I would want Italy to clinch the title for its captain and gnarled defender Giorgio Chiellini. I had never been a fan of his but perceptions aren’t set in stone. Euro 2020 opened my eyes on Chiellini. What an adorable character he is! It is difficult to believe that the defender is a battle-hardened veteran at 36. Being an Italian means defence is in his DNA. So there is nothing exceptional about his reading of the game, positional sense and timely tackles. What, however, makes him stand out is his outstanding leadership and exuberance on the field.
The pleasure he derived after a tackle on Burak Yilmaz of Turkey when the scoreline was 3-0 in Italy’s favour brought out the child in him. The man in him was evident when he hugged Manuel Locatelli right after Italy’s shootout win over Spain because the latter had missed his effort as the first penalty taker. Another memorable image of Chiellini was his unalloyed joy at the last-ditch block from Leonardo Spinazzola to deny Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku in the quarter-finals. Defence is an art, not a chore, for Italians. Chiellini has become such a darling for me now that I can’t bear to see him suffer.
England must do it for Raheem Sterling, the go-to man for the country that codified modern football. English footballers have long been accused of being overpaid underachievers. Sterling has made singular contributions in Euro 2020 to rebuff the charge. Unfortunately, he remains under-appreciated despite being the front-runner for the most valuable player award in the tournament. Even his ardent supporters wouldn’t have imagined that Sterling would become England’s key man at the Euros after he endured a poor season for Manchester City. Sterling is the most exciting as well as the hard-working player in the current English side. Not only does Sterling score goals; he also initiates attacks with his delectable dribbling and direct running. With 22 goal contributions (15 goals and 7 assists) in the last 22 matches for England, the nippy forward is on fire. A goal in an England win in the final will be a fairy tale end to a fabulous tournament for him.
Here is my All-Star XI (4-2-3-1): Yann Sommer (GK, Switzerland), Kyle Walker (RB, England), Leonardo Bonucci (CB, Italy), Harry Maguire (CB, England), Joachim Maehle (LB, Denmark), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (MF, Denmark), Pedri (MF, Spain), Federico Chiesa (Forward, Italy), Mikkel Damsgaard (Forward, Denmark), Raheem Sterling (Forward, England) and Patrik Schick (Forward, The Czech Republic).
(The writer has reported the Fifa World Cup from South Africa, Brazil and Russia)