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Ranked! The 10 best stories of Euro 2020

Denmark
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It’s not really about football. None of it. We’re all just stories in the end, after all. And Euro 2020 has had its fair share. 

The tales that you take home from international tournaments will last you a lifetime. How Zinedine Zidane befuddled the world champions in Germany; how Michael Owen announced himself on the world stage; how Portugal shocked Spain, Greece shocked Portugal and all those images that will forever litter BBC montages.

QUIZ! Can you guess 50 correct answers in our big Euros quiz?

Well, we created a few more this summer. The football was often fantastic, occasionally awful and sometimes both at the same time. But these moments? These are the ones to remember. 

10. The Eden project

Golden generations clashed in the Sevillian heat of the last-16. Cristiano Ronaldo just needed a goal to finally overtake Ali Daei as the all-time international goalscorer in his own right. 

The opposing captain, Eden Hazard, had other ideas. At just 30, Hazard might be the youngest player ever to turn the clock back, as he dazzled for the Red Devils - though younger brother Thorgan got the winner. He did everything Ronaldo couldn’t; meandering through defenders, drawing fouls like he was catching mice in a trap.

Ronaldo grew incensed every time the referee put the whistle to his lips. He toiled but couldn’t provide the breakthrough. On the night, Real Madrid’s current No.7 just had the beating of their last one.

9. Pandev’s swansong

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Goran Pandev made his North Macedonia debut before Dutch midfielder Ryan Gravenberch had even been born. That the two jostled for possession at the same international tournament is enough to give Doctor Who a migraine. 

That Pandev scored the country’s first-ever goal on an international stage is pure poetry, though. It came from an Austrian goalkeeping error, with the veteran on hand to poke the ball into an empty net. Bucharest erupted; a tiny nation rejoiced. 

Two games later, the 37-year-old was getting a guard of honour from his team-mates. As one era ended, Pandev started another for the Lynxes.

8. This is a Low

Joachim Low announced that he’d get his coat at the end of Euro 2020. After ruthless consistency, the World Cup win of 2014 and subsequent crash four years later, this was his chance at a happy ending. But it wasn’t to be. 

Germany were probably stronger than France in an opening defeat before an electrifying 4-2 humbling of champions Portugal. Die Mannschaft looked back in business. Kimmich, Kroos and Gundogan were delicately balanced; it would only be a matter of time before Thomas Muller scored his first Euros goal.

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Just as in 2010, the English stood between Germany and going deep into a competition. They had the history, they had the press and they had the most gilt-edged chance of Thomas Muller’s career. We all know what happened next. 

Twenty years ago, the DFB hit the reset button on German football, following a shocking defeat at the hands of the English. Now, it’s the English that have again ended one of the most sparkling reigns in international football. It’s a Heisenberg kind of exit for Jogi to leave on - but what a ride it’s been. 

7. The Granit Xhaka redemption

Granit Xhaka

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Before Wales faced Switzerland, the BBC dissected the dichotomy of Granit Xhaka’s character forensically. A chiselled midfielder with a staff of a left peg, of course: but like all great warlocks, capable of raving madness. Arsenal fans have all but given up on him - and perhaps so had the Swiss, with interest in the Euros reportedly low and three group games in which they fluctuated wildly. 

Xhaka’s display in the 3-3 against France was nothing short of magnificent, however. The Swiss captain controlled the midfield, as Kante and Pogba chased shadows; he put in a sublime assist late on, scored his penalty and proved exactly why so many managers have invested so much time and faith in him.

When he’s good, he’s mesmeric. Like a cross between a Game of Thrones monarch and Roy Keane, Xhaka just had to harness the fire within. The underdog triumphed as Switzerland dumped the French out of the competition - and it might have been the best two hours of entertainment ever.  

6. Ronaldo’s record

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It’s very rarely not all about Cristiano Ronaldo. This was his tournament. His moment of history. A year late but better now than never. And even though Portugal massively overwhelmed, a joint Golden Boot and becoming outright record Euros scorer, is a hell of a way to go.

That he did it in the group of death merely fuels the legend of a man who’s constantly come clutch on the biggest stages of them all. He sunk Hungary late on, shocked the Germans and pegged back France twice, as he and old friend Karim Benzema swaggered around Budapest like old times. 

It was peak Ronaldo – while it lasted. At 36, we might not see much more of it. Drink it in – officially, at least, the greatest Euros goalscorer ever. 

5. The rise, fall, rise and fall again of Alvaro Morata

Alvaro Morata

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He’s ridden on a tidal wave, this entire tournament; ridiculed by his own fans, backed by his manager like a son on his first day of school. Alvaro Morata tested patience as much as he tested keepers. He was billed as the ultimate sacrificial lamb - Olivier Giroud crossed with Mother Theresa - the ideal forward to bring the best out of the players around him.

