Euro 2024: Biggest takeaways from Europe’s biggest tournament

Unexpected twists, late dramas, the rise of the underdogs and so much more have made Euro 2024 a tournament to remember.
A view of the Euro 2020 trophy during the draw for the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament finals in Bucharest, Romania.
A view of the Euro 2020 trophy during the draw for the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament finals in Bucharest, Romania. (Photo | AP)

The opening round of group matches at the European Championship is complete.

Here are some things we learned:

Top performers

Some of the best-performing players so far at Euro 2024 are making triumphant international comebacks.

Toni Kroos controlled the opening-night 5-1 win for Germany against Scotland. He was coaxed out of international retirement but will be hanging up his boots for good after the tournament.

N'Golo Kanté hasn't been seen in a France jersey since the Nations League in June 2022, with a hamstring injury ruling him out of that year's World Cup in Qatar before he made a move to Saudi Arabia. In the 1-0 win over Austria, the 33-year-old Kanté was the star player — reminding the world of his energy levels and reading of the game.

A player half the age of Kroos and Kanté might be the other player to steal the headlines so far. Lamine Yamal became, at 16 years and 338 days, the youngest player to appear in a European Championship match and he took it in his stride with an assist in Spain's 3-0 victory over Croatia.

Pepe was the oldest-ever 41 anchoring Portugal's defence while Cristiano Ronaldo led its attack aged just 39 at a record sixth Euros.

Perhaps the most anticipated star was Kylian Mbappé and the France forward might now miss one or more games because of a broken nose suffered on impact with an Austrian opponent's shoulder. Mbappé's return will be in a protective mask.

A view of the Euro 2020 trophy during the draw for the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament finals in Bucharest, Romania.
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Top scorers

The top scorer at Euro 2020 leads the way again.

The O.G. of European Championship goal-getting these days is own goals. A tournament record 11 at the last edition and three already from the first 12 games in Germany. One from the host team's Antonio Rüdiger, Austria's Maximilian Wöber diverting Mbappé's cross, and the Czech Republic's Robin Hranáč against Portugal.

The 34 goals shared among 34 different players included top-quality strikes from outside the penalty area: Romania's Nicolae Stanciu, Switzerland's Michel Aebischer, and Turkey's Arda Güler.

And the goals often came early. Not until the 12th game, between Portugal and the Czechs, did any game go in 0-0 at halftime, and it ended 2-1.

The fastest ever in tournament history was scored by Nedim Bajrami, after 23 seconds in Albania's 2-1 loss to defending champion Italy.

A view of the Euro 2020 trophy during the draw for the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament finals in Bucharest, Romania.
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Was it a shock?

Forty-five places separated No. 3 Belgium and No. 48 Slovakia in the world ranking, making it — in theory — one of the biggest mismatches in tournament history. So Slovakia winning 1-0 was a huge shock, right?

Somehow, it didn't feel that way.

Belgium, with its so-called “golden generation” mostly no longer around, has been underwhelming for some time and didn't advance at the last World Cup. It kept a top-five FIFA ranking by being unbeaten since then.

This is no longer a vintage Belgium, especially with Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois not being selected.

A view of the Euro 2020 trophy during the draw for the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament finals in Bucharest, Romania.
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East meets West

The last time these stadiums hosted the Euros in 1988 the host was called West Germany, the Soviet Union reached the final, and the Berlin Wall fell within 18 months. Launching the Champions League in 1992 accelerated driving more wealth in European football toward the west.

Elements of a divide persist now: Only Leipzig of the 10 host stadiums is in the territory of former East Germany, and just three of the 24 teams — Austria, Croatia and England — based themselves there.

On the field, all six games at the weekend were match-ups of former East and West, and only Slovenia which held Denmark 1-1 avoided losing. Then Slovakia shocked Belgium on Monday.

However, teams and fans from the east have thrilled the tournament: Albania, Romania and especially debutant Georgia, the lowest-ranked team.

Players who perform weekly far from the spotlight of the Champions League, Premier League and La Liga have lit up this end-of-season stage.

Football and politics

They have mixed liberally at a tournament which, like the Eurovision Song Contest, is a cultural event shared and experienced across a diverse continent of 750 million people.

Ukraine players spoke of their hometowns occupied and destroyed by the Russian military. Fans from Georgia, where there were street protests at home by pro-European Union citizens, chanted an insult about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

France players including Mbappé urged people at home to vote and keep far-right parties out of power in elections that start June 30. Slovakia great Marek Hamsik, now a team coach, hoped football could help unite a nation whose populist prime minister survived a recent assassination attempt.

UEFA also has opened disciplinary cases over offensive flags displayed by fans, including provocative maps showing disputed territory.

After 12 games in five days, there were 39 games and 26 days to go. Maybe enough time to get the overloaded trains and trams running to schedule.

A view of the Euro 2020 trophy during the draw for the UEFA Euro 2020 soccer tournament finals in Bucharest, Romania.
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