The Euro 2020 starts this Friday with Italy against Turkey in Rome – Stream LIVE, 3:00 p.m. ET, ESPN / ESPN + (US only) – but who are the players on each team that you need to know before the real weekend fun starts? ESPN Senior Writer Gab Marcotti goes through all 24 teams and picks the STAR MAN (player who is likely to have the most impact) and GAB’S GUY (the lesser-known player under the radar who could break out on the big stage).
– Euro 2020 on ESPN: stream live games and replays (USA only)
– European Soccer Pick ‘Em: Compete against each other for $ 10,000
– Euro 2020 bracket and schedule
STAR MAN: David Alaba (DF, 28 years old, Bayern Munich / will move to Real Madrid)
Even before his appearance on the pitch, it becomes clear that David Alaba is a figurehead of globalization. His mother is Filipino (and a former beauty contest contestant). His father is a Nigerian prince (and a DJ). His sister is a pop star. He was born and raised in Vienna, has spent most of his career in Munich and is moving to Real Madrid as a free agent. He has made a name for himself as a left-back and played a large part of the central defender last season, but will probably play in the attacking midfield for Austria at the European Championship.
Total player. Total football. Total versatility. Indeed, if Alaba weren’t that good at so many things – and if he were a little less humble and a little more selfish – he might be even more valued. At FC Bayern he leaves the limelight to others; with Austria he is a leader.
GAB’S GUY: Christoph Baumgartner (MF, 21, TSG Hoffenheim)
Not to be confused with the almost eponymous Baumgartlinger (that would be Julian, also a midfielder and Austria’s captain) or actually Bumgarner (that would be Madison, a thrower for the Arizona Diamondbacks), Baumgartner is an attacking midfielder and dangerous for goals from a distance.
STAR MAN: Romelu Lukaku (Sw, 28, Inter Milan)
The big man is already the top goalscorer in the history of the Belgian national team – in fact, his 60 goals are almost as many as the next two combined – and although he’s always been productive, he has evolved from a strong, direct one over the past two years Striker to a more subtle offensive leader able to support and serve teammates.
It’s likely that the quality has always been there, but it’s almost too easy for managers to just refer to the guys who are bigger, stronger, and faster than everyone else as targets. Lukaku also speaks six languages, is probably one of the smarter footballers you will meet, and as his own story suggests in his own words, definitely one of the more empathetic and confident.
GAB’S GUY: Youri Tielemans (MF, 24, Leicester City)
In a team with so much offensive talent (Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Jeremy Doku) someone has to occupy the fort in midfield and that is him. Although his quality, his eye for the goal and his ballistic capabilities (Witness the game winning goal that he scored in the FA Cup final) he could probably do a good job further up.
STAR MAN: Luka Modric (MF, 35, Real Madrid)
He was downright Hercules (or better yet, Cruyffian … squinting a little, focusing on your hair and movement and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see) at the last World Cup and led Croatia to the final. But that’s not the only reason why it is still the hub of the Croatian bike. He has had a great season at Real Madrid, possibly his best since landing at the Bernabeu nine summers ago. What he has lost in sportiness, he has largely made up for with cunning and intelligence.
The skill? Well, that’s still there, as is the ability to leave it all in place. Take a look at him at the end of a game: shirt matted, face sunken, lips puckered … this is how the little warrior looks at rest.
– Euro 2020 on ESPN: Latest News, Features, Videos
GAB’S GUY: Marcelo Brozovic (MF, 28, Inter Milan)
“The Broz” matures well; the roller coaster of youth has given way to metronomic consistency without losing a knack for mixing things right. Like a point guard in basketball, he keeps Croatia going until Modric is ready to do his thing.
STAR MAN: Tomas Soucek (MF, 26, West Ham United)
Tomas Soucek is not a footballer; he’s a cyborg, a kind of Czech RoboCop. He played every minute of every game this season (even when sent off, he made sure it was after the 90th minute against Fulham), laying more ground than most and finishing second among midfielders on goals scored . The fact that he does so in a 6-foot-4,190-pound frame that allows him to trip over most central midfielders and that he has stamina that hasn’t been seen since the T2000 in Terminator 2 was seen, makes him all the more awkward a matchup.
– Which team has the best jersey at the EM?
GAB’S GUY: Patrik Schick (SW, 25, Bayer Leverkusen)
He’s tall and tech-savvy, which is why scouts get excited when they see him. Unfortunately for him things really only came together in fits and flares. Could this be the tournament if everything clicks?
