Football Features

Who will become the biggest ‘cult hero’ player from Euro 2020?

By Ben Green

Published: 12:32, 13 July 2021

It’s been an emotional, drama-fuelled whirlwind of a tournament, one that will live long in the memory.

As far as the football was concerned at Euro 2020, England and Italy rallied to the final (the latter clinching the trophy), France faltered, Switzerland stunned and Denmark dazzled. Joachim Low bowed out of international football without a final gold star, while Portugal surrendered their crown in the last 16.

Many players came to the fore across the four weeks, the usual suspects, some household names we weren’t expecting and, as ever, a few unheralded hidden gems. So, who were the cult heroes of Euro 2020? Those we will look back on in the years to come and remember fondly as the emblematic stars. Read on for a selection of candidates, from fairly obvious to niche.


The ‘Jorginho for Ballon d’Or’ PR campaign is well and truly underway (and we say that having been guilty of contributing to it a little ourselves). At the time of writing, just five players sit between Jorginho and Lionel Messi, the bookmaker’s favourite to win the 2021 Ballon d’Or.

Ballon d’Or 2021 favourites (via William Hill)

  • Lionel Messi (2/5)
  • Cristiano Ronaldo (7/1)
  • Robert Lewandowski (7/1)
  • N’Golo Kante (8/1)
  • Harry Kane (9/1)
  • Raheem Sterling (11/1)
  • Jorginho (14/1)

(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only,

The Ballon d’Or talk stems mostly from his teammates (and former boss Maurizio Sarri), and also his work for a Chelsea team that won the Champions League, with Luka Modric having followed a similar path to ending the Ronaldo-Messi Ballon d’Or duopoly. Jorginho might have missed his penalty in the final against England but scored the spot-kick that put them there and was consistent enough at least to draw much of the spotlight on the Italian team.

Key stat: Jorginho set a new record for the most interceptions made at a single European Championship tournament (25) since Opta data has been collected (1980), one more than Marcel Desailly at Euro 1996.

Tournament summed up in one quote: “I’m not the one deciding if he deserves the Ballon d’Or, but I hope he’ll be shortlisted,” teammate Lorenzo Insigne told reporters. “He deserves it, he is a great player. I call him ‘The Professor’ and we are all happy to play with him.”

Raheem Sterling

Some questioned Raheem Sterling’s inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for Euro 2020, given his form at club level for Manchester City. But, he emphatically answered those critics, scoring both goals for an England side that finished first in Group D (and so became the lowest-scoring nation to ever top a Euros group) while adding a third against Germany, assisting Harry Kane in the Ukraine triumph and winning the decisive spot kick in the Denmark semi-final victory.

Key stat: Prior to the Italy game, Sterling had attempted (32) and completed (18) more take-ons than any other player at Euro 2020, with seven of those having been in the opposition penalty area (the joint-most), one of which led to England’s penalty against Denmark.

Tournament summed up in one quote: “Sir Raheem… Sir Raheem after what my man is doing!” said Rio Ferdinand. “The way that he’s just making this team tick. Any moment that you’ve got where you want to inject a little bit of spice in this team, it’s Raheem Sterling.”

Goran Pandev

As Euros debutants, not much was expected of North Macedonia. But captain and stalwart Goran Pandev ensured the nation bowed out of the groups in style and left a mark on the competition. The 37-year-old former Inter Milan forward netted the nation’s first-ever goal at a major tournament in the 3-1 loss to Austria, while he announced his international retirement after the match against the Netherlands, with Oranje presenting Pandev a commemorative jersey to mark the occasion.

Key stat: Goran Pandev is the second-oldest scorer in the finals of a European Championship, after former Austria international Ivica Vastic.

Tournament summed up in one quote: “I played many games with my national team,” said Goran Pandev. “I lost a lot of them, with many sacrifices. Nevertheless, we managed to play the Euros just at the end of my career, which was extraordinary for the whole country.

“I am happy my international career ended this way, I want to thank everybody, we achieved something special.”

Giorgio Chiellini

At 36, Giorgio Chiellini was as sprightly as ever in the Italy defence, forming an impervious bulwark with centre-back partner Leonardo Bonucci, which drew widespread praise across the football community. But, beyond his world-class defending, Chiellini was a breath of fresh air at Euro 2020, always playing with a smile on his face, joking about (or playing some serious mind games) with Jordi Alba right before a semi-final shootout and never failing to draw headlines in his press conferences. “I’m enjoying this tournament even more than usual, so it’s not a tactic, it’s just what I am like,” the Old Lady veteran explained.

Key stat: No player made more clearances (5) and more tackles (4) than Giorgio Chiellini against Spain for Italy. He also won 100% of his duels. Talk about turning up in a semi-final.

Tournament summed up in one quote: “Bonucci and Chiellini are currently the best centre-backs in the world,” tweeted Bastian Schweinsteiger during the Belgium game.

