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At Euro 2020, a reminder that good can be great


Let’s start with a little intellectual exercise. A purely hypothetical, entirely subjective, ultimately inconclusive one, admittedly, but still: Now that each of the presumed contenders to win the European Championship has shown at least some of its hand, how competitive would any of them be if they were to be parachuted, as they are, into the Champions League?

Instinctively, it feels as if France, at least, would do pretty well. A front line of Antoine Griezmann, Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappé bears comparison to any attacking trident in the club game.

Paul Pogba and Adrien Rabiot contribute elegance, drive and imagination to the midfield. N’Golo Kanté, at this point in history, appears to be the key ingredient to any world-beating team. The defense is not quite so stellar, but Didier Deschamps has fashioned a miserly, obdurate back line around Raphaël Varane and Presnel Kimpembe, both proven performers among soccer’s elite. And, if either was found wanting, Deschamps has a wealth of replacements at his disposal. On paper, then, France could be considered a contender, the sort of team that — with a fair wind — might be able to best Manchester City and Bayern Munich and Chelsea.

The only quibble is with style: For all its excess of talent, Deschamps’ France is an inherently reactive proposition, an approach that, by and large, has been rejected by the game’s leading clubs. (It is why José Mourinho, its high priest, is now at Roma, very much marooned in the second rank.)

France would, though, go much further than most of its rivals. Portugal has the compact defense and the devastating attack, but its midfield is limited. Germany’s semi-coherent pressing style would be either overpowered by a smoother, slicker machine, or picked apart by a counterpuncher.

England gives up too many chances, Belgium is too old, and a little too slow. Italy has too little experience, the Netherlands too little class. Spain has Álvaro Morata up front.

There are, of course, valid reasons for these weaknesses, these comparative flaws. National teams cannot solve shortages in one specific position, or even a broad area of the field, by going out and buying someone to plug the gap. Their tactical systems are, necessarily, less sophisticated than those of the best club sides because their coaches have so little time with their players.

And, of course, none of it actually matters. France will never have to play Manchester City. Real Madrid will never have the chance to record an undeserved win against England. When, in three weeks, one of these teams is proclaimed the winner of Euro 2020 at Wembley, it will not diminish its achievement that it is not better than Bayern Munich.

Indeed, to some extent it is the flaws that mark all international teams that lend tournaments their magic. France, on first glimpse, is superior to all of its rivals, but it is not perfect, impervious. It has weaknesses, ones more likely to be exposed and exploited in a single game, one-and-done knockout than over the course of a league season, or even in the homeand-away format of the latter stages of the Champions League.

At least in a tournament summer, it is a strength, not a weakness, of international football that it is not subject to the same schisms as the club game, where a smattering of teams have hoarded so many players and so much talent that they are, in effect, untouchable by all but a handful of rivals. The gap between great international sides and merely good ones is much smaller than that between the very best clubs and, well, everyone else.

With a couple of exceptions — most notably the Spain team that won three consecutive tournaments between 2008 and 2012 — most teams that succeed on the international stage are flawed. Most of them would, at best, be considered broadly passable if they came up against the very best clubs. Only a few would make it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

That is not something to be bemoaned. If anything, it is to be encouraged. But it means, as we settle into a tournament like the Euros or the Copa América, we need to remember that you do not need to be great to win it; that the expectations we develop over the course of a club season are not especially relevant; that, at the international level, a team cannot be written off because it does not look great, because sometimes, every couple of years, being merely good is enough.

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