STAR MAN: Christian Eriksen (MF, 29, Inter Milan)
You sometimes wonder how Eriksen’s career would have been if he had been born in a different frame (maybe something with more visible muscles and tattoos), with different hair (both on his head – anything but the child cut – and on his face) and another expression (like a scowl or even a grin). Instead, he looks “soft” and sometimes disinterested, which could explain why he started Inter’s starting XI under Mr. Intensity, Antonio Conte.
The appearance is deceptive. Eriksen covers tons of ground without growling or panting. Either way, he’s not the reason he’s on the lineup. He’s there because he can hit a ball as sweetly as anyone else and work out opportunities out of nowhere.
GAB’S GUY: Yussuf Poulsen (SW, 26, RB Leipzig)
He’s the striker who doesn’t hit, or at least doesn’t hit much. But everything else – running, attacking, backtracking – he does with as much enthusiasm as anyone else.
STAR MAN: Harry Kane (FW, 27, Tottenham Hotspur)
By now, most know the story of the little boy who was born a few miles from White Hart Lane, grew up a Spurs fan and fulfilled his dream of becoming a Tottenham captain. And they also know how he survived unsuccessful exams as a young boy and was loaned out four times before the club realized he was actually pretty good. Kane has gone way beyond that: he is no longer just a finisher, but also one of the smartest providers from the center-forward position.
He recently complained that he would rather win team trophies than just individual awards. While UK media speculates that this anticipates a move to a more affluent, more successful club, his best bet to win team silver could actually be with England.
– The best young players to see at Euro 2020
GAB’S GUY: Jack Grealish (MF / FW, 25, Aston Villa)
He’s a wild card. Given the abundance of more established players on Gareth Southgate’s team, we may not see him often. Which would be a shame, because he is one of the most exciting and unconventional individual talents in England, blessed with tricks, personality and assertiveness.
STAR MAN: Teemu Pukki (SW, 31, Norwich City)
He looks more like a garden gnome than a world-class striker. And maybe he’s really magical because it’s like someone flipped a switch in the middle of his career and made him a hugely successful goalscorer. He made his debut at the age of 16 and scored 52 league goals for clubs in Finland, Germany, Scotland and Denmark in the first 10 years of his career. In the five years since then he has scored 103 for Denmark’s Brondby and England’s Norwich (the latter admittedly made it into the championship, but two years ago he reached 11 in the top division).
His international goals have also shot up: eight before summer 2016, a whopping 22 since then. How long will the magic last?
GAB’S GUY: Lukas Hradecky (TW, 31, Bayer Leverkusen)
This is Finland’s first major tournament and they’re 54th in the FIFA rankings so the obvious joke is that he’s going to be busy. And that’s a good thing, because Hradecky is one of the better keepers at Euro 2020 and the way his Leverkusen team defend he is undoubtedly used to it.
Antoine Griezmann is very proud of his five-fold win with Newcastle in Football Manager.
STAR MAN: Kylian Mbappe (SW, 22, Paris Saint-Germain)
He’s half of the heirloom Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duo that has dominated the game for the past 15 years or so. (The other, Erling Haaland, will be watching the European Championship on TV because Norway has failed to match the quality.) Mbappe has some important decisions to make – his contract with PSG expires in less than a year – but he delivers another important trophy the 2018 World Cup, too Les Bleus could make him want to write the next chapter of his career elsewhere.
Mbappe is lightning fast, accurate and extremely well-rehearsed in a group that is bursting with talent in all areas of the field.
GAB’S GUY: N’Golo Kante (MF, 30, Chelsea)
He wrote his fairy tale that led Leicester City to the Premier League title in 2015-16 and brought Chelsea to the Champions League last month. It’s up to you whether you focus on his limitless stamina or, now that he’s older and survived an injury, on his intelligence on the pitch and understanding of the game. (I would recommend the latter.)
STAR MAN: Joshua Kimmich (MF, 26, Bayern Munich)
When he prevailed at Bayern, some saw him as heir to Philipp Lahm: equally comfortable as a full-back, central defense or central midfield, a gifted laser and a natural leader. Apart from the fact that Lahm was a showpiece; Kimmich is more of a guy who grabs you by the neck and screams into your face. He covers a lot of ground and does it with quality while also showing up with a big goal on occasion.
Kimmich is a natural emotional leader and has a future team Captain wrote about him.
