Sunday 13 October 2019 4:44 pm

European Championship revamp keeps football open to all

Every time Indiana Jones takes a plane, his journey is illustrated by a red line moving gradually towards its destination, the aircraft pivoting now and again to refuel as it traverses continents.

For those still recovering from trying to understand the Uefa Nations League, the Raiders of the Lost Ark motif helps explain what will happen at Euro 2020.

It’s simple. Instead of heading from San Francisco to Nepal via Hawaii and Manila, a nation that qualifies and is drawn in Group A, for example, could in theory reach Wembley for the semi-finals via Rome, Baku, Bucharest and Saint Petersburg.

Read more: Wembley upgrade pledged for Euro 2020

For the teenagers out there, it may seem reminiscent of Alan Partridge’s World Cup ’94 Soccermeter. But essentially it boils down to the European Championship finals being held across the continent for the first time in the competition’s 60-year history, with 12 host cities in all.

Ahead of Monday’s qualifier against Bulgaria in Sofia, England appear well placed to qualify. So where Indy wore a tattered leather jacket and a carried a bullwhip, Gareth Southgate will don his celebrated waistcoat and carry a nation’s dreams.

But how different will this tournament feel to past campaigns?

To the stay-at-home fan, probably not much. International tournaments are presented in a consistent way regardless of location.

A little colour is added by the location of the broadcast centre on, say, Red Square, or a nod to local culture in the design of the tournament emblem, but broadly speaking the games could be taking place anywhere.

Huge pull

For the travelling fan, however, travel will be the operative word.

The route to the final outlined above would be an 8,000-mile round trip with the added challenge of only being able to book transport and accommodation for the business end of the tournament at the end of the group stage.

Although England have been pre-drawn to play at least two group games at Wembley, they would then be on the road for the round of 16 and quarter-finals.

As such, the chance to experience different footballing cultures should nonetheless act as a huge pull for England fans at precisely the point it is becoming less straightforward to watch European football on TV.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 07: Harry Kane of England applauds the fans as he walks off the pitch during the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier match between England and Bulgaria at Wembley Stadium on September 07, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
England will play group games and – potentially – a semi-final and final at Wembley next summer. Credit: Getty

Let’s raid the lost archive for a moment to a time when Southgate was better known for missing penalties than missing sleeves.

Euro ’96 featured players who were already household names thanks to Channel 4’s Gazza-inspired coverage of the Italian league.

Two years later, Sky Sports began broadcasting Spanish football and the best of the rest were on show for all with Champions League nights a staple on ITV.

Nowadays, fans are more likely to have become aware of the likes of the Argentine Juventus star Paulo Dybala from playing the Fifa video games than watching him on TV.

Football Italia allowed fans to keep track of Gascoigne and the clutch of England stars, such as David Platt and Paul Ince, who followed him to Italy.

Then, Sky’s LaLiga coverage allowed them to monitor the progress of Michael Owen, Steve McManaman and, of course, David Beckham at Real Madrid.

Footballing cultures

This season, in order to keep tabs on England right-back Kieran Trippier at Atletico Madrid, fans have had to keep patient while a broadcaster was found willing to meet the reserve price for LaLiga football rights in the UK.

As it stands, to watch LaLiga or Serie A requires a subscription to Premier Sports, which is, in all likelihood, an additional cost for fans to bear alongside a BT Sport and/or Sky package.

The huge investment the likes of Sky and BT Sport now have to make to retain their marquee rights – the Premier League and Champions League – mean budgets no longer stretch to the £18m per season Sky was reportedly paying LaLiga before declining to bid for a renewal.

With live club football all but vanished from terrestrial TV, the flagship international tournaments like Euro 2020 take on even greater importance.

They offer every fan the chance to watch the very best players without having to pay, while a revamped European Championship format will offer a glimpse of footballing cultures that are increasingly closed off to English fans.

This time, with Wembley hosting both semi-finals and the final, football really is coming home. England fans will hope the team can go at least one better than their last crusade.

Neil Hopkins is a director and global head of strategy at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment.

Main image credit: Getty