Even when a man has faced both remorse and enlightenment, perspective change always acts duplicitously.
From the onset of my relationship with non-league, and in fact physical, football, my experience had been fraught with – and my resolve hardened by – destitution, frailty and dramatics. Hand in hand with the travails of FCs Ringmer and Lewes, it had verged on disaster, and seen early glimmers of optimism, but something it was never short of was entertainment. Even through the latest of defeats inflicted by relative divisional minnows, the gradual exodus of innocently idolised names, or the late-season free-for-all to avert relegation ending in ultimate failure, never was expectation conceded. Hope of a re-emergence, of a rebirth – of a competitive return to former glories – never once deserted these lands.
Though the eyes of an ever-optimistic child, in all honesty, of course this was interpreted – jokingly, I must add – as a personal curse. The corresponding reality was in fact that neither side had truly recovered from administration, and insolvency scares, in the few years prior. Neither, with all financial clarity, has even to this day, despite taking discernibly different paths towards recovery. Both are at least wary of the repercussions of overspending and overambition in the hangover from the departures of respected local industrialists, to their credit, but have not been impervious from the draw – inevitable, perhaps – of tangible promotion opportunity, and exceeds sustainable limits in temporary, and regrettable, exertions.
While eventually succumbing to what retrospectively appear long overdue relegations, reality may finally have bitten. Neither the Isthmian, or at that point for sponsorship purposes Ryman, Division One South for the Rooks nor the renamed Southern Combination Football League (previously Sussex Football League) Division One for the Blues were comfortable operative fields at first; posting uninspiring mid-table finishes in the hangover from prior malaise. After relegations amidst the upheaval of evidently unsuited manager Steve Brown’s sacking and inspirational replacement Darren Freeman’s incomplete rebuild, and former Lewes backroom member Jason Hopkinson’s rat-jumped-ship scenario at the Caburn that resulted in the Sunday league players of AFC Ringmer recruited in a manful but unsuccessful diversionary attempt, foundations were to be laid at this stage. Though not concurrent – Lewes’ demise arriving a season later than their neighbours’, in 2015-16 – there was no doubt that the need for stability at both was essential.
Admittedly for differing reasons, focus was first placed on youth. At the Dripping Pan, Freeman promoted the veterans – effectively – of the relegation campaign and the graduates of a successful under-21 programme as the eternal supplement to his more experienced recruits. Like seen at few other clubs at the Isthmian – now Bostik – level, Ronnie Conlon and the formerly Leicester City-linked Charlie Coppola particularly represent a significant onus on internal production and bridge the lack of faith others would indeed have in such a framework. Nonetheless, the astute recruitment of youth coaches and investment in a 3G training/playing surface has bore fruit for a directorship unrivalled in its vision and sensibility. Though running into slight fiscal debt with this approach – with the aid of a few favoured and unnamed patrons rid of such burdens – the benefits are now indisputable.
In contrast, Ringmer ensued as a scene of youthful convenience, rather than palpable faith and investment. Few other realistic options remain for an unpaid squad than to revert to local amenities, whether competitive or otherwise, and almost every side competing at this level has experienced as such in recent years, unless blessed with outstanding loyalty of enduringly trigger-happy ownership. Granted, the administrative gulf is vast between the clubs – on paper just seven miles and two divisions apart – but what emerged for the Blues was a despondent season and, almost, half, under well-travelled, but increasingly obdurate, elder statesman Sammy Donnelly; culminating in a firing, with regret, when slumping to a status as sure-fire relegation candidates just two months into the 2016-17 season. Though underequipped when manning the plough that would drive a squad of prior mediocre reserves and under-21s forward, no obvious signs of development, and Ash Bailey arrived in his place.
As serialised this time last year – see http://www.talkingpointsfootball.co.uk/home/non-league-reporting-a-season-in-the-life - with the former Lancing centre-back and manager came a seemingly never-ending trawl of Sussex’s county league journeymen – young and old, in all positions. The regime change was not smooth, as with Freeman at Lewes, but for its formative rebuttals was it made all the more rewarding when it arrived at its realisation of relative stability.
Once this groundwork was established – tactics set upon, rosters consolidated, optimism restored – performances, although not always naturally at these laborious tiers, followed. This term, historic achievements have been hoisted to the mast of each; the Rooks assuring promotion with three matches remaining, and in a perpetual tussle with Carshalton, opponents of a fine pedigree in recent times, only missing out of the title, and their entire history’s first ever 100-point seasonal haul, in their final outing, while Ringmer, in placing 4th, accomplishing their loftiest league finish since 2005-06, joint-third highest number of league victories since 1965-66 (when two points were still awarded for a win) and their highest ever number of points amassed in a 34-game season. Though admittedly more liberal, Bailey has also taken to rewarding youth with a smattering of substitute, and in the fairy-tale case of striker Sam Wilkinson’s goal-capped full debut starting, appearances, with bountiful recompense. The only question that remains is of how these seasons can be reinforced.
Meanwhile, the often-relinquished post-season ponderings of the fair-weather fan remain. In either side’s success, it was no poetic coincidence that these factors aligned – no, not at this level. Epitomised by unrelenting graft, dedication and creativity, directorship, management and playing staff have come to a cohesive demonstration of ambition and near-unparalleled recent unity. As internal hierarchies are far removed at all non-league institutions, and increasingly so beyond the realms of relevance as the pyramid splays, this realm of shared vision, and clarity of said vision, proves pivotal.
All the same, there are so often the peculiar swings and roundabouts that emerge throughout these stretches. As fortune may appear depleted in one season, so it seems to favour those in possession of form the next; on innumerable occasions this term, when previously upended by the fall of the dice, chances have been skewed by opposition strikers, officiating vision has seen their favour and even the conditions have fallen to aid form. yet not so peculiar at all…
Re-emerging from their temporarily-beset positions in the doldrums of provincial football – their lowest modern ebbs, while also disappointing in various cup commitments – they resume their rightful places. Yet complacency should not pervade their state; as evident in previous seasons’ unenviably rambunctious form of turmoil, one can never consider their right to success as that of perceivably smaller opponents. Both have witnessed far too much achievement on behalf of minnows championed by regionally influential, yet ethically conspicuous, bankrollers to ever consider otherwise; following the heights of Greenwich Borough and Saltdean United, repeated this term through Little Common and Langney Wanderers, who both earn promotion while tenants at the grounds of loftier Eastbourne neighbours United and Borough. Strictly, in fact, a Bexhill side by trade, Common have abandoned the forest principle of all sport, but more specifically non-league ranks, by deferring from their council-owned home and fanbase to a soulless Oval ground; although this personifying impression may solely be the resent of mind-numbingly sub-zero temperatures endured at the brunt of the Eastbourne coastline in tin pot cup competitions. So much for the sunshine coast.