GAB’S GUY: Thomas Müller (SW, 31, Bayern Munich)
He’s back after a three-year exile from the national team and it’s hard not to demonize him. He may not be the most technically gifted, but he is living proof that the game is played with the mind and heart as well as with the feet.
STAR MAN: Peter Gulacsi (TW, 31, RB Leipzig)
He got promoted early in his career and didn’t make it at Liverpool, but has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga over the past few seasons. His skills were evident from a young age – he is an accomplished goalkeeper who can play well behind a high defensive line in Leipzig – but it took a while before he got the opportunity to repay the trust placed in him. Now he’s a leader from behind and a vocal personality on and off the pitch: he has more than disheveled feathers at home to show his support for the LGBTQ community.
GAB’S KERL: Nemanja Nikolic (SW, 33, Fehervar)
Nikolic, a rare Major League Soccer alumnus (he spent three seasons with Chicago Fire) at the European Championship, actually retired from the international three years ago only to be reclaimed by manager Marco Rossi. As a strong, bustling center forward, he won top scorer in the MLS, Poland and Hungary.
Julie Foudy and Tim Howard explain why Roberto Mancini’s Italy should not be overlooked at Euro 2020.
STAR MAN: Nicolo Barella (MF, 24, Inter Milan)
Born in Sardinia, he went through the ranks of his local club Cagliari, which he joined at the age of 9 and left two years ago, at the age of 22, as an emotional leader. Some people are just born to lead, and when you play with the rare combination of courage and genius Barella brings, that’s not surprising. He is not afraid to take responsibility and seems to enjoy the 30-meter long shot at goal as much as the lung-breaking recovery run.
Italy are blessed with a core of talented midfielders, but Barella stands out when it comes to charisma.
GAB’S GUY: Giorgio Chiellini (DF, 36, Juventus)
Old school defense king Chiellini can be as nasty and theatrical on the court as he is eloquent and learned: he has a degree in economics and an MBA.
STAR MAN: Memphis Depay (SW, 27, Lyon)
Although he grew up in rural Holland, he may be the “street player” in this tournament. When Memphis is on, it’s just electric, single-handedly slapping players and creating its own shots. That was increasingly the case at Lyon, where he restarted his career after failing on his move to Manchester United. Lots of players speak the talk: he walked the path, cut his salary and re-established himself as the dominant player in the French league.
With this Dutch team strong in defense and midfield only to stall at the front, Memphis sometimes had to take the offensive on its own. He is a free agent this summer and has been heavily linked with a move to Barcelona.
GAB’S GUY: Matthijs de Ligt (DF, 21, Juventus)
Big, elegant on the ball and cool under pressure, De Ligt has been something of a child prodigy since his debut for the Oranje at the age of 17. Unlike some who made them great when they were young, he has mastered every challenge so far.
STAR MAN: Goran Pandev (SW, 37, Genoa)
Okay, that’s a sentimental decision. It’s not just the fact that he’s turning 38 this month, but also that next season (yes, he’s not stopping) will be his 23rd as a pro. Pandev is not getting around as well on the pitch as he did when he won the Champions League with Jose Mourinho’s Inter in 2010, but he can still be fatal in and around the box as he proved with the shot on goal that brought North Macedonia to Euro. It is also fitting that, with his receding hairline and five o’clock shadow, he doesn’t look quite like a modern footballer; he belongs to a different time. And the fact that he is still towering during this period shows how special he is.
GAB’S GUY: Ezgjan Alioski (DF / MF, 29, Leeds United)
Five years ago he was in the Swiss second division and almost gave up the game. Since then, he has been looked after by two geniuses of offensive football (Zdenek Zeman near Lugano, Marcelo Bielsa near Leeds) and has established himself as a mainstay of the Premier League.
STAR MAN: Robert Lewandowski (SW, 32, Bayern Munich)
He has had a season in which, despite being out for a month due to injury, he scored 41 league goals – and broke Gerd Müller’s 39-year Bundesliga record – plus another seven in all competitions and another five for Poland say he is going at full speed in the euro. Lewandowski is the consummate modern all-round center-forward: a deadly finisher who can hit you in many different ways, but also off the ball an athletic force that chases and appeals to defenders like there’s no tomorrow and a linchpin for everyone urgent team.
The intensity can be genetic: his mother was a volleyball player, his father a black belt in judo. Oh, and his wife has a black belt in karate, for good measure.
GAB’S GUY: Piotr Zielinski (MF, 27, Napoli)
The previous one wonder child of Polish football has become a man. His astute passing draws comparisons to Kevin De Bruyne, which is such a high compliment to be paid to a man who plays in the role.
