Euro 2024’s full-throttle show beats elite clubs’ self-obsessed circus

Over breakfast at a cafe in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, three English visitors could be heard discussing the next Premier League season. It felt like a yellow card offence to anyone fully absorbed in this summer’s spectacle, but some things are best let slide. The question: who would be relegated? Ipswich, Southampton and Leicester, came the consensus. Nobody could quibble with the rationale that new arrivals to the division have the odds stacked more firmly against them than ever.

Perhaps they hopped west on the U-Bahn that afternoon to see Austria, hitherto underwhelming on the big stage, leave Olympiastadion breathless with an exhilarating win over the Netherlands that propels them into genuine contention for a return on 14 July. Hopefully they were sitting somewhere comfortable, or downing shots of chacha in appropriate company, the following night when Georgia ripped up the rulebook with a daring, emotional victory against Portugal.

On Saturday the world will discover whether Kvicha Kvaratskhelia, Georges Mikautadze and friends can take a delightful Spain side the distance with their extraordinary blend of bravura and discipline. Maybe they will surpass themselves and, to a prime-time audience, contrive by some distance the biggest shock at a European Championship since Iceland sent England packing in Nice.

Clubs from England’s top flight will be watching with interest: it is clear Georgia has produced footballers with unique, almost maverick profiles and perhaps there are deals to be struck. But something else will be occupying many of those organisations on the same day, 30 June, too. It is the end of the Premier League’s financial year and, critically, the deadline for avoiding profitability and sustainability rules (PSR) violations. How to extricate yourselves from any last-minute mud? Perhaps another Tim Iroegbunam or Lewis Dobbin might be a starting point in making sure the numbers add up.

While club football attempts to patch up its poor business practices and the player trading carousel readies itself for full swing, the authenticity of this month in Germany stands in glaring contrast. Not much here-we-go but simply a colourful, full-throttle show. It is a temporary and timely remedy for anybody drained by an intensely repetitive, sanitised and self-obsessed circus that is on the precipice of eating the elite game whole.

The football and the people, the only two things that matter, have taken centre stage here. Kvaratskhelia could talk movingly about the happiest night of his career before Georgia danced away; the Romania manager, Edward Iordanescu, could memorably herald a “generation of the soul” after his players put bodies on the line to beat Ukraine, who provided their own reasons to look beyond the hamster wheel. A devastating equaliser for Italy against Croatia banished a legend in Luka Modric but was a necessary reminder that old powers still know how to perform their traditional tricks.

Georgia fans enjoy their team’s surprise win over Portugal in Gelsenkirchen. Photograph: Jan Fromme/firo sportphoto/Getty Images

It is a celebration of difference that is fast disappearing in the daily grind, both in England and beyond. The Champions League may have changed to an even more distended format, not that the average punter could tell you how, but anybody predicting next season’s quarter-finalists will not go far wrong. Of 16 remaining countries at Euro 2024, a generous estimate would be that seven have a realistic chance of sending a representative that far; in the past five years, clubs from the same six countries have locked those places down.

So here, in the central European sun, is a chance to embrace footballing otherness: not by exoticising it but by understanding how all of these elements should, to their different degrees, enrich the tapestry that engulfs so many attention spans. The invitation is to boost rather than minimise; to learn rather than deride.

Maybe everyone can take something from Georgia, who have allowed individuals to flourish on a scene where deviations from routine are becoming anathema. The flawed mania of a Turkey side attempting to satisfy a volcanic support deserves its place among the mainstream too. An obsession with certainty, quality and precision has infected the club game and instilled a fear of jagged edges but at this level nothing is smooth. National team coaches must work with what they are handed by accidents of birth, which is not always much and cannot be enhanced through screams for new, expensive toys.

This is not utopia, and can never be. International football is a potent expression of the society around it: it was inevitable that in a continent whose political fault lines are juddering dangerously, nationalist chants and slogans would infect this tournament. They have largely been confined to predictable offenders. You will not hear anything of that nature on a Saturday afternoon at the Emirates or a Champions League semi-final at Parc des Princes.

But large, noisy contingents have merged amicably. On Sunday Leipzig was Croatian, or seemed so until a small group of Germany fans, trailing black, yellow and red smoke, walked into Marktplatz. They had watched a late equaliser against Switzerland in the fan zone; their thousands of visitors were passing the 24 hours before facing Italy by lighting flares. It only takes one stray insult to spark trouble. Instead the groups melted into one another, white shirts partying with chequered reds, songs continuing as clocks passed midnight. There has been a will to seize the opportunity rather than soil it.

Soon the online whataboutery will recommence and social media aggregators will make hay; the transfer window will be won and lost, and the Premier League will hand down any points deductions deemed to make the standings more authentic. Europe’s behemoths will weave their clean, intensely drilled patterns among one another with increasing regularity, taking more of what they require while diminishing the rest by a thousand cuts.

The summer of 2024 may be a brief diversion in football’s direction of travel. It is not without troubles and compromises. But its absence will be felt when everyday realities and circular discussions bite back. For what it is worth, back Ipswich and Southampton to give that Berlin cafe talk a run for its money.

The Guardian