Soccer, or football to those outside the United States, is the world’s most popular sport. In 2018, when its top tournament, the FIFA World Cup, was last held, some 3.5 billion people, about half the world’s population, tuned in to view the games. The average single World Cup match had 191 million fans glued to their TVs. (In contrast, the highest-rated Super Bowl ever, the 2015 game between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, drew about 114 million viewers.)
That popularity extends to individual players, too. Eight of the 10 most followed athletes on Instagram are soccer players, the only exceptions being U.S. professional basketball player LeBron James and Indian cricketer Virat Kohli. The No. 1 athlete on Instagram, with some 278 million followers, is Portuguese superstar soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo.
Mr. Ronaldo is leading Portugal’s entry into the Union of European Football Associations’ long-awaited Euro 2020 tournament. Delayed from last year because of the pandemic, the event retains 2020 in its title, perhaps to save rebranding it in fans’ minds, and more likely because it would mean throwing out piles of swag with Euro 2020 that had already been manufactured. Two dozen star-studded European teams are competing in matches in 11 cities, with the finale set for England’s Wembley Stadium in London July 11.
The big event was supposed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Euro championships, begun in 1960. It was also to signal a return to normalcy after months of pandemic and empty stadiums. Instead, Euro 2020 is seen now as a hoped-for diversion from that lingering challenge. Most stadiums will allow fans to fill only about 25% of their seats. Wembley will require fans to show they have been vaccinated or provide proof of a negative lateral flow COVID-19 test taken within the previous 48 hours. [Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the requirement for fans.] The players, coaches, and referees will be kept isolated as much as possible when off the field, while being given some 24,000 COVID-19 tests.
Euro 2020 is also being watched with an eye on Japan’s Summer Olympics, which open July 23. What might the Olympics learn from Euro’s successes or failures?
The matches “will not change the outcome of the pandemic,” Daniel Koch, a health adviser to its organizers, told Britain’s Financial Times. But they could ease the stress of the pandemic if it makes people happier, he said. And as usual, Euro 2020 has the high goal of promoting goodwill and solidarity among European nations.
At the level of this championship, soccer is also an art form, full of strategy and athleticism of the highest degree. Its compelling action provides a welcome break from the cares of the world. And it couldn’t come at a better time.