The fundamental moral of these tales could be argued to profess the values of preparation, even in the direst of competitive situations. As each club’s loyal servicemen will be able to note, the torrent does not necessarily repent when dropping down a tier – while you have been toiling dejectedly in the financial lands of relative plenty, those below have been revising their designs and prizing vaulted heads.
Relapse is no bad thing in the long run, however. A season, or indeed two, of gradual adaptation and reinvention has been welcome in these parts, and quality has returned as a result. Nothing, however, is entirely natural down here and cannot be done without relevant finance – full, and ideologically perennial, amateurs Corinthian-Casuals, play-off finishers and eminent Rooks rivals in the current Bostik South iteration, aside. Even the Casuals, in their precedent, are vulnerable in the event of even the most minor of exoduses, proving just how fickle apparent triumph can be outside of professionalised, and largely secure, ranks.
Regardless, it speaks volumes for the afore-lacking attributes of discipline, organisation and application that these seasons have ended so approvingly. Such are the selfless provisions of Freeman and Bailey, local lads done good, that they have altered the destinies of their respective employers. Perhaps not irreversibly, given the tumult of the environment, but each has imparted invaluable experiences that give credence to ever-progressing demands. In the realisation of their vision, they have forged squads that perfectly emulate their ideals with vivacious, high-risk and offensive-minded philosophies – the contrast with their predecessors is thus indelible. Having shirked the ideological void that preceded them, plans have been enacted astutely and results reaped, but equally they both lay on the verge of truly outstanding accomplishment. Few can reliably predict forthcoming events, however, such is the opportunity and romanticism of these tiers.
Elsewhere, this term has featured fortunes and headways also. The utmost and perpetual bane of non-league livelihoods is, of course, the weather. Until late, we had been almost blessed with repent from above, and largely kept to schedules throughout the campaign – Ringmer’s four-week league hiatus, enforced by snow, rain and at best peculiar league-administered scheduling, the only notable exemption. Nonetheless, and as evident in the late season hangover of Billingshurst – an interesting proposition themselves, having only been promoted to the SCFL Division One while effectively sponsored by league authorities, offered a season to bely the usual requirement form floodlights and a 100-seat stand to operate at step nine before erecting such vital infrastructure – this is not the norm; the West Sussex outfit reliant on a week’s extension in which to complete a final three fixtures, losing 5-1, 5-1 again and 8-0 in rearranged excursions.
Quite simply, if the current system of effective administrative abandonment (other than, evidently, individual cases of convenience such as Billingshurst’s), facilities, nor capabilities to repel such inclemencies, cannot improve, let alone be expected to by desensitised authorities. If their model relies on individual entrepreneurship, then let us tell them that is entirely in opposition to everything non-league football stands for – Lewes the prime example. It would be churlish of those involved in the apparent Shahid Khan affair – sickly, and as David Conn of the Guardian reasoned, completely a sign of the times in recent British society – to suggest that such funds would go any way to resolving such issues, and especially away from the metropoles they so evidently favour; THE #PARKLIFE VISION et al. (as referenced last August here http://www.talkingpointsfootball.co.uk/home/the-story-of-englands-forgotten-regional-fas). While initiating these severed social ties to their rural outposts, where dedication is valued most and hardships are felt most severely, with callous acts of unaccountable ignorance, what have they proven themselves other than cowards? Their reality is incredulously, and impassably, distorted. Moral corruption and the abandonment of a legacy is encapsulated at its finest. Their stance is delusional at best – aside from their city-first technocrat culture, let’s consider Khan’s proposal.
Evidently, the Pakistan-born American billionaire – as owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and gentrified West London’s own Fulham, potentially set for a Premier League return this summer – is not a patron paying up to £1 billion for pre-existing circumstances to remain; the Jaguars still in Florida, the England men’s national football team to play all but a few home matches at Wembley and all FA competition finals to be held at the 90,000-capacity amphitheatre. He is an ambitious entrepreneur, no doubting that, and when appearing to court the BBC, who by all accounts of Richard Conway’s reporting seem delirious to any adverse impacts, his approach is admirable, but the ethical ambiguity is deafening – nothing in this smacks of anything other than chairman Greg Clarke’s morally-compromising attempts to modernise on a mass privatising and pro-Qatari manifesto. From all that has emerged thus far, it would appear Clarke’s inner circle – each the remnant of countless societally manipulative corporate pursuits – imagine Khan impressionable, or at least flexible, in such demands. Good luck with that…
Eliminating rearrangements is not the be-all and end-all of non-league football, regardless of what Clarke’s statisticians inform him. Throughout campaigns that in some mires seem endless, but at their culmination are held only too briefly in the memory, we – the perpetual attendees, the rallying cry, the home beacon – have endured nigh-on frozen digits, soaked overalls and all the same, in some few glimpses, glorious yet (only to undermine such sentiment) oppressive heat. Across welcome new grounds, visiting returning and unprecedented opponents alike, and on the longest of nights interspersing carefree summer afternoons, the Blues most memorably in an ambition-affirming Selsey victory, wholly unpredictable midwinter dispatch at runaway leaders Little Common and calamitous but inconsequential late season 5-4 defeat at Midhurst & Easebourne, while the Rooks in particular in Guernsey and Corinthians excursions and when hosting Walton Casuals, both have exerted incomparable toil. And all for this.
There is an undoubted, and at this stage wholly preconditioned, reticence to entertain any concept of institutional aid, let alone accept its status when apparent offered, and this deep-set complex has forged an impasse. To upset this would evidently prove somewhat of a radical move, yet even if it is deemed to present bountiful opportunity for the masses, there will still remain a powerful minority whose eternal pain is stoked. Even those who apply most to the apparent FA-prescribed success model bear great grudges against regional and national technocrats, let alone those who fortunes have forgotten, and the reverential establishment opponents.
Ponderings, meanwhile, may revert to a pivotal, yet scarcely debated, definition. How can we have faith in an establishment, if we are not even to be made aware of how they interpret the very existence of grassroots football, or the role it assumes in all corporate practicality. Is it a simple phrasing of a much vaster issue, a hollow promise or a deliberately evasive definition centred on the romanticism they imagine so rife? Condescending it may be to some, and to others indecipherable. To those in power, an exasperated individual is left to denounce, it serves as an idealistic theme that they are yet to harness, and have severely mistreated in the modern, particularly post-Premier League inception, era. Once having control of the nation’s elite tier ripped away from their grasp, the FA could easily have opted to promote amateur and semi-professional ranks, not only to weaken the commercial product that was emerging beside them, but to demonstrate their commitment to the nation’s chief sporting exploit. Instead they were treated with increasing contempt as control was negligible and attempts continually disregarded by those down the pyramid. Even today, at what may be deemed a turning point, they possess full knowledge of how much £500 million can afford you at this level – particularly in this nation, while yet to fulfil half of their £200M Parklife scheme across an apparent 30 cities by 2020 – yet use it as a white elephant to sway the partisan flanks of perpetually cynical fans. An all-encompassing remedy this deal would not be, and they are fully aware.
