LONDON — The German U-Bahn subway lurched to an abrupt stop. The conductor began speaking frantically over the loudspeaker. He sounded emotional, and I got concerned something was wrong, so I asked the man sitting across from me if he would mind translating.
It turned out the conductor wasn’t speaking to me or, really, most of the customers on board. His message was directed at the few dozen Belgian soccer fans, dressed in red and black, who had been screaming and singing and shouting and smashing their hands against the sides of this Munich train in rhythm with the thrumming beat of the pop music blaring from their portable speaker.
“Would you please … stop … banging on the train!” the conductor pleaded. “The car is shaking … and it has become dangerous!”
The scene was, at once, compelling, absorbing, somewhat hilarious, borderline unsafe and yet still fully captivating, which is also a handy description for what it’s been like covering this COVID-era European Championship in person over the past month.
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Normally, being on the ground for an event like this Euros wouldn’t be unusual. Four years ago in France, or even two years ago in Russia for the World Cup, there were hundreds of journalists on planes and trains going from city to city, and the press boxes were full — just like the stadiums — as the tournament unfolded.
Obviously that’s not what it’s been like this year. Because of the pandemic, the number of outlets covering the event at all is down to a relative paucity, and I’ve yet to come across another American journalist who traveled to Europe from the U.S. Those companies who are actually covering the games have generally kept their employees in only one or two cities — just doing matches in London, say — because movement between countries is, to put it kindly, very difficult.
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At ESPN, though, we thought it was important to chronicle what this tournament looked like and sounded like and felt like as we broadcast the games, and so I arrived in Rome four days before the opening match and have been crisscrossing the continent ever since.
I have been in Italy and Macedonia, Denmark and England, Scotland and Germany, and the Netherlands. I would generally call myself a fairly easygoing traveler, but keeping track of the protocols you must navigate in the pandemic — passenger locator forms, exemption letters and fit-to-fly documents — has required a level of focus that goes far beyond the typical “Passport? Check. Wallet? Check. Phone? Check” tap 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 at this point I knew exactly what was required.
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Testing, too, has required near-daily attention. Of course, crossing into 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 them on matchdays, and other stadiums require negative tests simply if you want to show up a day before the game to watch a team train.
My nose, then, has developed some legitimate scar tissue, particularly since many countries in Europe still seem to be using the yardstick-style swab technique as opposed to the more gentle Q-tip swirl approach that I’d come to appreciate at walk-in clinics in America. “Here is a tissue for your crying,” the Italian nurse who gave me a test in Rome said when she saw my eyes watering following her swab. I took one and couldn’t help but notice the box was nearly empty.
As diligent as I — and I believe the majority of fans — have tried to be with all the testing, there are also times when the whole thing has felt a bit like a smoke screen. At the round-of-16 match in Amsterdam, for example, my colleagues and I waited for about an hour in line in the city center to get matchday COVID tests. 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 in that afternoon.
Several hours later, with kickoff approaching, we still hadn’t received our results, and the website for the government-mandated testing company had a message saying that they were experiencing a computer issue. We ran to a nearby same-day testing service and paid for a pricey rapid test, but several fans at the stadium who experienced the same thing told us they, and many, many of their friends, were ultimately allowed into the game without ever having received any kind of test result — positive or negative — at all. From a public health standpoint, it was a worrisome failure.
Some of the other COVID protocols installed for this tournament have just been weird. Before the games began, UEFA essentially decreed that anything that happens on the field during a game or practice doesn’t count in terms of contact tracing, even if players are literally in each other’s faces for an entire game. When it comes to pitch-side interviews — also conducted outside — UEFA officials dutifully jump in and spritz the microphones with antiseptic spray whenever a player finishes speaking.
The press boxes have been turned into tiny bank-teller windows, with plastic glass surrounding each person’s seat — again, a seemingly reasonable idea in theory, but a little bizarre when the press is sitting among, say, 60,000 unmasked fans at Wembley who certainly don’t seem to be especially interested in social distancing. At one game, I saw a friend of mine working just down the row from me, and we waved at each other, silently, through the glass, like two goldfish swimming in different bowls.
And yet still, when the games begin and the anthems play and the whistle blows, the overwhelming emotion I’ve felt over here is simply gratitude. From the players, from the coaches, from the fans, from the volunteers — even with all the logistical nightmares that come with playing a tournament in 11 different countries in the midst of a pandemic, after the year we’ve all experienced everyone is mostly just happy to be here. To be among people. To cheer for someone kicking a ball with the sort of wizardry that is impossible to ignore.
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I felt that in Skopje, where I watched with North Macedonians who were so proud to see their national team playing in a major tournament for the first time. “This is like a holiday,” the country’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, told me just before the game began, and when Goran Pandev, the Macedonian legend, scored his country’s first goal, it was as if the entire capital was shaking.
I felt it in Copenhagen, where the Danish people were rocked by Christian Eriksen’s terrifying heart attack in Denmark’s first game but showed an inspiring resilience in supporting Eriksen and the team and each other. I visited the wall by the waterside in the city center, where thousands of fans came to sign messages of support to Eriksen in Magic Marker. Just before I signed, too, I talked with a local teacher named Pernille Hansen, who told me that she and her students had spent the day after Eriksen’s collapse revisiting a lesson on proper priorities. It was a lesson that had come up a lot during the pandemic.
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“It’s a big deal,” she said. “Some of the students were a bit afraid, and it’s important to talk about it. It’s important for me to write this message. [Eriksen’s] a brilliant, brilliant football player, but he’s also a [partner] and a father. And we can all relate to that, can’t we?”
We certainly can. And two weeks later, when Denmark trounced Wales on their way to an unlikely, spectacular semifinal, it was impossible to miss the gratitude on the players’ faces — for the moment, for the journey, for the opportunity to turn something so hard into something so meaningful. There were tears. I felt thankful to be there to see them.
That Denmark’s run ended on Wednesday, in a semifinal at Wembley, was surely disappointing to many. But England’s surge to their first final since 1966 has lifted this country in a way not seen for decades, with shouting and chanting and singing and laughing permeating every borough and bridge. There were 60,000 in the stadium on Wednesday, but Declan Rice told me after the game, “It felt like 200,000 — and what a treat to be here for that.”
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A treat indeed. In the end, I mostly feel fortunate to be here, fortunate to be part of something where everyone is trying — as best they can — to create an event that reminds people we are living
There is a spirit of community that is heightened because of what we’ve all endured, and it’s been visible everywhere, including on that train in Munich, the one where the conductor shouted at the rowdy Belgians because things were getting dangerous.
Once the man across from me translated, I remember twisting my head around to see how the fans would react. Would it get it ugly? Would they get louder and bang harder, as so many soccer fans would do?
Not here. Not this time. Not at this tournament. There was no petulance. No protests. One fan shouted to all the others, and suddenly the banging stopped. The music lowered slightly. The group began clapping their hands to the beat instead of hammering on the roof.
“Danke,” the conductor said over the PA. Thank you.
I turned back to look out the window. The train rolled on.