Long flights frustrate some teams at sprawling Euro 2020

Sports

The Baku Olympic Stadium during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group A match between Switzerland and Turkey in Baku, Azerbaijan, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Naomi Baker/Pool via AP)

A sprawling European Championship like no other is racking up air miles like never before.

Some teams at Euro 2020, which is being held in various countries, have played most or all their games so far at home. Others are flying from one end of the continent to the other and back again.

“Unfortunately you have teams or countries who can play all their group games in their countries,” Belgium defender Thomas Vermaelen said Tuesday after a group stage spent shuttling between St. Petersburg and Copenhagen with a training base in Belgium.

“Traveling is not something that will help you win the tournament but it’s something we have to accept and just deal with it,” Vermaelen said. “It’s not something we will moan about as a team. It’s just something that belongs to this tournament.”

The distances between the 11 host cities make even the last two World Cups — when teams flew across the Amazon rainforest in Brazil or to Russia’s Ural mountains — seem small by comparison.

Poland traveled furthest in a group split between Seville in Europe’s far southwest and St. Petersburg in the northeast. The two cities are nearly 3,600 kilometers (2,200 miles) apart, a journey Poland made twice, stopping off at home along the way.

Switzerland traveled nearly as far between Rome and Baku, Azerbaijan. The team narrowly edged into the round of 16 after finishing third in its group. Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic said it wasn’t helped by crossing two time zones on four occasions in less than two weeks.

“It’s definitely not the optimal way to prepare for each game,” Petkovic said Sunday. “We have traveled so much and had to adapt so much, the bio-rhythms and everything else. It was really difficult and I have to pay a compliment to my team for how they have reacted. No one has been moaning.”

Switzerland is now off to Romania to face France on Monday in the round of 16. With a victory in Bucharest, the Swiss will head to St. Petersburg for a potential quarterfinal game and then possibly to London for the semifinals.

While some teams trek across the continent, others stay at home. Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and England all played their group matches at a single stadium as co-hosts. England gets to stay in London for the round of 16 and could win the tournament having played six of seven games at Wembley Stadium.

Back when UEFA first proposed the Euro 2020 format in 2012, then-president Michel Platini said “these days of cheap air travel” could make the tournament work, and even wondered if games could be held in 32 cities.

The coronavirus pandemic stopped many fans from traveling, reducing somewhat the carbon footprint of Euro 2020, but there’s still scrutiny of its impact on the environment. More of the focus has been on sponsors like auto giant Volkswagen and Russian state gas producer Gazprom.

Environmental group Greenpeace took to the air to protest against Volkswagen when Germany played France in Munich but had to apologize when its electric paraglider emblazoned with “Kick Out Oil” crashed, injuring two people.

The next tournament in 2024 goes back to a classic one-country format in Germany. The two furthest venues — Hamburg and Munich — are separated by a short flight, and fans should be able to travel easily by road or rail. Four more host cities — Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen — are within 75 kilometers (47 miles) of each other.

After that, it’s an open question. UEFA’s decision to increase the European Championship to a 24-team event means only the biggest counties can host the tournament alone. Italy, Russia, Turkey and Spain are all considered contenders for 2028. After Euro 2020, co-hosting doesn’t yet seem ready for a comeback.

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