Do we opt, in response to a deal that has failed to consult the impacted parties, to bear our moral endeavours? We certainly don’t expect institutional sympathy if so, but considering the cynicism of many involved – reciprocated by those in FA HQ, itself threatened by ongoing proceedings while based at Wembley – the divide has been allowed to gape far wider than ever earlier imagined. How they can imagine repairing such rifts with morally ambiguous investment – itself entirely unsighted and doubtless evasive to the causes that realistically need it most – is unclear, and only epitomises this festering institutional distrust. How Clarke’s hierarchy can proclaim democracy when in reality their only apparent consultation has been through meekly asking FA Council members to ‘take the opportunity to canvass the views of your members… with as broad a view across the game as possible’ in a leaked letter is only further concerning.
Perhaps my perspective is a great contradiction. What I have learned from this season, when all is said and done, is philosophically crude, but heartfelt at that; that pain runs much deeper than victory, and that eternal optimism, while never entirely possible, is a powerful force when applied so liberally.
To be there as the ever-inharmonious chants rang out across the Dripping Pan to greet promotion (secured almost three weeks prior) with an ill-befitting but predictable 0-0 stalemate, the general apathy of support – typifying uptight old Sussex – was washed away, but not the sense that this result was an expectation, not a grand accomplishment. At the Caburn only a week prior, an equally pivotal – but far from title-deciding – meeting ended in a Ringmer victory over dutifully ravenous rivals Bexhill United and delivered fourth place (the first position outside of the promotion places, if of a true half-glass-full persuasion) for the hosts but deprived the visitors of a 2018-19 FA Cup qualification berth. Observed with jest and respect, yet tinged with uncertainty for both, again it proved an ever-dependable and fixed closure – albeit greeted by the permanent presence of sunshine, unlike their counterpart’s overcast experience.
Discovered to my own recompense this season, there is a delicate balance that some herein prefer to maintain. At the very least, let’s say some parties didn’t favour the cut of my jib. incites passion. My consideration of a visible display of passion as pivotal to a sporting stage so often regarded by the establishment for its trawl for atmosphere, and scarcity of following, does not necessarily align as finely as it perhaps would in professionalised ranks. Equally, as an expression, it demonstrates communities do not have to be fractured from their sides just because local reporting is an increasingly unprofitable entity, with quality and exposure waning. Naturally, nothing should be, or is, taken too seriously down here. Certainties are far from what they suggest down here. The metaphorical tightrope of our future binds us all together down here. Down here, it is an imperfect maelstrom. Down here we are defiant. Down here, nobody’s agenda rules.
The cornerstone – if not by talent then surely politically – of Yugoslav eminence, ancient, ever-evolving Belgrade and its sprawling outposts’ competitive relapse from Communist rule has long cast a shadow over Serbian culture. While Croatia have assumed the pedestal of pacesetters in the post-Soviet Eastern European bloc, semi-Alpine Slovenia and chiefly formerly war-torn Bosnia & Herzegovina have long since featured in their independent guises at the World Cup and minute, independence-delayed Montenegro’s contingent of undoubtedly talented individuals lag only slightly further behind on such fronts, their dominance in the Tito era has elapsed at an alarming rate.
They are, to their credit, consistent qualifiers. Again, this summer, they return to dispatch national delegates to the globe’s most prestigious tournament; harbouring unprecedented ambitions, I would also wager. Yet theirs has not been a recent history without its veritable perils – not until their final qualifying match, as the unlikely figure of Swiss-born striker Aleksandar Prijović slid in for a 74th minute far-post winner against Georgia, could they truly breathe freely.
Such is the expectation on the state’s footballers that at times it can become too heavy a burden to bear. Fraught with accusations of ill-performance, Nemanja Vidić cut short his service at the age of 30, while under previous manager Siniša Mihajlović’s tenure, Nemanja Matić temporarily excused himself from the squad in 2012 due to the perpetual Serie A helmsman’s impassionate selection policy and Adem Ljajić was not considered for selection after refusing to sing the national anthem in a religious stand. Meanwhile, Bosnian-born Neven Subotić – repeatedly reasoned as due to coincidentally recurrent injuries – has been ostracised from the Orlovi’s (Eagles) frame for five years and stalled on 36 caps since his efforts in a futile qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, only months after becoming only the third fully independent Serb to appear in the Champions League final, following Dejan Stanković and Vidić. As evident, politics play an instrumental role in the ongoing struggles of a fractured region.
The nation’s cause has also undoubtedly fell victim to the risk associated with the reliance on continental markets imposed by economic imposition; grand hopes once pinned on Miloš Krasić, Gojko Kačar and Zdravko Kuzmanović, though particularly at the stage of their respective employment at Juventus, Hamburg and Inter Milan burning brightly, ultimately fizzled out, leaving an impoverished, but more noticeably inconsistent, Orlovi midfield in their wake. Their fall from favour at club level, mirrored to this very day by the form of perennial loanees Lazar Marković and Filip Đuričić, the freefalling Miralem Sulejmani and perhaps even long-term servant, but gradually declining creative force, Zoran Tošić that surely places each out of contention for a World Cup squad number, is an unfortunate but inevitable factor of Serbian football until internal markets are indeed bolstered.
Red Star (Crvena Zvezda) and Partizan rule the Balkan, make no mistake. Yet even in an era when the potential profitability of investment in a lesser outfit is seemingly palpable, and investment in academies surely the route forwards, the endless Beograd-based governance that pervades the sport upholds the proficiency of the Eternal Derby rivals’ shared approach. Last summer’s dual transfer of Red Star’s teenage Ilić brothers – 18-year-old Luka and Ivan, 22 months his junior – to Manchester City alone demonstrates the authority they have reinforced throughout three relatively uninterrupted decades of all-conquering accomplishment, with international trade routes gained and reputations asserted.
For so long the ideological opponent to the capital’s twins, Vojvodina – espousing the mountainous northern Autonomous Province’s ethnically diverse and age-old patriotism, and with it over 25% of Serbia’s demographic mass as their support – have this season been removed from their third-place mantle. In their place, the divisive Čukarički entity – based out of another of Belgrade’s suburbs, but posing a vastly different ilk of challenge to the establishment in their status as the nation’s first purely privately-owned club – have assumed responsibility as direct Red Star-Partizan foil. Construction and wholesale magnate Dragan Obradović arrived at the close of the 2011-12 season, and while leading the club from the second division to continental qualification positions has rarely faltered in his promises to redress the balance of local sport. Čuka, appropriately nestled away on the underside of the city’s main trainline and divided by only a matter of miles across their modest, leafy surroundings to the imposing Partizan Stadium, and particularly cultish Marakana, in traditionally visceral and brutalist Belgrade, have applied a decidedly orthodox perspective in their rise to prominence. If an academy alumnus listing Aleksandar Kolarov and Miloš Ninković amongst its ranks was not sufficiently commendable for a side of such inferior infrastructure, then the investment that Obradović, under company ADOC, has provided – doubling the Čukarički Stadium’s capacity in the first season of his regime, providing vastly improved all-weather training facilities in direct proximity to the now-8,000-capacity ground and revamping the playing squad and staff to match his enterprising standards – has elevated the club to new heights. Three consecutive Europa League qualifications have followed their entrance to the SuperLiga, as have three consecutive exits at the second qualifying round. If they are to progress decisively, both domestically and continentally, they must surely rise to realistic competition with their near-neighbours.
