Watching a non-football fan fall in love with Euro 2020 made my tournament
Saturday 12th June. The Euros are just over 24 hours old and it feels like Christmas.
Me, my housemates and selected others are letting our hair down for the weekend, blaring out music and knocking back cans in the basement of our shared house.
Bored of listening to Flo Rida and the Black Eyed Peas on rotation, like some hellish flashback to my secondary school prom, I decide to queue some classics on Spotify.
A minute later, the opening notes of ‘Three Lions’ begin to echo around the low ceilings. To me, this choice feels fitting – England are playing Croatia the next day after all.
‘World in Motion’ and ‘Vindaloo’ follow, each song belted out by the lads in attendance with arms spread and the atmosphere becoming increasingly euphoric.
Well, almost. Stood in the corner of the room are two of my female housemates and their faces are a picture.
More accurately, one looks bemused while the other is eyeing me in a manner that suggests I’ve bathed myself in dog shit and used the remnants as face paint.
Fast forward four weeks to before the final and I’m having a long phone conversation with the latter about tactics, formations and debating whether Italy or England had the stronger subs bench.
Proof, if nothing else, that a lot can change in a month.
Euro 2020 was a tournament for the ages, probably the best I’ve ever experienced in real-time.
It ticked all the boxes of an all-time classic – loads of goals, attacking football, matches we’ll be talking about for decades to come, drama and excitement everywhere you looked, underdogs doing well, engaging storylines from the first whistle and worthy champions.
Even England rose to the occasion, making the final and giving the nation a chance to bathe itself in lager.
Football didn’t come home, but that shouldn’t detract from what Gareth Southgate’s young team have achieved over the past month.
But my favourite part of these Euros? Seeing non-football fans become swept up in the event.
One person stands out in particular. Living in the same house for the past two years, me and Nicole overcame initial indifference to form an incredibly close connection.
There were enough differences between us to keep things interesting but we shared plenty in common – a similar music taste, love of animals and cooking to name but three – and generally got on like a house on fire.
But football? Football was rarely a topic of conversation. Nicole simply didn’t show any interest in the sport.
After clocking my disappointment following West Ham’s defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup last February, her attempts to console me veered strongly towards ‘chin up, it’s only a game’ territory.
On one hand, this was very annoying and a masterclass at missing the point. But I also saw the wider perspective and appreciated having someone close outside of the football bubble.
And, like most things, she was right. It is only a game.
But none of this led me to expect the Euros would capture Nicole’s imagination in the manner it did.
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From unpromising beginnings (basement, Three Lions, dog shit), her interest in the tournament grew organically.
Noticing the emotionally charged atmosphere at the Denmark-Belgium game. Asking me to tilt my laptop screen so we could watch Croatia play the Czech Republic together. Admitting to checking the score on her phone while out for the first half of England against Scotland.
It was Nicole that took the executive decision to switch from Wembley to Hampden Park at half-time during the final group match and wonder at Luka Modric’s piss-taking goal. This was weighed with sympathy as Scotland were brushed aside by a grizzled Croatian team.
By now she was hooked and wanted to watch a game in town. Living in Manchester, there’s no shortage of options but work commitments and difficulty booking a table meant finding the right time was proving impossible.
We eventually settled on Slovakia against Spain, a fine choice considering her love of Spain and Spanish culture.
Arriving late, and convincing the bar owners to show the game instead of Sweden v Poland, we ended up missing Martin Dubvraka’s spectacular own goal but saw Spain stroll through the second half towards a 5-0 victory. It was only natural to stay and watch the conclusion of Group F afterwards.
Missing key moments became a theme of the tournament. Denmark’s rollicking win over Russia? Attending to Nicole’s pet horse.
The madness of extra-time between Italy and Austria? Squabbling over making brownies.
England battering Ukraine in the quarter-finals? Missed the first three goals after trying to find our mate’s house in the city centre and ending up in the outskirts of Altrincham (which, I humbly admit, was entirely my fault for entering the wrong directions).
But there was still plenty to savour, such as laughing at Sam Matterface as he shrieked “RONALDO WANTS THE BALL!!” during one desperate Portugal attack.
Then there was watching France’s incredible defeat to Switzerland on my laptop as Love Island went ignored on the main television. And who could forget Harry Kane, spilt pints and seeing England beat Germany at our local with a big group of mates?
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) June 29, 2021
Interest in the tournament didn’t wane despite moving house before the quarter-finals. Watching games together was replaced with cross-country phone calls and messages as the matches grew in importance and tension.
Nicole had the infuriating habit of making correct predictions. It was her that called the Czechs beating Holland, Italy knocking out Belgium and every game from the semi-final onwards. Classic case of beginner’s luck, but I suspect I won’t be allowed to forget it for another three or four decades.
These mystic tendencies were matched by her astute calling of matches. Italy did resort to dirty tactics (Chiellini on Saka especially) while other teams played cleaner. England did back off after scoring in the final. And it was hard not to feel sorry for Ruben Vargas and Alvaro Morata after their missed penalties.
Ultimately, that’s the point about these tournaments. There’s a certain snobbery towards non-football fans from die-hard supporters, but the joy of international football is feeling part of a national event.
Take the emotional rollercoaster of Kane’s penalty against Denmark for example. Only sport can produce those moments, ones you share with half of the entire country. That’s why the international game will always feel more important than club football.
I’ll ignore Nicole’s threats to carry on watching football as Manchester United’s newest fan, probably the single most thing that would boil my piss.
Because these fantastic Euros were enriched by sharing them with somebody close who’s not usually interested in the game.
By Michael Lee