There are two basic rules for the organisation of football tournaments. Make it fair, and keep it fresh. At the European Championship, UEFA have failed on both counts.
This week, Switzerland arrived in Bucharest having travelled 9,239 miles to complete their fixture schedule — or 7,794 miles more than their opponents, France.
Wales, in Amsterdam at the weekend, had 6,525 miles on the clock having journeyed via Baku and Rome, compared to Denmark who played three games in Copenhagen then made a short-haul flight across central Europe.
Wales had 6,525 miles on the clock by the time they reached Amsterdam to face Denmark
Meanwhile, if they are to reach the final, England will have qualified from a group featuring the Czech Republic to play in a group featuring the Czech Republic and will have to win a semi-final where their opponents could potentially be, you’ve guessed it, the Czech Republic.
From qualifiers to final will be 14 games, and four of them — 28.57 per cent — would be against one country. In a confederation comprising 55 national associations, it takes some doing to mess up a schedule that badly.
Martin Kallen is UEFA’s events chief executive officer. Here is Michel Platini talking about him in 2013. ‘Martin Kallen don’t know nothing about football. For the Euro, he is good at organisation, but let him not speak of football.’
This was during an interview in which it had been pointed out that Kallen had supported the expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams on the grounds that previously there had been ‘great teams that weren’t present’. One of the great teams he cited was Lithuania who, attempting to qualify for the 2012 tournament, drew with Liechtenstein.
So this is a perfect storm of rotten planning. Too many teams, spread across too many locations, too far apart, in a format that rewards failure and runs the risk of a repetitive schedule. The moment UEFA took part of the tournament to Baku, competitive integrity was compromised.
Two countries, the ones drawn as A3 and A4, were always going to be at a disadvantage due to an intense period of travel. Wales were A3, playing Baku, Baku, Rome; for A4, Switzerland, it was even worse: start in Baku, over to Rome, and then back to Baku. After that, London, Amsterdam or Bucharest, then Munich, St Petersburg or back to Baku again.
It was a ridiculous schedule resulting in a significant sporting handicap. So UEFA failed the first test: that of fairness.
When Chelsea and Arsenal flew to Baku to contest the 2019 Europa League final, there was a push-back against complainants on the grounds of that tired old trope, English arrogance. How dare the English complain about fans sent on a 5,849-mile round trip east?
Switzerland qualified for the knockout-stages despite travelling back-and-forth between Baku
Would two clubs from Azerbaijan moan about playing a final at Wembley, asked UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. This was patently specious. Since the Europa League was formed only once have two Azerbaijani teams so much as reached the group stage, and both finished bottom of four.
The possibility of supporters of Qarabag and Neftchi Baku marching on London is no more going to be tested than a Champions League final doubling up as a derby game involving Stoke and Port Vale. The other argument is that why should Baku, by dint of geographical location, not get the opportunity to host major football matches? To which the answer is: tough.
There are certain advantages to being located in Azerbaijan’s part of the Caucasus, like being built on lucrative reserves of oil and gas. Against that, you’re a bit remote for European football tournaments; or you should be — except that oil and gas does seem to hold sway over much of what UEFA does.
So, far from being under- represented, Baku has in the last two years held a major European final, plus three European Championship group games — and will host the quarter-final between the Czech Republic and Denmark on Saturday.
Baku seems to hold a significant advantage over UEFA’s other remote destinations.
Why ever can that be? It certainly isn’t the local fervour because Wales v Switzerland attracted a crowd of 8,732 and that wasn’t due to Covid restrictions.
Now, one of the semi-finalists will face a round trip of over 5,000 miles as preparation when coming in from Baku, while their opponents fly into London from Rome. Again, UEFA play fast and loose with the concept of fairness.
Now, freshness. How can it be that four of six groups at the finals tournament featured rematches from the qualifying campaign? England and Czech Republic (qualifying Group A, finals Group D), Spain and Sweden (qualifying Group F, finals Group E), Austria and North Macedonia (qualifying group G, finals Group C) and Belgium and Russia (qualifying Group I, finals group B).
How can it also be that one of those pairings — England and Czech Republic — might also meet in the semi-final? UEFA massage the draws of their club competitions for television so that teams from the same countries do not meet. Yet they cannot put controls in place to prevent the same group match-ups time and again.
England first played the Czech Republic twice in qualifying and then in the group stages – so how about the semi-finals too?
Czech Republic might have needed to beat England, at Wembley, twice just to reach the final. How is that fair?
In 2002, Turkey’s route to the World Cup final included meeting Brazil in the group stage and then again in the semi-final. That wasn’t right, either. Why should any country need to face Brazil twice in six matches to reach the World Cup final?
The added complication at this European Championship is that 24 countries become 16, meaning Ukraine can make the knockout rounds with a negative goal difference, two defeats and a lone victory over North Macedonia.
Not quite as bad as the 1986 World Cup in which 24 were whittled to 16 and Uruguay qualified with two draws and a 6-1 defeat by Denmark, but carry on like this and we’ll get there eventually.
The added complication is that with the first knockout round finding room for four third-placed nations, there is an increased likelihood of repeated fixtures because there is no time to plot the round of 16 so that group opponents do not meet until the final: indeed, with three progressing from four of the groups, it is literally impossible.
And UEFA’s events directors cannot conjure the impossible. The basics of fairness and freshness, however, should not be beyond them. Still, enjoy Tuesday night’s match. At least it’s not the Czech Republic.
WHY DO THE FA WANT TO TIE DOWN GARETH SOUTHGATE FOR THE NEXT EUROS NOW?