The status of all pretenders to either Red Star or Partizan’s throne remains overwhelmingly tied to the adage of ‘best of the rest’ – held at a comfortable arm’s length by the establishment while they toil electing a lead amongst one another. Within this regularly ailing fleet, Radnički Niš represent the industrial semi-modernity of Serbia’s vastly historic third largest city and urban Belgrade’s Voždovac – playing at the ‘Stadion Shopping Centre’, an artificial surface laid over the top of district’s retail hub in a commendable niche – present the only significant consistency in the instability of gradually evolving Balkan economic circumstances. Until this particular situation resolves, potentially incited through the eventual inclusion of such nations into the European Union kin, it is unlikely that the Fudbalski savez Srbije (Football Association of Serbia, or FSS) will address their undermining competitive destitution directly. They certainly recognise the cult appeal of their Belgrade titans and evidently feel little need to tamper with the formality of their title achievement – the outfits do demonstrate conformity to Financial Fair Play with their sustainable business models and continue to promote matchday atmospheres that rank among the best, certainly when pitted against one other, in European and world football. They act by the book and encapsulate many cultural values professed by the Serb majority, so why hinder their continued success by redressing balances in a politically volatile move?
It may not be of great concern that these established orders rule the roost, nor that many promoted from the second division are soon again banished back. Ultimately, their domestic subservience to Western Europe must be halted, directly embroiling UEFA in such a scandal that does not merely align with socio-economic factors; it knowingly exploits the lesser outfits, from its falsely paternalistic guise to its failure to impose the extremities of any apparent FFP policy in elite divisions.
The nation’s pitfalls are somewhat redressed by the cultural factors adorning such historic environs. Multiculturalism, inherent of acting as the crossroads of all iterations of Yugoslav authority for almost a century, has often aided their cause and their reliance on international markets has enabled administrators gradually to recognise adaptability as an instrumental attribute to all of those effectively forced out of Red Star and Partizan by sheer prodigiousness.
Yet the rhetoric of a decade ago still remains. Their diaspora, while so encouragingly vast, renders continuity scarce when regarding the differing physical, let alone technical, demands of players in Serie A in contrast to the SuperLiga or the PL, or even in La Liga and the foremost Scandinavian divisions. Under the cut-and-thrust of the Premier League, for example, Luka Milivojević has performed as if preconditioned to the division while trusted with set-piece duties at Crystal Palace, making an assured return to the international fold, while Matić has yet again proved his class in different surroundings. Yet one would have to argue the diminutive Dušan Tadić has flattered to deceive in his time on the Solent, albeit in a Southampton squad highly restrictive on offensive flair under both Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino, and suggest Marko Grujic may suffer the same fate if failing to significantly impress Jürgen Klopp with recent development. In keeping with national tradition, many of the Orlovi’s prized assets today remain those acquitting themselves admirably in Italy’s loftiest reaches – Sergej Malinković-Savić, alongside occasional Lazio teammate Dušan Basta and Torino’s Adem Ljajić, revelling in their responsibilities on both stages. In their last squad alone, ten nations – as diverse as Israel, Greece and Belgium – and eleven divisions external to the SuperLiga featured. Earlier in the domestic season, they had profited from the continental exploits of Belarus’ BATE Borisov and Denmark’s FC København, yet the abandonment of such ambitions has itself been conspicuous in national selection.
Historically, this dishevelled squad culture has rarely benefited those abridged with it, yet few, at least on the international stage, have perfected the art with greater dexterity than the Balkans, and Croatia as a prime example. In 1998 the Croat squad was littered with employees of some of Europe’s club kingpins, but when harnessing the unrestrained grief and grand relief of an arduous and bloody independence campaign, self-belief, pride and unrivalled determination drove the squad through adversity and almost to semi-final victory over hosts France. Whether the Serbs are ever capable of demonstrating such qualities is itself a fascinating subject, as the dissolution of a chiefdom centred in Belgrade and heavily favouring corrupt city officials is one act from which they appear to have stalled as a state. The bloodshed at the hands of Serb military dictators is alone sufficient of an edict for the international community to be repulsed, yet these men, at least until recently, remained unimpeded, if not kindly favoured, in political culture.
The very status of this World Cup as only the second of a fully isolated Serbia alone elevates their appearance to that of a highly momentous occasion. The political implications surrounding 2006’s qualification – under the moniker Serbia and Montenegro, but in doing so effectively representing a state that had dissolved a week prior after Montenegro’s population opted to vote as a 55.5% majority for independence – were rife. Only one Montenegrin player entered the tournament as a representative, and as the starting goalkeeper in question Dragoslav Jevrić, while also qualifying as a Serb, only a month later retired from international football following his benching in the team’s first official match, events accelerated at an untraceable pace.
One cannot tread water in such political conundrums without making reference to ongoing Kosovan recoils. Though vehemently opposed by the Serbs, for whom over one ninth of disputed land mass would cease to be under their jurisdiction if independence was assured, only exacerbating nigh-on three decades of gradual patriotic dispersion, wider geopolitics appear to favour a peaceful resolution and Kosovo’s fully legislated autonomy. In time, we may begin to recognise a pivotal post-2008 declaration of independence act of cultural autonomy as evident in both FIFA and UEFA’s willingness to admit the Football Superleague of Kosovo into their official competition list and more immediately co-operate with the formal establishment of the Dardanët’s (Dardanians) international squad – albeit eventual, some long drawn-out eight years since the independence proclamation, which even today only roughly half of the world’s nations ratify –especially in view of the ever-mounting ambitions of a Kosovan roster professing both youth and unashamed invention. So much so, indeed, is their ambition that coach Albert Bunjaki, once rewarded for his ideological persistence – having been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment when refusing to join the 1991 Yugoslav armed government crackdowns as a 20-year-old FC Prishtina player, but returning from sixteen years of playing and management in Swedish exile to take the newly vacant position in Priština, the city of his birth – as a patient helmsman during an era of highly intermittent action from 2009 and the first to lead them into a qualification campaign, was swiftly deposed after procuring just a single point from ten matches in a highly competitive pre-2018 group. In his place, 66-year-old Swiss elder statesman Bernard Challandes, who balances his time with preoccupation as FC Basel first-team talent scout, has been installed to cultivate a new form of stability; sensing that Bunjaki, though mastering his art of the sport in the highly-respected Swedish coaching programmes, had reached the expiration of his philosophical use. For such a formative side, recruiting a former Swiss national under-17, U18 and U21 and Zürich manager, albeit one who has blotted his copybook while touring a who’s who of the Swiss Super League in the past decade with little length or success, surely serves as a major administrative coup.
