Lausanne (AFP)

After five years of waiting opens Friday a football Euro more acrobatic than ever, dispersed between eleven countries and turned upside down by the health crisis, to decide between 24 teams eager to steal its crown in Portugal.

To the excitement of the kick-off for Turkey-Italy, whistled on Friday at 9:00 p.m. (19:00 GMT) at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, will be added a relief tinged with apprehension: because the 16th edition of the European Nations Championship, which will end on July 11 in London, has come a long way and must still keep the Covid-19 at bay.

Even before the start of the tournament, the Netherlands lost their goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, tested positive and withdrawn from the selection, while Sweden and Spain announced several contaminations before facing each other next Monday.

- 26 players instead of 23 -

But the "Roja" received good news Thursday with the negative tests of her defender Diego Llorente, the second player of the team tested positive Tuesday after captain Sergio Busquets and who could therefore return to the group at the end of the week if the results of his next tests are also negative.

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UEFA, already faced during the League of Nations with the forfeit of teams decimated by the Covid, had anticipated the problem by authorizing such substitutions "until the first match" and by allowing 26 players to be called up, against 23 usually.

The talent pool of each country could therefore play an increased role in this first major international tournament since the 2018 World Cup, which will see Portugal face off against 23 selections in a hurry to complete its continental reign.

Faced with Belgium and its golden generation, the young English guard or a rebuilt Italy, France can dream of a new World-Euro pass, as in 1998-2000, but will first have to extricate itself from a very strong group, with Germany, Portugal and Hungary.

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- Masked fan-zones -

Usually as happy in bars as in stadiums, the Euro will take on a more austere face this year - just like the Olympics which will open soon after in Tokyo (23 July-8 August) - even if UEFA promises it. "safe and festive".

"Each site, each city, each country has defined its formula" to limit health risks, weaving a complex network of measures, explains to AFP Daniel Koch, former "Mr. Covid" of Switzerland who became the health adviser of the 'UEFA.

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Players, managers, officials and the media will jump from bubble to bubble when crossing borders, and spectators will have to examine the entry conditions in each country, undergo possible quarantines and bring themselves Covid tests or vaccine passports to enter the stages.

As for the general public, quick to come together if the course of his team turns into an epic, they will have to deal with very variable local policies - from the tens of thousands of people expected in Russian and Ukrainian fan zones to the refusal of Munich, Seville or Brussels to provide such spaces.

French or English will also offer the unusual spectacle of seated, masked and distanced gatherings, wise instructions that will have to resist the madness of a cleaver match or a skylight half-volley.

- Diplomatic confrontation -

Dreamed by Michel Platini when he presided over UEFA, to unite the continent around the 60th anniversary of the Euro, this pan-European competition nevertheless experienced its first diplomatic confrontation: challenged by Russian protests, the European body imposed Thursday on Ukraine to remove from its jersey a slogan validated at the end of 2020 and finally deemed "political".

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A decision hailed by Moscow but immediately contested by the Ukrainian federation, which announced negotiations with UEFA to keep its tunic unchanged.

The other big challenge of the body is logistical: its tournament split in eleven countries has been a challenge since the beginning, taking teams, media and spectators from London to Baku.

But the Covid-19 has also turned this Euro into a health puzzle, resulting in the postponement of the tournament for a year and then shaking up its preparation, to the point that it was not until April 23 to know the eleven final host cities .

Bilbao and Dublin were ousted, Sevilla joined in and London and St Petersburg got more matches back, as UEFA secured a pledge that every game would welcome spectators.

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If the stadiums will regain the fervor that they have missed so much for a year, the gauges will be variable: only Budapest accepts 100% of spectators, while Munich promises 22% full bleachers, the other cities sailing between 25% and 50%.

© 2021 AFP