The only England manager to leave for a better job was Don Revie — and it wasn’t even a better job, just better money. Revie quit in July 1977 after accepting a £340,000, four-year contract to manage the United Arab Emirates.
Most England managers tend to be sacked or don’t have their contracts renewed and either way, unemployed, do not carry much cachet.
Birmingham City, PSV Eindhoven, Wolves, Australia, Southampton, Manchester City — before the real money turned up — FC Twente, Russia and Crystal Palace have all been the next stops on those managerial career paths. Not many promotions there.
Sven Goran Eriksson came closest, pictured coming out of a meeting with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon in 2004 — and very well he did out of it, too.
There is no similar commotion, however, around Gareth Southgate. It would be easier to list those managers who have not met, or rejected, Daniel Levy at Tottenham this summer, but the speculation has passed him by.
The same at Everton. Yet the way the FA behave one might imagine there was a tailback of possible suitors along the country lanes ringing St George’s Park.
Maybe the clubs are making a mistake; or maybe they recognise that Southgate is perfect for the FA and England, and they for him. Ignoring his qualities as a football man, Southgate is hugely accomplished acting as the reasoned, respected face of the organisation in difficult times.
There is no need to tie down Gareth Southgate to a new deal as England manager just yet
He makes tough calls without unnecessary drama, he is comfortable even when topics are highly charged. He is the man for this moment. For beyond 2022? We shall see.
Southgate’s contract expires at the end of the next World Cup, by which time we will have had three major tournaments to consider progress. That is not how the FA see it. Chief executive Mark Bullingham is already discussing extensions, improvements, sweeteners. Why? ‘Gareth has done a brilliant job,’ he said.
Really? Brilliant? He exceeded expectations by reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, he has qualified well, brought young players through, given them the confidence to win penalty shootouts — he has certainly done a very good job.
Yet unless England are settling, he needs the statement win over Germany, he needs to go deep into a tournament that is opening up again. This is, bar one game, a competition played at home. Southgate has good players, too — so even he may be surprised to find the verdict in so quickly. It is not as if he has given any reason to fear his departure, yet this is the FA way.
Roy Hodgson’s job was guaranteed minutes after England departed the 2014 World Cup at the group stage; the break clause in Fabio Capello’s contract was removed prior to the 2010 tournament.
What would be the point of snapping up Southgate for the 2024 European Championship in Germany when a reckoning against that country is mere hours away? Let’s hope the manager is more measured in his judgments than his employers.
‘MOB RULE’ RESULT OF BID TO ATTRACT YOUNGER CROWD
Warwickshire are angry and appalled after a student mob ruined their T20 Blast match with Derbyshire at Edgbaston.
Taking advantage of cheap promotional tickets bought through a company called Invades that supplies student groups, there were several pitch invasions — including a significant one at the end — and scenes of chaos and rowdiness.
One spectator suffered a head injury from a flying cup, the match was halted on several occasions by streakers and there were constant PA reminders of the need for social distancing, which were largely ignored by 2,000 crowded together in the Hollies Stand.
‘The behaviour of a small number of students after the match finished was disgraceful,’ said Stuart Cain, Warwickshire’s chief executive, ignoring that the promotion of the event promised ‘free flowing pints, pumping tunes and silly sixes’ — and that the numbers on the pitch did not look small at all.
Funnily enough, do you know who can be relied upon not to cause disorder at the cricket? Cricket fans. People who genuinely love the game. People who would actually watch, and care about, what happens in the middle.
Sadly, they are the last to be considered these days as the sport continues to alienate its constituents in pursuit of a younger crowd who see the match itself as the least of the entertainment. Warwickshire, like most counties and the ECB, have picked their patrons and are now free to enjoy the choices they have made.
SWINDON ARE PROOF ANYONE CAN MESS UP OWNERSHIP
Swindon Town manager John McGreal has left after one month in charge of the club, never taking a game.
His assistant, Rene Gilmartin, went with him. Steve Anderson, the chief executive for eight years, has already quit and it is believed Paul Jewell, the director of football, has also tendered his resignation. Swindon were relegated from League One last season and have released 13 players.
The Football Association have brought charges regarding the funding and ownership of the club and there are court hearings ongoing about a possible sale.
Swindon Town manager John McGreal has left after one month, having never taken a match
The current owner of Swindon, by the way, is Lee Power, who some may remember as a centre forward with, among others, Norwich, Bradford, Peterborough and Halifax.
Further proof that, whatever the standing of current ownership models in English football, there is no easy solution, no golden age. People who played the game should have more say in running it?
Sadly, ex-footballers are little different from American venture capitalists: it depends who you get.
ENGLAND PAY HIGH PRICE FOR FOREIGN STARS
Overseas players accounted for 47 per cent of the completed minutes in the Women’s Super League last season, the highest proportion of any women’s league in world football. This was always going to happen as professionalism increased.
In recent international competitions England’s women have looked second-best technically.
A team who want to win the Champions League, like Chelsea or Manchester City, cannot operate with inferior technique any more than their men’s teams would.
There is a reason only the very best English talent — Phil Foden, Mason Mount — make the starting XI and the same will apply to the women.
The standard improves or the game leaves English footballers behind, again.
Chelsea reached the final of the women’s Champions League before losing out to Barcelona
CONTE LOOKS TO BE A GOOD JUDGE AFTER ALL
It was June 5 when sources at Tottenham described Antonio Conte’s demands as ‘unrealistic’.
Given what has unfolded since it would appear Conte had a firmer grasp of reality than anybody.