At least in contrast with Serb policy, anyway. In light of the assurance of 2018 qualification, the much-travelled 64-year-old Slavoljub Muslin was deposed rather than credited, with hierarchical unrest at his defensive outlook – despite a back catalogue listing ‘two-time Red Star boss’, ‘perennial continental competitor’ and ‘Russian-speaking’ amongst its credits – forcing him out, and as opposed to a philosophically abrupt, Bert van Marwijk-to-Australia-style appointment, assistant manager and former international Mladen Krstajić taking the immeasurably pressurised reins. Without prior managing experience, the 44-year-old five-time SuperLiga victor with Partizan, as well as a Bundesliga-DFB Pokal double champion with Werder Bremen while reinforcing his position amongst a Serb-Montenegrin ‘Famous Four’ backline in the mid-2000s, is tasked with the handling of an entire new era of Serbian football.
At the very least surely culminating glovesman Vladimir Stojković’s international career in the third World Cup of an as-yet 79-time-capped tenure, with Branislav Ivanović and Kolarov drawing to eventual closures and Matić, if opting to pursue his Orlovi ambitions, being promoted to the captaincy for a potent sight of their first European Championships qualification since Euro 2000’s Serb-Montenegrin iteration, this summer represents the requirement for rebirth. The achievements of the 2015 Under-20 World Cup winning squad must be translated into coherent and heartening performances in a senior tournament situation, and the sport’s most prestigious stage at that – Malinković-Savić, prolific winger Andrija Živković and midfield catalyst Nemanja Maksimović, elevated to near-elite environs at Lazio, Benfica and Valencia the most evident exponents of this legacy, while Maccabi Tel Aviv goalkeeper Predrag Rajković will pin hopes on emerging through the Stojković-embossed glass ceiling and Tottenham-turned-Werder Bremen centre back Miloš Veljković wishes to consolidate admirable club form with senior international selection.
These are, however, incomplete entities misplaced in the midst of an immobilising national identity crisis. While giving due diligence and respect to their elders, these heroes – having defeated a Brazil side featuring Gabriel Jesus, Malcom and Andreas Pereira in New Zealand – must recognise how their competitive results must irreversibly alter from such forefathers, equally dependent on each individual’s mental fortitude as physical dexterity, and first evident this summer.
Culturally, this promises to be an iconic summit. As far as they would perhaps prefer to refute, the similarities between the Serbs and their Russian hosts are irrevocable. As one centre of a multi-nation union attempted to doggedly persist with Communism and central power, as did the other; their ancient histories, in many cultural realms, also undoubtedly align. If even required, the tournament thus assumes even greater national poignance. The modern ties are also countless and promise a relatively harmonious atmosphere between the two sets of fans – one of the few pairs of cultural, and perhaps even political, kindred spirits evident at the event, regardless of host city – in a momentous few weeks for either nation.
Returning to the site of dissolution mourners, albeit a society that has profited immensely under Vladimir Putin’s all-observant and shapeshifting premiership and has successfully shirked most post-Soviet malaise, may prove instrumental in long-overdue Serb healing. The sheer sight of their pragmatic, but often uncomfortable bedfellows’ land may raise some unwelcome questions of the advancement of society since the days of fierce Tito obstinance, but Russia – specifically the Volga-bound Samara, geopolitically ambiguous Kaliningrad and capital Moscow – also acts as a platform on which to display liberties since gained, and those which are now helping to forge some semblance of an emergent youth culture independent from the despondence of old. Many of those packing for such excursions – players and fans alike – will indeed have only been mere children in the midst of post-Yugoslav conflict’s clutches and encountered Montenegrin and Kosovan independence during raw history lessons in school. Theirs will be the tales poured out this summer, but equally it is their responsibility to restrain their emotion from encroaching on professional performances against – at the very least – group stage opponents Costa Rica, Switzerland and Brazil.
Comparatively – even in the ever-tumultuous Brazilian administration’s case – politically placid, these three diverse states present a stern task of absolute tactical stringency, omnipotent flair and competitive nous, and would require the mounting of great nerve and managerial cohesion to overcome.
In their midst, one would imagine Serbia’s chief reliance to be placed on a triumvirate of Malinković-Savić, Matić and Aleksandar Mitrović – their three most relevant names at present, even if the former has just two prior caps to his name. The sheer physical brutishness, aerial proficiency and close-range opportunism of the latter will force a direct approach in the final third, certainly, but midfield is undoubtedly the key asset of the squad. In Živković – though referred to as the ‘Serbian Messi’, more reminiscent for me of Xherdan Shaqiri, defying a lesser stature with perhaps even greater raw pace – they possess a multifaceted supply line, while Filip Kostić provides a diligent and occasionally explosive (though recently out-of-form, in a relegation-battling Hamburg side) outlet on either flank. The inevitable question, considering the critical lack of striking depth behind the still 23-year-old Mitrović, remains of how to compose the correct balance of midfield qualities in a starting XI worthy of challenging surely Central and South America’s pre-eminent sides and one of Europe’s outstanding success stories. Especially poignant given the popularity of the 4-3-3 and three-man defensive line-up amongst favourites for the prize, their preoccupation with the 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1, though potentially segueing into a 4-3-3 (and trained in an ill-disciplined 3-4-3 under Muslin) when such requirements arise, rely heavily on rigidity, characterised by lynchpins Matić and Milivojević, as opposed to the flexibility opponents such as indeed Brazil will aim to pose. Tite’s side, after all, are perhaps the closest of any – bar perhaps Germany or at a stretch Spain – to being near-faultlessly equipped to enact their tactical plans; perhaps an experienced striker and serious squad depth away, while Joachim Löw’s ever-pensive outfit may lack full-back and, as ever, striking nous and Julen Lopetegui looks to combat ageing or misfiring forward options and a lack of midfield tenacity. Serbia’s rife issues render these concerns mere petty squabbles, not the tactical ponderings that will crown the victors of an era.