Gab Marcotti talks about the sensational Cristiano Ronaldo that Cristiano Ronaldo had from the sidelines during the 2016 European Championship final.
STAR MAN: Cristiano Ronaldo (SW, 36, Juventus)
Who else should I choose? His influence on the defending champion has not waned an iota, even if the supporting actors have gotten stronger compared to four years ago. Ronaldo has arguably had his best season at Juventus this season, despite the club struggling to get into the top four. Age has slowed him down, but if this is a decline, it is the kind of decline most gamers can only dream of in their wildest dreams. Still one of the best finishers, his flying skills are Jordanian and he is extremely durable. And far from being swayed by expectations, he is in the limelight like no other.
GAB’S GUY: Raphael Guerreiro (DF, 27, Borussia Dortmund)
It was hot and cold last season – injuries and chaos in Dortmund played a role – but few broad players are as good as him when it comes to providing speed and playmakers from wide areas. He has also improved defensively, but he’s not on the team: the full-back is no longer a defensive position.
STAR MAN: Artem Dzyuba (SW, 32, Zenit Saint Petersburg)
This oversized, physical center-forward divides opinion, as tall men often do. But the dark secret that many teams don’t want to know is that they just hate playing against big strikers like Dzyuba who shoot straight into goal, especially when talented guys run away (like hopefully midfielder Aleksandr Golovin). Dzyuba is not fun to play, and sometimes even less fun to watch, but there is a martial quality to it. And he has the ability to sit back: he was fired from the national team after a lewd (solo) video went viral. He apologized, received confirmation from Russian President Vladimir Putin (“he has learned his lesson and can come back strengthened”) and here he is.
GAB’S GUY: Aleksandr Golovin (MF, 25, AS Monaco)
He was one of the heroes of the Russian run into the 2018 World Cup semi-finals and brought a club record change to Monaco, but has since been slowed down by injuries and poor performances. If it is to click for Russia at the EM, it needs his creativity and ingenuity.
Julien Laurens has a bold proposal for Scotland to get the most out of Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney.
STAR MAN: Andy Robertson (DF, 27, Liverpool)
He has played 61 games (59 of them) for Liverpool and Scotland in the past nine months, an athletic and physical feat that makes you wonder how his legs haven’t fallen off. And Robertson doesn’t hold back, thunders back and forth on the left flank, one sprint after the other. He plays for Scotland – which plays a back three – further forward than for Liverpool and will have to take a lot more responsibility in attack.
GAB’S GUY: John McGinn (MF, 26, Aston Villa)
As a teenager he was Almost killed in an accident on the training field when a teammate hopping around like teenagers threw a spiked training bar in his direction and dug it about 3 inches into his leg, dangerously close to the femoral artery. That alone distinguishes him; his tireless (and intelligent) running is a bonus.
STAR MAN: Milan Skriniar (DF, 26, Inter Milan)
It is the foundation of the Slovak defense. With Inter, he also won the Serie A title that season, although he was deposed at the beginning of the season. Skriniar isn’t always pretty to look at, but the no-nonsense style works for him. Slovakia promises to be pretty straightforward at this Euro, relying on counterattacks and brave defense to get results. That’s what Skriniar does best and that’s why he will lead from behind.
GAB’S GUY: Marek Hamsik (MF, 33, Gothenburg)
The Iroquois wonder was a favorite of Napoli fans for more than a decade before moving to China (and later Sweden), but it remained the beating heart of Slovak football. He may have lost a step, but the drive – and signature long-range ability – is still there.
STAR MAN: Thiago Alcantara (MF, 30, Liverpool)
The thing about Thiago Alcantara is that he doesn’t play too much – he’s only made more than 20 league games in a season twice in his career – but when he does he’s usually a difference maker. Most teams know how to defend and clog the penalty area and when that happens it takes a creative, astute passer-by to create opportunities. That is exactly what Thiago does, and almost everyone in his role.
He too has the family tree: His father was world champion with Brazil and later settled in Barcelona, where the young Thiago and his brother Rafinha learned their trade.
GAB’S GUY: Gerard Moreno (SW, 29, Villarreal)
He’s one of the smartest strikers and one of the most selfless who likes to shoot at goal as much as he turns to make room for teammates. And he ends his most successful season after scoring no less than 30 goals in all competitions.
