30th June 2021
Yesterday evening, Sweden played Ukraine at Hampden Park in the Round of 16 knock-out stage of the Euro 2020 tournament. It was the first sporting event I had seen for almost 17 months – or, to be precise, 513 days.
I had applied for a ticket at the end of 2019, when they were first put on sale. Although the sides for this particular contest were obviously not known at that stage – one of the attractions for me in seeking out the fixture – I was not successful in the initial allocation. However, I signalled my continued interest if and when a further tranche of tickets became available and I duly secured one at the beginning of last year. What I had not realised in my enthusiasm to land something was that I had inadvertently transferred my interest in one of the cheap(er) seats to a prime location in the front row of the upper tier of the North Stand. Still, needs must in my quest to participate (as a spectator) in one of 2020’s premier sporting events.
That was pre-Covid, of course. After UEFA decided to postpone the tournament for a year, I was given the option of getting my money back or simply rolling things forward 12 months. Having chosen the latter, I then had to trust my luck in the ballot for seats, given the authorities’ decision to restrict the overall attendance to 12,000 or just under 25 per cent of the ground’s capacity.
As it happened, my luck was in and so, last night, there I was.
It might be noted that, having secured my place at the match, the accompanying baggage of entry requirements was substantial. I had been supplied with an electronic ticket, sent to my mobile phone; I had to wear a face mask, of course, and keep at least 1½ metres away from other fans; I had to bring ID; I could take no more snacks than would fill an A5 bag; I could not bring any drinks; I was not allowed any bags in excess of A4 size; I could not bring a brolly; I had to arrive at the ground within a designated 30 minute time slot (which turned out to be 1½-2 hours before the kick-off).
A reminder. This was for Sweden versus Ukraine at Hampden Park in front of a maximum of 12,000 supporters, though – to be fair to UEFA – these ground-rules were clearly set out in the various e-mails that they sent to me. (The official attendance turned out to be 9,221).
My wife would testify to my being unusually tense in the days leading up to the match. Part of that was due, no doubt, to my low-key technophobia: I would happily much rather settle for a paper ticket sent through the post than have to negotiate with the electronic accessory in my pocket. However, I think it might also have been explained by my prolonged – that is, over a period of nearly a year and a half – lack of experience of attending a major social event. I consider myself to be a reasonably rational and well-adjusted person but, until a two-day sojourn in Edinburgh last week, the farthest that we had ventured since the start of the first lockdown had been about 6 or 7 miles. I have no doubt that, for many people, the pervasive lagged effects of lockdown will be felt for some considerable time to come.
How grateful I was, therefore – notwithstanding the angst of the previous days (and weeks) in anticipation of the event – that the delayed Euro 2020 Round of 16 tie at Hampden Park had provided an invaluable staging post on my journey to whatever the eventual “new normal” will turn out to be.
Sweden were probably the favourites in the tie, having come top of Group E in the tournament’s preliminary skirmishes (in which it had taken 36 matches to reduce the 24 teams that had reached the Finals down to the last 16). Ukraine had reached this stage by being one of the four best third-placed sides in the six groups, having finished behind the Netherlands and Austria in Group D. Sweden also had the higher (pre-tournament) placing in the FIFA world rankings: 18th, compared with Ukraine’s 24th.
I was aware, however, that the earlier tournament performances and rankings probably counted for nothing: this was now a straight knock-out (and another reason for my selecting the tie in the first place). As it happened, by the end of the evening, when the full line-up of the 8 quarter-finalists was known, it transpired that 3 of them had come third in their respective groups and only another 3 had actually come top.
The national colours of the two teams were identical – yellow and azure blue – and so the visuals alone from my lofty vantage point did not provide an immediate sense of the relative sizes of support. I judged that it was about 50: 50 with the Swedes in their replica shirts and the Ukrainians much more inclined to favour being bedecked in their national flag. The latter – congregating in the seats below me to my left – certainly won the vocal contest, their continuous chanting seeming to be amplified by the acoustics of the stadium.
As expected, it was a closely fought match. In the opening exchanges, contested in the bright sunshine of an early summer Glasgow evening, neither side took any risks and each defended in depth; at one Sweden corner, Ukraine had 10 players in their own six-yard box with the other one on the penalty spot. However, the game came alive just before the half-hour mark when a sweeping Ukraine move was emphatically finished by the left-winger Oleksandr Zinchenko. Sweden’s equaliser, just before half-time, had an element of fortune about it, as a shot from Emil Forsberg was deflected past the goalkeeper, Georgiy Bushchan. It was a due reward for Forsberg, however, who provided the Scandinavians’ most potent attacking threat throughout the evening.
There were near misses in the second half: Ukraine hit the post and, at the other end, Forsberg had successive attempts that shaved the foot of a post and then rebounded from the cross-bar, but the 90 minutes petered out with a sense of inevitability about the arrival of extra time. The game slowed down further in this period, as fatigue and injuries took their toll. However, it contained a decisive moment when the Swedish defender, Marcus Danielson, who had played with some assurance throughout the evening, put in a reckless challenge on Artem Besedin. After a VAR review, his initial yellow card was upgraded to red.
Thereafter, as Ukraine sought to take advantage of their extra man advantage, I sensed that Sweden were hanging on for the penalty shoot-out. They nearly made it, but not quite. The stadium announcer had just stated that there would be 3 minutes of added time at the end of the second period of extra time, when Zinchenko sent in a tantalising cross from deep on the left wing and the substitute Artem Dovbyk headed the ball home.
Perhaps the Swedes were taken by surprise. For the previous two hours, Zinchenko had consistently declined to attempt to beat his man on the outside and centre the ball into the penalty area, preferring inside to double back and play a conservative pass to a nearby colleague. This time, perhaps sensing there was nothing to lose, he went for broke: a swift, out-swinging cross of pinpoint accuracy for his on-rushing colleague to exploit.
Cue unbridled celebration amongst the exuberant flag-wearers down below me. Zinchenko ran towards them and was engulfed. Meanwhile, on the pitch, at least half the Swedish team were prostrate on their backs.
And so my long-delayed evening at Euro 2020 came to a conclusion. Fervour, skill, endeavour, controversy, drama, winners and losers. In other words, sport. It has been a long time between drinks. But the Ordinary Spectator has returned to the well.