LONDON – The German subway came to an abrupt stop. The conductor began to speak frantically over the loudspeaker. It sounded emotional and I was worried that something was wrong, so I asked the man across from me if he would mind translating.
It turned out that the conductor did not speak to me or to most of the customers on board. His message was addressed to the few dozen red and black clad Belgian football fans who had screamed and sang and shouted to the rhythm of the roaring pop music and who had slammed their hands against the side walls of this Munich train portable loudspeaker.
“Would you please … stop … pounding on the train!” the conductor pleaded. “The car is shaking … and it has become dangerous!”
The scene was captivating, captivating, somewhat hilarious, borderline insecure and yet fully captivating, which is also a practical description of what it was like to personally cover this COVID-era European Championship last month.
It would normally not be uncommon to be there at an event like this Euro. Four years ago in France, or even two years ago in Russia Hundreds of journalists were on planes and trains for the World Cup, and the press booths were full – as were the stadiums – as the tournament unfolded.
That was of course not the case this year. Due to the pandemic, the number of outlets reporting on the event at all is relatively small, and I have not yet met any other American journalist who has traveled to Europe from the United States and their employees only work in one or two cities – for example only at games in London – because moving between countries, to put it kindly, is very difficult.
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At ESPN, however, we felt it was important to document what this tournament looked like, sounded and felt during the broadcast of the games, and so I arrived in Rome four days before the opening game and have since traveled all over the continent.
I was in Italy and Macedonia, Denmark and England, Scotland and Germany, and the Netherlands. I’d describe myself as a pretty light-hearted traveler in general, but the logs you have to navigate through the pandemic – passenger search forms, permit exemptions, and airworthy documents – required a focus well beyond the typical “passport? Check. Wallet.” ? Check. Phone? Check? Out of my pockets. Once, at a border control in Amsterdam, I proudly handed over my papers before the officer even asked for them, thinking I was so well organized now that I knew exactly what was required.
“Uh – that’s written in
Testing also required almost daily attention. Of course, entering a new country requires proof of a recent negative COVID test (even if you are fully vaccinated, which I am), but some stadiums also require negative tests to enter on match days and other stadiums require negative ones Tests, simply if you want to show up the day before the game to watch a team practice.
So my nose has developed some legitimate scar tissue, especially since many countries in Europe are still using the yardstick swab technique, as opposed to the gentler Q-tip swirl approach that I’ve come to appreciate while walking. in clinics in America. “Here’s a handkerchief for your crying,” said the Italian nurse, who gave me a test in Rome, when she saw my eyes water for her swab. I took one and couldn’t help but notice that the box was almost empty.
As hard as I – and I think the majority of the fans – tried to be through all of the tests, there are times when the whole thing felt a bit like a smoke screen. At the round of 16 game in Amsterdam, for example, my colleagues and I waited about an hour in the city center to get COVID tests on match day. The results, we were told, would be emailed within an hour and then everyone would have to show that email at the stadium before going to the stadium that afternoon.
A few hours later, as the gun was getting closer, we still hadn’t received our results, and the government-contracted testing company posted a message on the website that a computer problem had occurred. We ran to a nearby test service on the same day and paid for an expensive quick test, but several fans at the stadium experiencing the same thing told us that they and many, many of their friends were eventually allowed into the game without ever doing it of any kind from test result – positive or negative – received. From a public health perspective, it was a worrying failure.
Some of the other COVID logs installed for this tournament were just weird. Before the start of the matches, UEFA essentially stipulated that anything that happens on the field during a match or training session does not count for contact tracing, even if the players literally face each other for an entire match. When it comes to interviews on the sidelines, which are also conducted outside of the field, UEFA officials dutifully step in and spray the microphones with antiseptic spray when a player has finished speaking.
The press boxes have been turned into tiny bank counter windows, with plastic glass surrounding each person’s seats – again a seemingly sensible idea in theory, but a bit bizarre when the press is sitting among 60,000 unmasked fans at Wembley, for example, the social distancing they certainly don’t seem particularly interested. At a game I saw a friend of mine working right next to me, and we waved silently through the glass, like two goldfish swimming in separate bowls.
And yet, when the games begin and the anthems play and the whistle blows, the overwhelming emotion I felt here is simply gratitude. From the players, from the coaches, from the fans, from the volunteers – despite all the logistical nightmares that come with a tournament in 11 different countries in the middle of a pandemic, after the year we’ve all lived through, everyone is mostly just plain happy to be here. To be among people. To cheer on someone who kicks a ball with some kind of sorcery that can’t be ignored.
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I felt that in Skopje, where I watched with North Macedonia, who were so proud to see their national team play at a major tournament for the first time. “It’s like a holiday,” the country’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, told me shortly before the game started and when Goran Pandev, the Macedonian legend, scored his country’s first goal, it was as if the whole capital was shaking.
I felt it in Copenhagen where the Danish people were rocked by Christian Eriksen’s terrible heart attack in Christian Eriksen’s first game, but showed an inspiring resilience as he supported Eriksen and the team and each other. I visited the waterfront wall in the city center where thousands of fans came to sign Eriksen’s messages of support in Magic Marker. Just before I signed, I also spoke to a local teacher named Pernille Hansen, who told me that she and her students had spent the day after Eriksen’s breakdown reviewing a lesson about the right priorities. It was a lesson that had come up a lot during the pandemic.
“It’s a big deal,” she said. “Some of the students were a little scared and it’s important to talk about it. It is important to me to write this message. [Eriksen’s] a brilliant, brilliant soccer player, but he’s also a [partner] and a father. And we can all identify with that, right? “
We sure can. And two weeks later when Denmark struck Wales On the way to an unlikely, spectacular semi-final, the gratitude on the players’ faces could not be overlooked – for the moment, for the journey, for the opportunity to make something so important out of something so difficult. There were tears. I was grateful to be there to see them.
The fact that Denmark’s run ended in a semi-final at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday was certainly disappointing for many. But England’s rise to its first final since 1966 has lifted that country in a way not seen in decades, with screaming and singing and singing and laughing pervading every district and bridge. There were 60,000 in the stadium on Wednesday, however Declan rice said to me after the game: “It felt like 200,000 – and what a pleasure to be here for that.”
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A pleasure indeed. In the end, I mostly feel happy to be here, happy to be part of something where everyone is trying – as best they can – to create an event that reminds people that we are alive
There is a sense of community that is reinforced by what we have all endured, and that was visible everywhere, including on that train in Munich, where the conductor yelled at the noisy Belgians because it was getting dangerous.
When the man across from me was translating, I remember turning my head to see how the fans would react. Would it get ugly? Would they get louder and hit harder like so many soccer fans would?
Not here. Not this time. Not in this tournament. There was no irritation. No protests. A fan called out to everyone else and suddenly the hammering stopped. The music got a little quieter. The group began to clap their hands in time instead of pounding on the roof.
“Thank you,” said the conductor over the PA. Many Thanks.
I turned to look out the window. The train rolled on.