Shockingly, Luis Enrique finally reached the end of a very long tether six games in, opting for false nine Mikel Oyarzabal against Italy. Again, the headlines orbited around Morata like satellites; his absence was punctuated further, too, when Oyarzabal fluffed two platinum opportunities. 

But Morata is his team-mates’ gift. He returned, first with a sweetly taken finish after a one-on-one, then with a missed penalty in the shootout. It typified the crest and the nadir of the Spaniard’s tournament. He’s the media villain. He’s the obvious guy. History won’t remember Morata’s sacrifice: only his milk-weak penalty.

4. Benzema’s return

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U-turns this dramatic are not supposed to live up to the hype. The Friends reunion was largely forgettable. Take That didn’t release another classic with Robbie Williams back in the fold. Turkey re-hired the coach who got them to third in the World Cup and tanked so miserably this summer that we all had to delete our “dark horse” tweets and say no more.  

Karim Benzema’s shock recall to the French fold was every inch as box office as you could possibly imagine, however. There were rumours of in-fighting, the question of how you crowbar him into the team. Kylian Mbappe played like a man furious about something; Paul Pogba was quietly sublime and sloppy, with N’Golo Kante chasing his second touch. France were utterly watchable for four games, despite not getting the hang of how to swivel through the gears with an A-lister like Big Benz on board.

He didn’t disappoint. A penalty opened Benzema’s account against Portugal before he hung on the Portuguese high line and converted a second off the post like he was 25 again. Against Switzerland he performed the most deft, self-assist since Bergkamp’s legendary flick only to grab another brace and put France temporarily ahead, by finishing off a sublime team move.

Adrian Rabiot’s mother reportedly told Mbappe’s father to “scold him” for missing the decisive penalty. And that’s still not as fascinating as watching Benzema, Griezmann and Mbappe intertwining in the fluid front three of France’s stuttering machine. There was simply no ignoring the return of King Karim. 

3. Mancini’s masterplan

Italy

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Our parents passed on stories of the Italians. The majesty, the romance and the culture. How Pavarotti moved the world to tears and how handsome chaps dressed in blue defined the mystique that comes with international tournaments.

But truth be told, it’s been a while since we’ve had a truly great Italian team to tell our own kids about. The 2006 World Cup winners somewhat became a subplot in another French footballing scandal; Pirlo was cool as hell, Gattuso was a Tasmanian devil and Totti was bedroom poster stuff - but really, we’ve not had an iconic Italian side of our own. 

Well, now we do. They dress like they’re here to seduce your girlfriend. They attack with grace and precision, like a wheel cutting through ciabatta. They’ve scored more goals than any other Italian side at a Euros and in their lack of a traditional Italian no.10 or a silky, speedy defender, they’ve fashioned themselves into a high-functioning, compact yet deadly unit. And yet they’re not afraid to listen to the devil on their shoulder: to miraculously recover from injury to celebrate a goal. To live inside Jordi Alba’s head.

This is Italy. Roberto Mancini has concocted the most beautiful, batshit football team from this country for a generation. It’s been glorious to watch. Long live the Azzurri. 

2. Gareth Southgate: The closing of the story arc

Gareth Southgate, England, Euro 96

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English football had a love affair with losing. We defined ourselves not by the glory of ‘66 but by the heartbreak we felt at subsequent penalty shootout losses. We replayed the near misses more than Hurst’s hat-trick. And the man at the epicenter of England’s favourite failure rewrote our entire national narrative.

Gareth Southgate completed the ultimate zero to hero story, 25 years after the biggest disappointment of his professional career. Really, winning the final doesn’t matter: it was just about the semi-final. The mental hurdle. Southgate turned the English experience into how overcoming your own adversity is in our DNA. All because it’s in his: in Kane’s, in Sterling’s and in the rest of those fantastic lions. 

He’s already a national hero. He’s achieved something quite a bit deeper than just winning: he’s made us fall in love with the national team once more. 

1. The Danish journey

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It was Arrigo Sacchi who called football the most important of unimportant things. But that dark Saturday in Copenhagen, football did not matter. Not one iota. 

What happened to Christian Eriksen will no doubt remain with everyone who watched it. What followed was a triumph of humanity; the power of friendship and the blueprint for what team sport exists for. The tributes to the playmaker were touching. The journey that the Danish national team went on, with the world’s neutrals behind them, was truly unique. 

The picture of Yussuf Poulsen’s goal against Russia and the subsequent flinging of plastic cups from all corners of the Parken Stadium will also remain. Andreas Christensen’s rocket, and the screams of joy will remain. The performances of Mikkel Damsgaard in Eriksen’s absence, the passion of the press against Belgium and the supreme dismantling of the Welsh are moments that cannot be taken away. 

They did it for Eriksen. For a small country who united in a time of upset and most importantly, for each other: they were a team rocked by trauma who got back on the ride and kept going. Denmark gave everyone someone to cheer for. 

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