Euro 2020—the fantastic way

Cover: Branding for Euro 2020 by VMLY&R.

Delayed by a year, the quadrennial showcase of the finest of European football was every bit as phenomenal as expected—and it came with a fantasy team too.

Football season is always a wonderful thing. This summer saw the Euro 2020 take place after a year’s delay thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Euros are, of course, the next best thing after the World Cup and for me personally this year brought with it the added fun of an official Fantasy Football game. Fantasy Football has been going on in one league or another since the early ’70s but I got into it only last year with the Champions League, also organised by UEFA. The cup was memorable no doubt, but surprisingly the much slower-moving fantasy game was every bit as thrilling.

Fantasy Football is a terribly interesting game of strategy, statistics, and an amount of luck that is not particularly dismissible. This year the game was entirely UEFA’s doing rather than the ridiculously renamed ‘UEFA McDonald’s game’ from 2016. Players set up an imagined squad of 15 real life footballers complete with an in-game budget of €100 million. Points are raked in over the course of the tournament based on players’ real-life performances with points allotted statistically or perceptually based on their individual contribution to the team. Every round counts as a ‘matchday’ and a limited number of transfers and substitutions are allowed between and within matchdays respectively. There are a handful of other rules but let us not get into the nitty-gritty just yet.

The primary reason I found fantasy football appealing was because it was not designed to be addictive and it was not a wormhole hungry to eat up my time. The game goes on at 1:1 pace—meaning a minute in real life is a minute in the game—and you do not have to ‘follow’ the game either or revisit it at regular intervals. Your time will mostly be spent setting up your squad every matchday and substituting players once daily. The strategising goes on when you watch the actual Euros, which I would have done anyway regardless of the game.

Pre-tournament

UEFA opened up the fantasy game a couple of weeks before the tournament kicked off which felt painfully long because I had set up my squad far too early and had to wait it out.

Things started to spring into action as the 12 June approached by when all national squads had been announced and a couple of players on my fantasy squad who did not make it to the tournament had to be replaced.

Matchday 1 is often the most unpredictable in any tournament of this sort because we have never seen these teams play in the recent past. International friendlies do go on before the cup but those are often sandboxes for experimenting squads, formations and tactics and are therefore not the most accurate representation of a team.

Fantasy squad at the end of MD1.

Matchday 1

One thing was clear to me right from the start, however. The Italians had their defence figured out so it would pay to bet on them—particularly Donnarumma whom I saw as my default first choice goalkeeper for the entire tournament. I went with Florenzi as my pick of defender over Spinazzola which did not turn out well. I also went with Barella instead of Insigne, which was another dud. So ironically my bet on the Italians was right but I just happened to pick two-thirds of them wrong.

At the end of MD1 Donnarumma was my only good Italian pick and Florenzi was out with an injury. The unfortunate incident with Denmark’s Christian Eriksen also pulled my team down but that of course mattered much less than making sure Eriksen was alright and I am glad he is. My other two defenders, Kjær and Mæhle, were Danish would on any other day have proven to be promising picks.

With Germany turning out a performance worse than I had expected of them—and with Kimmich as a wingback rather than the midfielder I expected him to play as—I made barely any points on the final day. Luckily, picking Ronaldo as my captain that day more than made up for the other losses. It turned out to be a somewhat average start for my fantasy team with 48 points on the board and placed third in my league.

Fantasy squad at the end of MD2.

Matchday 2

If the first matchday is generally unpredictable, the second is usually anything but—or so I thought. I planned to capitalise on this with a limitless team. A ‘limitless chip’ allows players to build their squad with a free rein, with no limits on transfers or budget, with one catch: the team only lasts for one matchday.

This was a good move strategically but did the bare minimum for me. There was no way I could match up to my MD1 performance with two of my players out and a couple of others pretty much sure to be benched. However, going in, I expected a better score than MD1 which was not to be. At 47 points, my team on MD2 ended up a point shy of my MD1 score despite being a limitless team.

There were a few big reasons for this: first, captain after captain blanked out. On the first day I picked Hradecky as a differential since his match was against Russia, who had a poor attack, but they scored early in the game and the possibility of a clean sheet vanished right at the start. Then I bet on Lukaku who had turned in an impressive performance on MD1 but Kevin de Bruyne outshone him on MD2. My third pick was England’s Sterling who also blanked out, prompting me to move to Mbappé who faced a relatively weak Hungarian team that nonetheless held France to a draw and made Sterling’s performance the previous day look spectacular in comparison.

