Euro 2020 stopped in Baku when Kieffer Moore gave Wales a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in their opening game on Saturday, following Italy’s impressive win to kick off the tournament in Rome the night before.
In the first of three games on Saturday, Moore, the giant Cardiff City striker with a red bandage on his head, went home in the 74th minute to undo Breel Embolo’s goal on the other side early in the second half.
“We showed a lot of character, as we always do, to fight back, be brave, get the ball and get the equaliser,” Wales captain Gareth Bale told the BBC.
That result followed Italy’s 3-0 loss to Turkey in the same Group A in the opening game of the tournament in Rome on an emotional Friday night, when Andrea Bocelli performed ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the Stadio Olimpico before Roberto Mancini’s side rode to victory. .
“There was an incredible emotion before the match, it was horrifying,” said Leonardo Spinazzola, Italy’s man of the match.
A crowd of 16,000 people watched that match, lending a sound and color to the occasion not seen in football in empty stadiums in the past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Limited crowds will be allowed at matches at the European Championship, which takes place in 11 cities across the continent, from as far apart as Seville to Baku on the Caspian Sea, after it was postponed a year ago due to the health crisis.
Although crowds of up to 50 percent of capacity are allowed into matches in Azerbaijan’s capital, the stands were sparsely populated as Wales and Switzerland played their match.
Later on Saturday, Danish fans hope to see their team get off to a winning start in the tournament as the 1992 European champions take on Finland and make their debut at a major international competition.
In the same Group B, Russia will meet Belgium in the last game of the day in Saint Petersburg.
Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team, are among the top contenders to win the month-long competition but are left without star Kevin De Bruyne against Russia as the Manchester City playmaker continues to recover from injury.
The lead-up to Russia’s European Championship was hit when winger Andrei Mostovoy contracted the virus and was banned just before the start of the tournament.
He is one of a number of players who have tested positive for Covid-19, with Spanish skipper Sergio Busquets dropping out of their opening game against Sweden on Monday in Seville.
Busquets is still in self-isolation at home after testing positive last weekend, which meant the squad had to train individually this week and sit out a final warm-up game against Lithuania.
“All these things have made us stronger as a group. We now see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Spanish defender Diego Llorente on Saturday.
Due to the virus, countries are allowed to name expanded squads of 26 players for the European Championship instead of the usual 23.
National coach Frank de Boer has removed goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen from his selection after a positive virus test, which means that 38-year-old veteran Maarten Stekelenburg will play in the game against Ukraine in Amsterdam on Sunday.
“We all have to adapt to a special situation,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told AFP as he reflected on the difficulties of organizing a pan-European competition during a pandemic.
Advantage for England?
Other leading contenders to win the European Championship are preparing to start their campaigns, including England, who will face second place in the 2018 World Cup on Sunday, Croatia.
England play all three group matches at Wembley. If they are better than their group, they will also play in the last 16 there, while London is also the venue for both the semi-finals and the final on 11 July.
Croatian skipper Luka Modric admits the situation could work in England’s favour.
“Anyone would say that teams at home with a lot of crowds have a slight advantage,” Modric told the BBC.
England have leveled and beaten Croatia in the Nations League since that meeting and Modric admits Gareth Southgate’s side pose a major threat.
“I appreciate them very much. They are definitely one of the favorites for this tournament,” said Modric.
World Cup holders France – with Karim Benzema recalled from a five-and-a-half year international exile – are the firm favorites to add to the continental crown.
They kick off their campaign against Germany in Munich on Tuesday, just after retainers Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo backed by a star-studded squad, Hungary plays in the same Group F.