Dear UEFA

Dear UEFA,

As a teacher, I have good days and bad days. When I have a bad day, I often ask myself ‘what is my purpose?’  Professionally, I know that the answer to this question is “to help children become rounded, happy, confident and well-informed young adults who are ready to question the world their grandparents generation have shaped.” It can be easy to lose sight of this in the heat of the moment but, upon reflection, I use this to guide my actions and inform my practice.

My question to you, UEFA, is “what is your purpose?”  Do you ever consider this question? Or have you lost sight of it in the attempt to satisfy your insatiable hunger for money? The thing with money is that, no matter how much you have, it’s never enough.

Is your purpose to ensure that the unique sport of football preserves its identity and culture in a world of increasing globalisation?  In this respect, you have failed too.  Fans at football matches do not want to be told when to sing or what to sing and your superbowlification of the game is neither enhancing nor welcome.  The extra 350€ you were charging to watch France v Romania due to fifteen minutes of disjointed kaleidoscopic dancing and David Guetta-life before the match is not good value to a football fan.

Is it to ensure that football at grassroots level is flourishing in all countries at all levels? How much money is set aside for rural and deprived communities to have football facilities and coaching that, increasingly, only the middle-classes can afford?

Is it to ensure Financial Fair Play? The same Financial Fair Play that you made a rather extended song and dance about, ensuring that clubs live within their means, yet billionaire-backed clubs openly flaunt these rules without receiving more than a warning as admonishment.

Is it to ensure that football remains a sport accessible to all?  When staging EURO 2016, did it occur to you that fans travelling to this event would be spending a lot of money to enhance this event?  Fans pay inflated prices for transport, accommodation and food throughout the tournament and do so because they have no choice.  “Football First” and “Grassroots and Solidarity” are two of your values About UEFA.  Football fans make these tournaments even more than the players do and deserve to be treated with your buzzword: Respect.

Is it ‘respectful’ to ask fans, citing the Welsh as an example, who have lit up your tournament and supported French business, to pay 495€ for a ticket to watch their team play Portugal? Many fans are using unpaid holidays, spending time away from family and emptying their savings in order to get to the tournament in the first place.  The least you could do is make the tickets more moderately priced ensuring that real fans can attend.

UEFA Extortion
UEFA Extortion

Bayern Munich recently issued a statement saying that making the ticket prices more expensive was small-time and terrible PR.  They figured that the few million they don’t receive in ticket money comes into the club in other ways as a function of this reduction: loyalty; merchandising income;passionate backing.  I could buy a Bayern Munich season ticket for three years and spend the same amount as buying a ticket to watch Portugal v Wales.

Football without fans is nothing.  This attempt at gentrification and pricing ordinary fans out of the game is one of the many reasons an increasing number of fans boo your Champions League anthem.  For an organisation whose former President is suspended for corruption and who espouses the virtues of Financial Fair Play, ripping off the people who prop up the sport – your sport – is contemptible.

Perhaps in the ivory towers of Nyon, where 495€ isn’t even enough to stuff an envelope, you cannot see your impropriety.  As we approach uncertainty over future tournaments (Russia(?), Qatar(?) and the next Euros looking like a diffuse series of exhibition matches), many real fans were desperate to come to a proper tournament.  Look after fans and you look after football. That is, after all, your purpose.

 

Against ‘Lucky’ Wales, Belgium… Fails

“Ashley Williams ghosted away from Nainngolan and in behind a holographic Jordan Lukaku to loop a header past a positionally negligent Kevin de Bruyne. It was a defensive horror show.”

“It’ll be different this time,” I told myself. “Belgium will surely have learned their lessons from the qualifiers.”  During both of those matches, Belgium controlled possession without ever really looking like scoring against a compact, disciplined Welsh team. Wales had a plan and executed it brilliantly.

In a soggy Lille, Wales had a similar plan but had simply improved their ability to execute it and their efficiency increases match by match.  Tonight they came up against a Belgian defence as porous as the open (perhaps ‘unshut’ is a better word, because it really ought to have been closed) roof of the Stade Pierre Mauroy.   Jason Denayer and Toby Alderweireld managed to make Hal Robson-Kanu look like the fat Ronaldo, and Jordan Lukaku leapt for headers as though he was spring boarding from quicksand.

A Belgium XI full of highly talented individuals started the match with pace and aggression and Wales simply couldn’t cope for the first fifteen minutes. Nainngolan scored an angry long range screamer and Belgium looked like outclassing Wales.  Three of the Welsh defenders picked up deserved early bookings and it had the makings of a long, long night.

