioned Les Bleus.

On a broader scale, there was widespread derision at Robert Lewandowski not winning the Ballon d’Or and even more anger at the embarrassingly brief attempts of the Super League to get itself started, WordArt-style website and all.

Plans to form a European Super League were shot down after widespread fan protestsin April

Just to round off the year in fairly typical fashion, the Uefa overlords themselves managed to make an absolute shambles of a simple last-16 draw for the Champions League, making multiple mistakes, having to void and redo the lot and ultimately infuriating several more clubs in the process.

Perhaps it’s justice for all those occasions they make us sit through those dreadful, drawn-out explanations of the process that they managed to screw up so badly anyway: it’s clearly themselves who need the reminder, not the viewers.

It all begs the question of what the plan will be from within Europe’s major nations for 2022, and how they might once more play catch-up, in terms of finances and on-pitch quality among other areas.

While the bulk of the game’s managerial talent resides in the Premier League, that may prove difficult in the short term. Spanish sides in the main have pressed ahead with their plans to sell off a portion of future broadcast rights for financial aid now, but that can only be used for infrastructure, personnel and management upgrades and the like – not transfer spending.

Real Madrid will doubtless sign at least one of the two stellar young forward talents expected to be on the market next summer, but there’s a whole lot of silverware to be won before then – and six months after that, a World Cup to plan for, with all the additional logistics, player welfare and scheduling headaches it will undoubtedly entail.

These last 12 months may, ultimately, prove memorable for Europe’s biggest clubs and footballing countries only as a year in which they staggered from one problem to the next, never quite solving each one before trying to – or having to – plough on regardless.

National associations, Uefa and the clubs themselves all have a lot of work to do to ensure there’s no repeat in 2022, but it’s hard to make a case for too many of them looking confident and competent about being on the right path just yet.

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