Other losses came from Courtois, whom I had picked as my second choice keeper having sacrificed Donnarumma this week to make space for Immobile (who performed really well but whom I had not captained unfortunately), and Hernandez who was benched for France. However my bet on Ukraine’s Yarmolenko and Englands John Stones paid off as the former was looking at a clear victory against North Macedonia and the latter was up against Scotland, a prospect which would undoubtedly force out his best game.

The other gamble that somewhat paid off was dropping Ronaldo because he was up against a determined German side. Germany went on to win that match 4–2, making it the highest score by a team in Euro 2020 so far. Ronaldo grabbed a goal for himself anyway but the risk was not worth taking.

Despite my MD2 performance being a point worse than my MD1 performance, I managed to top my league table thanks to the others performing even worse. MD3 would be different.

Fantasy squad at the end of MD3.

Matchday 3

After MD1, it is perhaps MD3 that is most unpredictable. As teams cement their qualifications to the knockout stage, they start to rotate squads, making it harder to determine who would play and who would remain on the bench. The best way around this, in my opinion, was to pick from squads that had something to play for and that meant stacking up on German players.

Of course the rule restricts us to three players from a country which forced me to drop out three of my six German picks (Neuer, Müller and Kimmich) and go with Robin Goosens, Serge Gnabry and Kai Havertz. My other strategy to reduce unpredictability was to wait till an hour before the transfer window closed when the squads for the first two matches would be released and then pick guaranteed starters from among those. I went with Chiesa and Tolói from Italy for the first match, and Embolo and Shaqiri of Switzerland for the second.

I was glad to see the former Bayern lad Shaqiri get some of the limelight as a key attacker for Switzerland and decided it was worth captaining him for the first day. In 90 minutes it was clear Shaqiri would probably be my single best pick as captain this Euro as he raked in two goals and 26 points. On the Italian side, Tolói and Donnarumma both brought in clean sheet scores as expected with a dozen points. MD3 had gotten off to the greatest start ever, bringing in 43 points—a single day’s score that nearly equalled both my MD1 and MD2 scores. There was little doubt who would top the league table this matchday.

While the remaining days were no match for the opener, the England and Germany matches brought in some good points leading me to an overall score of 69 points for MD3 and within the overall ranking of 150,000 and the national ranking of 1,500.

Fantasy squad at the end of the Round of 16.

Round of 16

Having used the limitless chip for MD2 and the wildcard for MD3—the latter which I would soon start wishing I had left untouched—I went into the Round of 16 with a simple strategy: rake in guaranteed qualifiers. To me the eight that would go past this round were Denmark, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and Sweden. As a result I stacked up four Italians, four Dutch, a couple of Frenchmen and a German, a Spaniard, a Dane, a Belgian and a Swede: the usual fifteen-man squad.

Oh, how wrong I was. In what would become the worst round in terms of future team-building (not points) I watched as some of the top tier countries bowed out of the tournament. Denmark and Italy won as predicted on day one, although Italy shockingly gave away a goal to Austria before winning the match, and my points tally reached a decent 24—half of which came from Mæhle. But the shocks were only just beginning.

The Netherlands lost the following day, eliminating four of my players (the quarter-final transfer window only allows three transfers without penalising my with four points per additional transfer). Despite Belgium winning, Kevin de Bruyne left his match halfway with an injury that would see him sit out the next round. The day after, Spain won and France dropped out rendering a total of six players eliminated and one injured. Subsequently Germany lost to England after 55 years at Wembley and Ukraine ousted Sweden so the last day ended with two teams I had counted on disappearing from the tournament.

Despite scoring well this round—ending at 62 points—half my team had been eliminated. Only three free transfers were allowed, which meant I could bench four of my eliminated players and transfer three of them without losing any points. I would, however, lose flexibility for the quarter-finals, a trade-off that was acceptable to me. But then the real problem was that of Kevin de Bruyne who was not eliminated but injured and there was a slim chance he would appear in the next match, which meant he had to be on my bench and I would be left with one surplus player.

My choices were simple: either I could keep the player at the cost of squad flexibility and expect a great piece of football from the others to cover for him, or I could sacrifice four points to pick a more guaranteed starter who could make back more than four points for me. And at this point I made things worse for myself: I went ahead and made three playful transfer assuming it would let me reset to my Round of 16 team before I finalise my quarter-final team. I have no idea why I thought that way but it cost me all three transfers as I headed into the quarter-final. I would have to make at least three transfers for a functional team which meant losing 12 points with no other choice.

Jumping to the end for a moment, this meant the previously touted 150,000 OVR and 1,500 national rank were the highest I would reach this tournament. I dropped below 450,000 and 5,000 but managed to climb to 300,379 OVR and 2,250 national rank after the final match.

