In some parts of Europe, there was international football of the highest order. Berlin saw an astonishing comeback by Sweden, trailing 4-0 to a confident and powerful German side with less than half an hour of the game remaining, they somehow managed to fight back to earn a 4-4 draw. Northern Ireland, for so long seen as international minnows, held a 1-0 lead in Porto with less than 15 minutes remaining, and even Helder Postiga’s late equaliser will have done little to change the feeling that Michael O’Neill’s men well and truly spoiled Cristiano Ronaldo’s 100 cap party.
However our very own country saw contrasting sides to the game and neither does the governing authorities any credit at all. The main national team should have played their Group H game in Warsaw against Poland, but not only was the game postponed but it was done so in scenes so shambolic, you wondered whether those organising the game had ever attended a game of football before. And in Krusavec, the u21 side were subjected to the kind of abhorrent behaviour that would be frowned upon in the most heated Sunday League game, let alone an important international competition.
Let’s look at the situation in Poland first. A magnificent, state of the art stadium will all mod cons to ensure that the highest standard of international football takes place. The first and most publicised point, is that the stadium has a retractable roof, so there should never be a case where so much rain falls on the pitch that the very possibility of a game being completed is in any doubt. Unfortunately, the Polish coach apparently decided that a wet pitch would be a great leveller to give his team a greater chance of getting a result (has he never been to England? We get rain here too you know…), so the roof was left open, can’t be closed while it continues to rain, which it did for five hours and left much of the pitch under water. But what followed bordered on the ridiculous. FIFA were so determined that the game should take place that they insisted the referee perform a further pitch inspection some 45 minutes after the scheduled kick off…after again no roof, more rain, same result. FIFA seemed to be playing the part of a host on the Titanic saying “sit tight, everything will be fine and the ship will stop sinking shortly”.
Meanwhile the fans…remember them? The lifeblood of the game, many of whom had paid large amounts not only for tickets but also for significant travel and accommodation were left without any sort of update as to what was happening. The fact that the game will be replayed today is of little compensation to those booked on flights home, or who work locally. Nor is the offer of a refund of ticket money, as that only forms part of the total outlay. Those of us watching the game at home were subjected to an hour and a half of padding by Adrian Chiles and his guests. I lost count of the number of times the question was asked as to where the groundsman was with his fork, like that would make any difference at all (and overlooking the fact that many modern pitches can’t be forked anyway). On the bright side, at least Andy Townsend wasn’t brought into the conversation.
Perhaps in future, international game organisation, including taking care of potential weather issues will be left in the hands of those in the know, rather than a coach wanting to get one over on the opposition. And perhaps a plan is put in place so that if the worst happens, there is something in place to organise rearrangement and compensation quickly, and ensuring that the most important people, the spectators, are not left in the dark and out of pocket.
Meanwhile, several hundred kilometers south, England’s under-21 team were overcoming their Serbian opponents in the second leg of a Championship Play Off match. Leading 1-0 on aggregate in the final stages, and with Serbia pushing hard for an equaliser (including the goalkeeper in the attacking third), the visitors broke away and Sunderland’s Connor Wickham slid home the winner. Celebrations took place, and this inflamed an already poisonous atmosphere. There had already been racial abuse directed at England’s black players, of which there were several. In the aftermath in which sadly coaching staff and players got involved, Danny Rose was somehow singled out for kicking a ball into the baying crowd and shown a red card. The referee did not appear to take any action against punches, verbal abuse or the like.
This is not the first time Serbia have been involved in problems. Only last year, Italy were awarded a 3-0 win after crowd disturbances caused the abandonment of their qualifying game after just seven minutes. At the time, the UEFA President Michel Platini warned Serbia this was their last warning. One hopes this is the catalyst therefore for proper action, however the cynic in me fears a paltry fine and the words “this really, really is your final warning, and we really mean it this time”, as the thugs that disgraced last nights game laugh loudly in between impersonating monkeys. England has past experience of such problems and only by being hit hard with sanctions did it finally get its house somewhere near in order. Serbia has a difficult recent past, but if the country is to take part in what should be a civilised spectator sport, they have to be seen to be taking the problem seriously. The fact that several of the Serbian playing and coaching staff seemed happy to escalate a situation suggests a problem more widespread than just in the stands. The behaviour of the players and coaches has at least been recognised by the host nation’s FA…sadly they have stuck their heads in the sands when it comes to the behaviour of their fans, denying there was any problems at all. I only hope that UEFA’s response this time hurts the perpetrators of such scenes, and shows restraint to those, like Danny Rose, who were more victims of unchecked provocation.
No one expects perfection from any governing body, but what the paying public should be able to expect is that lessons are learned to ensure things don’t happen again. Fans continue to play an important part in the game, this does remain after all a spectator sport. Their interests should always be the consideration when staging a game, and therefore the situation in Warsaw last night cannot be repeated. However when those who come to support, or be involved in the game, are unable to do so without staining it with their poor behaviour, it is also appropriate that they are dealt with accordingly, and if their national organisations are incapable of doing so, then the governing body has to take a stand. We wait to see whether UEFA and FIFA are willing to take a proper stand against those ruining our game.