The FSS hierarchy’s role in recent turbulence is not one to be discounted, nonetheless. In place since the nation’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016, President Slaviša Kokeza has shed few of the unfavourable characteristics associated with the role from the tenures of predecessors Zvezdan Terzić and Tomislav Karadžić. Club bias, vast legal violation and general contempt for all parishioners of the administration have each defined leadership from Terzić’s arrest and abdication in 2008 after being found guilty of embezzlement while retaining conspicuous ties with former club OFK Beograd to Karadžić’s criminal record listing a major assault in 1961 for which he only served six months imprisonment and unashamed Partizan loyalties, and now amidst disputes over Kokeza’s handling of the Muslin sacking so close to the World Cup. He, representative of the establishment’s history, is also extremely wary of Red Star privatisation in the footsteps of near neighbours Čukarički, and as such is embroiled in an unfortunate war of words – though a fine custom in the region – with Terzić, who after handing himself into authorities in 2010 and a year later paying his €1 million bail fee, now as Crvena Zvezda general threatens such manipulation with the same self-governing streak that has marked him as a villain to many.
The implications of any perceived split could be rife; Red Star could prevent players from international selection, and thus their chances of securing an overseas venture. The legality of this would be highly tenuous, and far more extensive that the Bosman ruling of yesteryear, yet while the Orlovi feature no SuperLiga-leading Zvezda players during this current impasse (defender Vujadin Savić succumbing to injury before what may have been a debut in March, however), it seems if a new direction is to be taken in the Serbian footballing landscape, great compromise is required. It is not achieved without trust, however, and at present this is in desperately short supply. Inevitably politics will disrupt cohesive administration, but it does not require perpetual conflict to progress – the forthcoming generation of Serbs knowing this all too well, you’d imagine.
Absolutely evident from such cases, Kokeza’s is not a task to be completed with any ease or cringe-inducing English PR attempts – he, if truly willing to sacrifice pride for his nation’s triumph, must be prepared to take criticism on the nose if competitive fates are to improve. What he must aid is the disruption of cultural complacency.
The once locally hegemonic mentality, which later became a centre of aspiration, of the state lay in tatters and sheer footballing passion bereft of reward through a shared disconsolation. On domestic, continental, international and administrative fronts, the nation has become inferior at least to Croatia, and in some specific credentials to lesser post-Yugoslav republics to their own great embarrassment. To banish this grand self-pity, the national psyche must be reinstated, thus stemming directly through the Orlovi’s senior performances, not least on the World Cup stage.
If not achieving this summer, then the opportunity next presents itself, poetically, rather soon; they will surely have to emerge from their formative Nations League group– consisting entirely of post-Communist allies in Lithuania, Romania and comrades Montenegro, though seeded below the Tricolorii – in order to regain serious international credentials. Regardless of events in Russia, it will prove an era-defining competition, and the beginning of a potential dynasty. They certainly possess the requisite attributes – whether they can each be harnessed cohesively depends entirely on a tendency for self-evaluation, as opposed to blind narcissism. To salvage a true hotbed of the sport, they do not have to redraw the handguide. Accepting compromise, however, is fundamental, and adapting to an ever-changing age inevitable. Support, as ever, has held the key to this realisation – trust the nation’s youth, those of a liberated age, to forge an independent history. In many respects, this summer’s tournament may be the end of an era, and the catalyst to start anew. It could, alternatively, prove the first step of this fresh future. Whichever destiny arises, it is in fair Serbia’s hands. Daunting as it may seem, rarely has this proclamation had quite the same tone.
Preceded by a decade of near-impervious Spanish superiority, few could have conceived this term in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League revelling in such serene, and eminently commercially-courteous, unpredictability. Not least as Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain stormed to domestic eminence at such a formative stage of proceedings, anyway. Yet this is just the first factor in contribution to a season – as yet incomplete – of spoils, spurns and endless upset.
The accusation often lodged at the European administration’s form of competitive distribution, through their premier tournaments, states the favour seated in Western Europe’s economic powerhouses. Increasingly – as evident in the similarly American-funded Liverpool and Roma – these institutions may be bankrolled from elsewhere, yet since a late 2000s post-Soviet flurry (CSKA Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk) in the Europa League, and the interspersing, recently diminishing, Dutch-Portuguese forays, the continent defined by its omnipotent cultural gentrification has, without failure, apportioned its loftiest titles to those personifying these utopian ideals. As politically evident, though, this establishment is as equally prone to grand and irreversibly consequential complacency as it is loyal to a path of perpetual self-improvement. Only on momentous evenings at Anfield, the Stadio Olimpico, the Red Bull Arena and arguably the Stade Vélodrome did we not expect this to rear in the form of momentous tactical exploitation, however.
Nostalgia, inherently given the thread of logic-affirming results we have been subject to in the two tournaments in the past decade, bears a significant semblance over events; the tendency to depict possibilities as equal to the talent of Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade sides venerated with titles in the late 1980s to early 1990s and the historically implicating dissolution of Eastern European authority and, eventually, Communism itself, readily apparent. Intertwining political and social sentiments of the age present events with all-encompassing poetry, and while a kernel of truth exists within this comparison today, with the fracturing of European Union über-democracy, we must not be entirely constrained by such intensive rhetoric.
Even at this late stage, the permutations involved are rife and almost unprecedented. Only two prior European Cup finals have been played between any of the remaining Spanish, German, English and Italians representatives, with the Liverpudlian dynasty defeating both Real Madrid and Roma by narrow early-1980s margins; in 1981 an Alan Kennedy strike separating the Reds from Los Blancos, while the left-back also sealed a victory for the reinvented Merseysiders on penalties (more famed for the appearance of Bruce Grobbelaar’s ‘spaghetti legs’) in the Italian capital three years later. Furthermore, while each appearing in a prior UEFA Cup final – Red Bull Salzburg in their pre-franchised Casino Salzburg iteration – only one of the remaining Europa League contestants has ever held aloft the splendid trophy of the continent’s second competition; Atlético Madrid in 2010 and 2012, against a spirited Fulham and outstanding Athletic Bilbao. Alongside Madrid’s two titles on the lesser stage, and recent finals appearances against inner-city rivals Real, in addition to Liverpool’s record count for all English teams, also stands Bayern Munich’s revered relationship with the competition (five wins from ten finals appearances) and Real Madrid’s unrivalled, imperious and otherwise superlative-defying mastery; La Duodécima, from 15 features over an era potentially now to be extended to 62 years, enshrined in footballing heraldry.
In previous runouts, however, the remaining, otherwise unmentioned, outfits – Roma, RB Salzburg, Arsenal and Marseille, when referring to both competitions this term – were consistently the historically inferior. Though boasting eminent chronicles of their own, including pivotal roles in tactical and administrative developments on their respective domestic stages for almost the entirety of the 20th century, before stretching even into the 21st, their talents have found scant prevail on the continental stage – an unsustainably funded Olympique in 1993 aside. Their shared return to prominence, with performances that excel each – purely based on stage reached, as opposed to the context of such a run – since 1984, 1994, 2008 and 1993 respectively, give rise, potentially, to a reminiscent force amongst all ambitiously-managed and administrated sleeping giants of the European game.