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However, almost immediately after scoring, Belgium lost direction, sat back and seemed as rudderless as the Post-Brexit Boris Johnson.  This allowed Wales to take the ascendency and discover the fallibility of the Belgian defence.  Wales began to control possession – not something that has characterised their success to date – and Belgium, either by instruction or through lethargy, fell out of the game.

Although Belgium’s defensive personnel were inexperienced as a unit, they should have been far better drilled at defensive set pieces. Every ball lobbed into the box was causing havoc.  Eventually, Ashley Williams ghosted away from Nainngolan and in behind a holographic Jordan Lukaku to loop a header past a positionally negligent Kevin de Bruyne. It was a defensive horror show.

‘Bring on the Big Man

At half-time, having realised that practicing set pieces may have been beneficial, Wilmots’ words of wisdom and tactical adjustments would be vital. After all, since the 20th minute, Wales had been in the ascendancy.  Much-maligned, this was the Belgian manager’s time to prove his nous.  He did so in the way that he always does. By bringing on Pubic Prince Fellaini for Carrasco and shunting De Bruyne out wide, Wilmots relapsed into his old habit.  That I had written about this last August (Predictable Belgium) during the qualifiers illustrates a lack of evolution and improvement.

It is worth remembering that Belgium played in this way against Wales in the qualifying matches and got nowhere.  Perhaps Wilmots had forgotten this. It looked like it.  His answer to Wales dominating set pieces was not to take control of the match but to send on the big man and resort to the long ball.

I can understand this in the last 10 minutes as a last throw of the dice. An act of desperation. However, I wouldn’t have taken off the guy who scored in the Champions League Final when I needed a goal.  When Belgium play De Bruyne on the right, the same thing usually happens. Hazard, in the absence of de Bruyne in the middle, cuts inside to try to make something happen and runs into a wall of Welsh defenders. Wales are set up perfectly to counteract this. It all became so desperately predictable.

Except, that is, from Robson-Kanu’s fabulous turn and strike. It could be argued that his defender should never have allowed him to turn like this but credit has to be given to the forward here.  Would Kompany, Lombaerts, Vermaelen, Vertonghen or Engels – all unavailable and ahead of Denayer in the pecking order – prevented this goal? We’ll never know. I’d suggest their presence would have more likely prevented Williams getting a free header though.

Wilmots and Belgium have been unlucky in that nearly all of their unavailable players are defenders.  However, his myopia in persisting with an underperforming, uninspiring and generally unhappy-looking Lukaku put together with his reluctance to experiment with defensive shapes in friendlies and his dogmatic adherence to an entirely predictable game-plan reliant on the individuality of Hazard and De Bruyne should be his undoing.  Nonetheless, Belgium’s profligacy was again their weakness.  They were crying out for a finisher and, in Wilmots’ system, that man is not Lukaku.

Wilmots no more?

I can think of one Belgian coach who would reshape the team so that it plays to its strengths – what Coleman has done with Wales – and that man is KAA Gent’s Hein Vanhaezebrouck. Whether or not he’d take the job or if he’d be seen as ‘not unifying enough’ is another issue.  Hopefully the Belgian FA have the courage to thank Wilmots’ for his hard work and then move on.  The way he is diminishing his talented side’s potency is paralleled only by Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United.

‘Fouling with Impunity’

However, Belgium were unlucky in other ways. Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey continued to foul their way through the match with virtual impunity yet Fellaini’s first challenge was erroneously deemed bookable.  When Aaron Ramsey was finally booked, it was for a handball that looked highly accidental.  Belgium also had one stonewall penalty claim, one probable penalty and Davies should have been sent off for a foul on Lukaku on the edge of the box.  This shouldn’t be ignored. In this sense, Wales were very lucky.

‘Together Stronger’

While Chris Coleman may not be the highest profile manager around, he has consistently sent out a Wales team that was slightly better than the previous match. They play to their strengths, defend intelligently, know each other’s roles and run themselves into the ground. I don’t think I saw Axel Witsel break into a jog all night, such was the Belgian lethargy off the ball.

Sam Vokes’ goal summed up the evening in a way. An unexpectedly excellent header from the big forward was allowed to go unchallenged as Alderweireld cantered back. It was a fitting end to the evening.

How far can Wales go? They shouldn’t fear Portugal, or indeed anybody. While I believe the winner will be whoever progresses between Germany and Italy, Wales have a chance if they continue to play to their strengths.  They may need a few nice refereeing decisions – they had some tonight – and they must keep Bale fit (Pepe will test that) but they have earned the right to dream.

Belgium’s slogan has been #tousensemble and, while the team look disjointed, they can unify an often-fragmented country. Wales, on the other hand, epitomise #Togetherstronger and after the fragmentation in the UK over the past week, a little bit of togetherness can only be a force for progression.