Kasper Schmeichel

Kasper Schmeichel and much of the Denmark team deserve a special mention for their conduct as Christian Eriksen received medical assistance after his collapse against Finland. The Danish players formed a protective ring around the player while also consoling his wife, Sabrina Kvist.

As for the football itself, Schmeichel was simply sensational throughout the tournament, channelling his inner ‘Peter’ to inspire a new wave of ‘Danish Dynamite’ as the nation reached the semi-final, where the Leicester City ‘keeper returned to Wembley after his FA Cup triumph and stunned the capital with another dextrous performance. He received an ‘8’ mark from L’Equipe‘s infamously unforgiving player ratings, saved a Harry Kane penalty after having a laser flashed in his eye and kept Denmark dreams alive.

Key stat: Kasper Schmeichel made more saves against England (9) than any other Danish goalkeeper has managed in a single European Championship game, including his dad.

Tournament summed up in one quote: Asked about what it would mean to stop ‘football coming home’ by beating England, Schmeichel responded: “I don’t know, have you ever won it? Was that not the World Cup?”

Simon Kjaer

The true definition of a captain. Simon Kjaer was the first on the scene following Eriksen’s collapse, clearing his international teammate’s airways and starting to give him CPR. He then instigated the protective ring and tried to reassure Eriksen’s wife. Kjaer is the hero of Euro 2020. That he then skippered Denmark to a semi-final, while being the chief policeman in a watertight defence is a mere speck in the of helping save a person’s life, but it makes for an inspiring narrative and underpins the unshakable mental fortitude he has to carry the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

Key stat: Simon Kjaer made more interceptions (10), completed more clearances (22) and completed more long passes (24) than any other Denmark player at Euro 2020.

Tournament summed up in one quote: “I think slowly as we get some distance from this, we’ll begin to notice some things,” said Simon Kjaer. “It has been difficult to take it all in, but it has been an amazing journey. It is more than I had ever hoped for. I am proud, but I’m also disappointed we didn’t go all the way to the final.”

Leonardo Spinazzola

Leonardo Spinazzola was Italy’s standout performer before rupturing his Achilles against Belgium. The Roma full-back was a delight to watch, proving a real force on the flank as he collect two Man of the Match awards for Roberto Mancini’s men, while also providing the assist for Federico Chiesa’s opener in the 2-1 win over Austria. His unexpected rise to prominence at Euro 2020 culminated in the Italy squad singing his name and chanting ‘Spina’ following their penalty shootout win over Spain.

Key stat: No player recorded a higher top speed at Euro 2020 than Leonardo Spinazzola (33.8 km/h).

Tournament summed up in one quote: “They frighten me because their experience is in a place where I’m feeling like yeah, Bonucci and Chiellini, but they’ve lost their best player for me in Spinazzola unfortunately,” said Ian Wright before the final. “But they have got work ethic, technical ability and finishing ability that will cause people problems.”

Joakim Maehle

How do Atalanta do it? The club’s fruitful scouting network has unearthed another hidden gem. Joakim Maehle, who joined Gian Piero Gasperini’s Goddess in January from Genk, took the tournament by storm, netting in successive matches against Russia and Wales from defence, while also providing the assist of Euro 2020 with that outrageous trivela to tee up Kasper Dolberg for Denmark’s second against Czech Republic.

Key stat: Despite playing at full-back, Joakim Maehle registered more shots on target (7) than any other player for Denmark at Euro 2020.

Tournament summed up in one quote: “The guy’s a machine,” said Kasper Schmeichel. “I think he’s still running inside in the dressing room, on the treadmill!”

Steven Zuber

Switzerland deserve a mention for their giantkilling against France. Under the methodical and progressive teachings of Vladimir Petkovic, A-Team were breath-taking at Euro 2020, limping through the groups but then coming alive in the knockouts, in which they defeated world champions France on penalties after a mesmeric 3-3, before just losing out to Spain in sudden death. Steven Zuber was the fulcrum of that scintillating run after missing the opening two games. He stared his first game in the final group game, and didn’t look back.

Key stat: Steven Zuber provided more assists (four) than any other player at Euro 2020. He is also only the third player to manage three assists in a single match at a European Championship after Michael Laudrup (1984, against Yugoslavia) and Rui Costa (2000, against England).

Patrik Schick

It was no surprise to see Cristiano Ronaldo finish the tournament as top scorer with five goals, but ranking alongside the Portugal superstar is Patrik Schick of Czech Republic. The Bayer Leverkusen forward was a potent weapon for Jaroslav Silhavy’s side, firing three times in the groups before netting in both of his knockout games, including the second in Czech Republic’s 2-0 win over the Netherlands, and the only goal in the nation’s 2-1 defeat to Denmark. And, of course, no one will be quick to forget that long-distance finish against Scotland.

Key stat: Patrik Schick’s strike against Scotland is the longest-range goal scored in European Championship history (49.7 yards).

Tournament summed up in one quote: “We know he is a genius and he knows how to finish,” Silhavy said of Schick’s wondergoal against Scotland. “The second goal was something out of this world. He likes to try that in training and he tried it in one of our previous games as well.”