Nonetheless, results may have been entirely eschewed were slight fortune to be directed elsewhere. We will never know what may have happened had Leroy Sané’s perfectly legal late first-half goal stood against Liverpool at the Etihad, and nor will we dare to extend fascinations on Michael Oliver’s ruling of a divisive last-minute penalty decision in Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo’s favour against an enraged Gianluigi Buffon and Juventus. Had either Lazio or RB Leipzig not overcooked in the heat of battle, or CSKA Moscow’s charge at the Luzhniki Stadium not halted as Arsenal ramparts were erected, very difficult discussions could be had. Amongst this rhetoric, it is imperative to not how, while tactical innovation has emerged as few other seasons have seen, the chief radical practitioners (or at least the media’s sweethearts) – Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s RB Leipzig and Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli – have not graduated with the glory they may feel their squads deserve, while Real and Liverpool, and to some extent Bayern and Roma, have remained relatively steadfast within successful approaches, while aided by pivotal personnel recruitment; Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk and Cengiz Ünder the most blatant of such dealings.
Unlikely saviours and inspirations have also emerged along the route. Sven Ulreich, now set to crown a potentially treble-winning season, could scarcely have considered playing much competitive football, let alone in the Champions League knockout stages, when Manuel Neuer was still at full fitness, while Patrik Schick’s meagre domestic returns would have put him in few fans’ line-ups in a do-or-die return leg against Barcelona, but the on-loan Czech forward played an instrumental role, and when called upon, the much-derided Dejan Lovren certainly delivered in an Etihad situation that threatened to descend into disaster. Each has profited from management that professes each of the everlasting values of competitive sport; Jupp Heynckes, the revelation Eusebio di Francesco and Jürgen Klopp each perfecting the art of man-management, particularly while refusing to resort to compromise on other competitive fronts. As Lovren and Klopp alike so eloquently outlined, and fed pundits with the cheap line in subsequent coverage, after their 5-1 aggregate triumph, the roll of the draw was fundamental to any aspirations the constituent clubs possess, and as Nyon’s dignitaries gathered on Friday in a procedure so short as to seem held more so in ill-feeling than devotion, the chips fell into irrevocable place.
It would have been a shock to very few had Real-Bayern, and less so Atlético-Arsenal, final clashes unfolded – if drawn in separate semis – given their long-term managerial and playing pedigree in the competition. Abundantly clear, as in repeated editions, has been the importance of a distinguishable nous on the biggest club stage known to European players; immediately evident to Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, who remained tinged with home-grown youth, and to a degree naivety, in exit to the La Vecchia Signora of Turin.
Instead, Liverpool and Marseille will enter as favourites in ties against Roma and Salzburg, with titans of the continental sport awaiting their passage, though perhaps weakened themselves from potentially bruising elite encounters. Regardless of their draw, Real and Atléti were always to be made favourites when regarding their recent proficiency, but the story will be very different this time around.
Regardless, whether this can be deemed a vintage term in either competition rests entirely on future results. Such is the absolute ruthlessness of elite-level knockout football – only exacerbated by modern instant-gratification standards – that, while satisfied in a commercial respect with the financial rewards and the immediate plaudits, few involved in any eliminated club, however overachieving it is deemed, will be consolable in the immediate fallout, nor perhaps even into their following entry. With three of the remaining eight competitors yet to lift a major continental title in their competitive histories – Arsenal’s 1994 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup title against a high-quality Parma outfit aside, in manager George Graham’s final honour with the North Londoners – the opportunity for a new history’s foundation is tangible. All enter into their respective semi-finals as unfancied, and noticeably defective, institutions, however.
Firstly, while Roma will enter as the people’s victors, their domestic inconsistency and a heavy burden on an ageing, incomplete squad are not remedied by clinical outmanoeuvring of a peculiarly languid Barça. Surely expecting this season as one of adaptation for newly-installed, and an astute stint of relative minnows Sassuolo apart largely unproven, former player Di Francesco – not least as pricey youngsters Rick Karsdorp and Ünder were thrust into an unknown division and nation, Sassuolo talisman Lorenzo Pellegrino and Lyon’s Maxime Gonalons arrived with heightened expectation and Aleksandar Kolarov’s recruitment was overshadowed by Salah’s departure on the same day – even the Italian capital side’s ambitious American ownership would have taken heart from positive performances against group opponents Chelsea, Atléti and distant Qarabağ, let alone emerging from the stacked quartet as victors. Throughout their run, and in opposition to domestic tradition, however, home comforts – only aided by the genial Di Francesco – have proven instrumental; a 2-1 victory in the Azeri “City of Winds” aside, failing to achieve victory on their travels across Europe in UEFA competition, while their only sacrifice at home was an opening stalemate with Diego Simeone’s stuttering Rojiblancos, when all but one of their defeats in Serie A have been suffered at the Olimpico – Juventus expectedly the victors at the Allianz Stadium. Nonetheless, the side they line up against, though prolific, ever-improving under Klopp’s stewardship and arguably the most shackle-free of any remaining outfit, are far from a complete squad themselves, with Naby Keïta – unfortunate not to succeed in the lesser competition this term, after red-hot form – and surely another defensive pillar required on their route to emphatic operation, having allowed little time to stop for air in the mass recruitment drive since the German manager’s arrival.
In contrast, Arsene Wenger’s campaign has been fraught with perils of a pre-emptive sacking. Seeing little of the desired distancing of worldwide 2016-17 season-long ‘Wenger Out’ calls with the much-exasperated signing of a two-year contract after FA Cup victory over Premier League victors Chelsea last summer, again the Frenchman will slip out of Champions League reckoning without success in this competition, rendering it as imperative to his security as the defeat of Peter Bosz’s Musical Youth – Ajax, with as equal a local notoriety for ‘passing the Dutchie’ as their melodic counterparts – was to José Mourinho a year ago. Drawing this resemblance, we begin to study how the Premier League’s barren dynasties are resorting to the tournament as a season-salvaging resort. Despite aforementioned Fulham revelations and Chelsea and Manchester United’s shared recent resourcefulness, it is largely left uncredited how – relatively – prolific the English have proven in recent Europa editions; if one were to favour any surviving outfit for the final, it may be advisable to resort to the Premier League’s representation this term. Then again, it is Arsenal.
