The Near-Holy Experience of Watching Euro 2020

This year’s tournament has been unlike any I’ve ever witnessed, a reminder that when soccer fans enter a stadium, it becomes a church.

Black-and-white photo of Denmark’s fans celebrate the team’s victory after defeating Russia in a match
Vladimir Pesnya / Sputnik / AP

After having been postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the quadrennial European soccer championship began in June, hosted by 11 different cities across the continent. Euro 2020 (as it has continued to be called despite now taking place in 2021) follows a season unlike any we had seen before in world football, during which many teams across the globe played the majority of their matches without any fans in the stands.

It was a strange and often disorienting experience. Watching the season on television, viewers could feel the hollowness of the stadiums echo through the screen. We could hear each player call for the ball, hear each howl of a coach’s instruction, and hear each thud whenever a foot made contact with the ball’s synthetic surface. Some channels attempted to fill the void with artificial crowd noise, which only amplified the emptiness, as the rise and fall of the fake cheers rarely matched what was happening on the field.

Gone, too, were the crowd-led anthems that have for years wrapped themselves around each stadium in a garland of tradition—Liverpool’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” being belted from the rows of Anfield like a promise that was always kept; “Hala Madrid … y Nada Más” reverberating from Real Madrid’s Bernabéu as if each person was singing with the entirety of their body; “Stern Des Südens vibrating from the seats of Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena while a sea of red flags wave with an ineffable vigor.

Now, 15 months after a global pandemic that brought major European soccer leagues to a halt, Euro 2020 has placed fans back in stadiums across the continent. The danger has not completely receded—some matches have been limited to partial stadium capacity, but even so, the World Health Organization said that the tournament has contributed to a 10 percent rise in new COVID-19 cases. Still, for European football enthusiasts, the tournament has served as a reclamation of what has been missing from their lives. For me, the presence of fans has defined Euro 2020, which has been among the most dramatic tournaments I have witnessed in my lifetime.

France, the world champion, was eliminated by Switzerland in a match that saw the Swiss win their first knockout-round game in a major tournament since 1938. England defeated its German rivals in a knockout round for the first time in 55 years and made Wembley stadium shake with ecstasy. More own goals have been scored in this tournament (10) than in the previous 15 editions of this competition combined dating back to 1960. The presence of the fans magnified all of this drama in ways that have been both exhilarating and terrifying.

On the second day of the tournament, a match between Denmark and Finland unfolded into a spectacle of horror. In the 43rd minute, the Danish star Christian Eriksen—one of the best players the small Scandinavian country has ever produced—began to stumble as the ball was being passed to him, and then he collapsed. His teammates, realizing something was horribly wrong, begged for medical assistance. Denmark’s captain, Simon Kjaer, had a remarkably keen understanding of what was necessary in that moment, sprinted toward Eriksen, and placed him in a recovery position that prevented him from choking on his own tongue. Denmark’s players also created a circle around the unconscious Eriksen while medics gave him CPR. Members of both teams were visibly shaken; several of them were in tears. Eriksen is 29 years old. People in the stands did not know if he was still alive.

There is the silence of a stadium with no fans inside it, and then there is the silence of a stadium where thousands of people fear they have just watched a man lose his life. Even watching on television an ocean away, I felt my heart drop. For a few minutes there were no songs, no chants, only the soft murmur of fear.

And then some fans, feeling helpless, used what they knew of this space—of this sanctuary they had finally been welcomed back into—to send encouragement to Eriksen. One group of fans chanted “Christian” while another group responded with “Eriksen.” It almost seemed as if they hoped their spiritual call-and-response would help revive him. Eriksen was brought to the hospital and stabilized. He had experienced cardiac arrest, and the quick action of both Kjaer and the medical professionals on the scene had likely saved him. The team doctor later said that before Eriksen was resuscitated, “he was gone.”

To the surprise of many, after the teams received word that Eriksen was stable, the game continued later that evening. Denmark lost 1–0 to the Finns, but few were concerned with the score line. The silent moment on the field had been a reminder of the precariousness of the human condition, how quickly a light can be extinguished.

Denmark would lose its next game to Belgium, the FIFA-ranked No. 1 team in the world, 2–1. And with two losses and only one game left to play in that round, the Danes seemed to have little chance of advancing to the knockout round. But they still had some hope, because the top four third-place teams in each of the six tournament groups would advance to the next round along with the top two teams of each group. That meant Belgium had to defeat Finland, and Denmark had to defeat Russia.

In the 38th minute of Denmark’s match against Russia, Mikkel Damsgaard, the player who had replaced Eriksen in Denmark’s starting lineup, collected a pass about 25 yards from goal with the inside of his left foot, shimmied, pushed the ball to his right with the outside of his right foot, and struck a shot that curled its way into the top right-hand corner of the goal, transforming the stadium into an amorphous wave of appendages moving hysterically through the air. In soccer, there is nothing quite like watching the stillness of the crowd in those moments after the ball is struck, the way eyes widen and mouths hang agape as it makes its way toward the goal, and then seeing people’s bodies explode into ecstasy as the ball hits the back of the net.

Denmark scored again, and then Russia responded. The score was 2–1, but Denmark needed one more goal to secure its passage to the next round. Then, with just 11 minutes left in the game, and with the ball bouncing between Danish and Russian players in the Russian penalty box, the ball rolled out to the top of the box, where the Danish defender Andreas Christensen smashed it from 25 yards out, sending it through the air like the crescendo of a movie’s final song. It flew past the Russian goalkeeper, shook the back of the net, and sent the fans in Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium into delirium.

People climbed on top of one another as primal screams were bellowed toward the heavens. Strangers cried and hugged. Cups of beer were thrown into the air, droplets sparkling under the stadium lights like fireflies in the night sky. It was glorious to witness, even from afar. Denmark would score one more goal for good measure, securing its passage to the next round. And just a few days later it thrashed Wales in the Round of 16, winning the match 4–0. Denmark is now in the quarterfinals of Europe’s biggest tournament, only a few weeks after it was feared that the team’s best player had died on the field in front of the world.

Soccer is nothing without the fans who sustain it. It is nothing without those for whom these stadiums are holy spaces, who sing anthems for both their local club team and their national team as if they were hymns that might bring them closer to divinity. Seeing the Danish fans move from terror to jubilation over the course of this tournament has been a reminder of why this game, and being in these stands, is so important to so many. It is a reminder of so much of what this pandemic took from us and, if we’re not careful, what it might take from us again.