Fantasy squad at the end of the quarter-final.

Quarter-final

I could have picked three great players on free transfers but now sat before my computer picking three great people who were well within my budget but came at the cost of 12 points. Our top three league positions were 226 points, 192 points and 151 points at the start of the quarter-final round. Despite having a 34 point lead at the top of the table, giving away 12 points would not only reduce that to a 22 point lead, it would almost ensure that I would drop to second place if any of my players did not score well. My other option was to keep the 34 points lead and hope that a seven-man team could compete with an eleven-man team.

Some further thoughts: I decided to make this decision on a statistical basis. Judging by the previous rounds my players scored an average of 4.34 points. Let us round that down to 4 just to play it safe. This meant—to my surprise—that giving up or keeping players made no difference. If I kept four of my eliminated players, for example, I would lose out on 12 potential points on average. If I swapped out four of them I would be penalised by 12 points and then make those 12 points back. But remember that I rounded down from 4.34 to 4.0 which means there was a slim chance I would make back more than 12 points. I might make back fewer than 12 points, but statistically I was more likely to make back a little more. The risk of transferring four players at the cost of 12 points, I finally decided, was worth it.

Was it, though? The quarter-final round saw my lowest score till date: 39 points. This was mainly driven by the fact that I had exactly 10 players to put forth for the quarter-final. Lukaku and Schick gave moderate returns while Immobile’s stagnant gameplay threatened to make a return. Captaining Sterling paid off even though I am not a fan of his game. Mæhle was the only other person giving back reasonable returns while everyone else this round—including Donnarumma—returned merely a couple of points or fewer.

Fantasy squad at the end of the semi-final.

Semi-final

The semi-final was a predictable affair although the England–Denmark match could have gone either way if it were not for a questionable penalty call that gave England the upper hand. (For what it is worth, I side with Shearer, Wenger, Mourinho and co. in saying that was not a penalty.)

Things picked up on the fantasy front with the semi-final despite it being an even lower scoring affair than the quarter-final by 2 points, primarily because I felt my picks gave fair returns. I still had not many substitutes so flexibility was limited. Despite coming in third in my league in the quarter-final, I finished at the top in the semi-final with a paltry 37 points, nine clear of the next highest.

The teams going through to the final were pretty much expected: England, who had a comfortable time playing all their matches at home, and Italy who started that way but had been touring all through the knockout rounds. England had also had its fair share of luck in this tournament and they would have been the clear favourites to win this cup had it not been for their incessant nag that the cup was ‘coming home’.

Fantasy squad at the end of Euro 2020.

Final

My money was on Italy from the start and for me they were the favourites to win. As the days passed between the semi-final and the final, I noticed several others among my friends and in our local football team siding with Italy. We knew it would not be an easy match for the Azurri, but they arguably deserved the win more than the English did. Scotland’s The National seemed to agree, with a front-page picture depicting the Italian head coach, Roberto Mancini, as William Wallace pleading to him, ‘Save us Roberto, you’re our final hope… (We can’t take another 55 years of them banging on about this.)’

Spinazzola’s injury two matches ago put Bonucci and Chiellini at the centre of the Italian defence and, boy, did they prove their worth. After an initial bumble which saw the English defender Luke Shaw scoring with a surprise volley, the Azurri locked up their goal for good. They proved every match to Grealish, Saka and every other player Gareth Southgate threw at them. I had bet on Bonucci, but not Chiellini.

Playing head over heart I had filled my defence with Englishmen who produced returns too since this match ended a 1–1 draw. With Shaw’s goal and Trippier’s assist giving me a combined 13 points. Add to that Bonucci’s goal (indeed both goals came from defenders in this final) and a few more points from Emerson and Maguire and my defence line gave me a comfortable 23 points. The midfielders and forwards fared much worse across the board, ensuring my defence-heavy 5-3-2 formation paid off. I had subs today but no opportunity to play them; but on the bright side they barely scored.

The end result was decent enough: the top three in my league ended at 321/304/229, which I topped but only barely. For my first Euro fantasy league this was pretty good, but what I enjoyed more than winning was how much fun we had discussing our teams, building our teams, waiting to see one another’s strategies and just sit back and watch while we did our best to topple others off the leaderboard. After all a whole lot of respectful fun is what football is all about.

Players at the start of the Euro 2020 final took the knee to protest against racism. That England’s loss coming off the back of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka’s penalty misses saw all three of them experience racist abuse is unforgivable. Rashford’s mural in Manchester too was vandalised. While authorities are looking into all of these incidents, it is high time we as a society look inwards and question our own worth and stance.

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