STAR MAN: Alexander Isak (FW, 21, Real Sociedad)
Since Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed the European Championship due to an injury, the guy who has to carry the burden of his legacy remains here. Like Zlatan, he’s the son of immigrants (in his case Eritrea), and like Zlatan, he’s tall and lanky but elegant on the ball. And like Zlatan, he got Phenom-Tag at a young age, hit on his debut as a 16- Year old and scored again in his second game. However, his rise has not been entirely vertical since then and only this year at Real Sociedad has he really proven himself as a starter and star and scored 17 league goals.
GAB’S GUY: Emil Forsberg (MF, 29, RB Leipzig)
This tricky midfielder team is blessed with tremendous vision and a knack for big goals. Starts wide, cuts inward and weaves its magic.
STAR MAN: Remo Freuler (MF, 29, Atalanta)
He runs and runs and runs and runs and scores and runs and runs and runs … Okay, I’m exaggerating. But only a little. Freuler is the perpetual motion machine in the middle of the park, which made it ideal for Atalanta’s run-and-gun approach to the knockout stages of the Champions League. Switzerland is a rather relaxed and conservative team, which makes him all the more valuable because he is the man who increases the pace when necessary, especially next to the rather static granite Xhaka in the midfield. Don’t be surprised or alarmed if you see him appear in both fields within seconds. There are not two Freulers; it’s the same guy.
GAB’S GUY: Xherdan Shaqiri (MF, 29, Liverpool)
Compact and stocky, Shaqiri wears the number 23 in honor of Michael Jordan, although he’s more of the short, stocky guy who dominates the playground and never gives up on the ball. Didn’t have much playing time in Liverpool and injuries slowed him down, but hell he did that at the last Euro, confirms his Baller credentials.
STAR MAN: Burak Yilmaz (SW, 35, LOSC Lille)
Lille shocked France by winning Ligue 1 last season despite saying “goodbye” to some of the star players last summer and despite a mid-season change of ownership that flirted with bankruptcy. Yilmaz was a big part of it, becoming Lille’s top scorer with 16 goals.
Few expected this, as it seemed like an afterthought upon arrival: an aging, burly free agent who had spent his entire career in Turkey (apart from two years in China) and would do little to play bumper cars Box. Only strength and the danger of goals do not deteriorate with age, and if this is the twilight of his career, he wants to light it up with fireworks at the EM.
GAB’S GUY: Caglar Soyuncu (DF, 25, Leicester City)
Broad, big-haired and blessed with a perfect chin line, Soyuncu combines athleticism with a delicate feel for the ball. Soyuncu was one of the first Turkish players to bypass the country’s traditional big clubs and move straight from a small provincial club to a Big Five league.
STAR MAN: Oleksandr Zinchenko (DF / MF, 24, Manchester City)
Premier League fans will know him as a left-back, but for Ukraine he plays as an attacking midfielder. (When you think about it, in Pep Guardiola’s system full-backs often play as attacking midfielders, so maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise …) If he often subordinates himself to others at the club level, he’s one of the leading actors here as the main creative Power in Andriy Shevchenko’s 4-3-3 formation. He may look boyish, but there is a definite underlying harshness. Zinchenko had some tough times at City when he wasn’t playing. As a teenager, he had to flee his home region of Donbass in Ukraine after it was annexed by Russia.
GAB’S GUY: Ruslan Malinovskyi (MF, 28, Atalanta)
Few players in this tournament hit a ball harder than he does, and his long-range shot alone makes it worth watching. He has grown as an all-rounder since joining Atalanta two years ago and ended the 2020-21 season with six goals in his last eight appearances.
STAR MAN: Gareth Bale (SW, 31, Real Madrid)
It is rude to call Wales a “one-man team” but it cannot be overlooked that Bale takes on a different dimension than his teammates in terms of natural ability (both technical and athletic). An example of having four Champions League trophies at home; only two others on that squad have even played in a Champions League knockout game (one is Aaron Ramsey, the other is the answer to a trivia question). Elegant and majestic in full flight, Bale boasts of precise control and the ability to close. That’s why he was once the most expensive player in the world.
His club career may have fallen south due to injuries and poor performance – Real Madrid had to pay half their salary last season for Tottenham to loan him – but when he flickers into life he is almost unplayable. Put him in a red shirt with a dragon on it and he’ll spit fire, as he proved in 2016 when he pushed that team to the semi-finals.
GAB’S GUY: Daniel James (MF / SW 23, Manchester United)
He may be limited on the ball, but he can’t be taught speed and he’s had enough. In this low-scoring sport, everything can change in an instant if you have a man who can do that.