While the Gunners may be afflicted by Wenger’s tactical inconsistency and a recurrent tendency – inherent of a lack of leadership, and a systematically stagnated domain – to be lulled into indecision, Salzburg are an outfit ever increasing in stock. The sister arm of locally-headquartered Red Bull’s expansion into Germany’s North-East, and under the ownership of the drinks franchise since 2005, their reputation is more common in operating under a transfer approach akin to many domestic champions in continentally oppressed nations; Sadio Mané, Naby Keïta, Kevin Kampl and Valon Berisha the most prominent successes of a buffet-like self-service of some of Europe’s most diverse young talent. Nonetheless, their subservience to the will of an ever-improving Leipzig apparatus has hindered their own aspirations; when gutted of their rising stars, impelled to reappoint and reconstruct, a task Southampton will be only too aware of the perils of in recent times as tempers fray. Regardless of their losses, it seems the buttressing of talent pools rarely deceives them, as the twelve seasons since their purchase have witnessed eight Bundesliga titles and a forgivable four runners-up finishes to the historic Wien dynasties Austria and Rapid, and also to the perpetually establishment-defying, and Red Bull-despising, Sturm Graz. Even in the face of questionable directorship has their prolific title spree been achieved; ten helmsmen assuming a responsibility in the vanguard of emphatic corporate ambitions, and only Giovanni Trapattoni, Huub Stevens, Roger Schmidt and Óscar García – one would hope soon to be followed by Marco Rose – securing longer than one season in the hot seat before performance-engrossed or externally-perked evacuation.
One would conceive Rose to be a strategic appointment solely in the interest of overseers Leipzig. He is, after all, a Leipzig native, and a former youth product, senior player and, for a short while, manager, of the city’s second largest club of a thriving scene –while encountering a post-reunification financial crisis known as VfB Leipzig, before reinstated by fans under previous moniker 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig. When headhunted by the various bilateral sporting directors of Red Bull, he spent time cultivating both Salzburg’s under-16, and with many of the same players under-18, squads before stepping into the recently malaise-ridden García’s shoes. Notably deprived of club record goalscorer and captain Jonathan Soriano after the Spaniard’s lucrative departure to the Chinese Super League and Beijing Guoan, Rose’s reign began with tumult, but has since reformed with near-impervious success; ousted by Croatians Rijeka in Champions League qualifying, their targets were set on Europa prowess and empowered by a first-place Group H finish ahead of Marseille, Konyaspor and Portugal’s Vitória. Once knocking out a recently resurgent Real Sociedad, and further so when adding an admittedly underwhelming Borussia Dortmund to their list of continent-wide scalps at the round-of-sixteen stage, UEFA’s remaining competitors would have been emphatically alerted of the Austrians’ proficiency. While all but confirmed of domestic honours, a 1-0 defeat to historic, yet Bundesliga-returning, LASK Linz sacrificed in preparation for a stunning four-goal overhaul of the deficit intensified upon them through Ciro Immobile’s 55th-minute strike at the Red Bull Arena would be fully rewarded; poetically advancing where ex-East German counterparts would falter when similarly thunderstruck by Rudi García’s free-flowing Frenchmen. Their appearance at this stage represents ambition, though perhaps artificially-cultivated, given full ratification, and to an extent, alongside semi-final opponents Olympique, investment – but pivotally investment with astute vision – rewarded with a tangible vision of glory.
It surely speaks volumes that another trio – the aforementioned Marseille, Liverpool and Roma – are each upheld by American finance, and not the funds of a politically ominous (arguable, given commander-in-chief Trump’s warmongering sentiments) or economically hyperactive states. The decisions to invest in such historically poignant clubs was not one taken lightly by Boston Celtics co-owner James Pallotta, the Boston Red Sox’s John W. Henry and Tom Werner or ex-L.A. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, in the ancient Italian capital, on the industrial Mersey or along France’s resplendent Riviera respectively, and the rewards for their bravery, and willingness to take heed of defeat, are evident for all. Though perhaps coincidental as each narrowly staggered through relentless ties to their semi-finals, it is nonetheless revealing that these are the only forces that challenge the partly fan-owned continental monarchies of Germany and Spain in the Champions League, and, in the fallout of the Europa League draw, who threaten to upend Salzburg’s divisive corporate appeal.
It goes without saying, regardless, that those who emerge from a titanic two ties in Munich and Madrid, and surely if Atléti can rid themselves of customary – relative – late-season capitulation, there is no denying the old guard of the honours they project such authority over. Nonetheless, their frailties – the most evident, and perhaps alarming, especially to the former duo, of Zidane, Heynckes and Simeone’s lauded reigns – must be laid bare if they are to be remedied, and unflinching expectations delivered upon. Though far from the outstanding iterations of Guardiola, Ernesto Valverde’s appointment – loaded, on the surface, with achievements fixated on the prefix -re, but in practice challenged more with innovation than atonement – proved sufficiently inspirational to exploit Madrilenian malaise, cited around tactical stagnation. Amidst Zidane’s dedication to a 4-4-2 that delivered all five pieces of the domestic, continental and global silverware jigsaw for Real, and Simeone’s reliance on many of the same figures that have delivered him prior success – evident in the re-recruitment in recent seasons of Fernando Torres and Diego Costa – innovators, led by Valverde but also featuring those such as Valencia’s Marcelino, Real Betis’ Quique Setién and Villareal’s Javier Calleja, though not blessed with exorbitant squad depth, have for some considerable length of the league season been enabled to profit. In many more respects, the course of La Liga 2017-18 never did run smooth; historic centrepieces Deportivo La Coruña and Málaga all but condemned to recently familiar relegation, while Girona – similar to the Andalusians in their part-Qatari ownership, while the most recent City Group acquisition – are in much closer proximity to Sevilla, in a post-Jorge Sampaoli slump, than anyone involved in the club could have perhaps dared to believe after they arrived as Segunda División champions, in just a few of the season’s intrigues.
Despite the lofty achievements of both Zidane and Simeone’s tactics – learned, the products of individuals who have encountered both the World Cup’s latter stages and the depths of domestic football – it is revealing that neither opted to enact overt shifts as Valverde assumed Luis Enrique’s Catalonian mantle, or even in response to Barça’s early prodigiousness. The temptation to rest on one's laurels, or deride them as doing so in relativity to the ever-evolving trends of the sport, is a much-debated virtue or hindrance amidst this. Their dogma, for Zidane in its first major test, was however largely persevered throughout, and in the late, but most pivotally-timed, unfolding of competitive involvements they will feel their decisions fully vindicated, with quality shining through.
It would surprise few this summer if Florentino Pérez reneged on the transfer policy that has defined much of former Castilla boss Zidane’s tenure, with the Frenchman’s youth-professing recruitment yet to bear fruit. These semi-finals may be pivotal in such a respect, with Roma’s goalkeeper Alisson Becker, set to relegate Ederson to Brazilian understudy at the World Cup, reportedly a summer target after Zidane himself hesitated on a January approach for Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, and of course David de Gea remains on the club’s radar. With James Rodriguez potentially sold for maximised profit with his value to Bayern only too evident in sealing the Bundesliga title by early April, Gareth Bale is returning to form, and Zidane will hope also fitness, at a pivotal stage, but Karim Benzema has experienced a barren term and may have his nine-year starting certainty ruefully relinquished if Pérez, more potently, has his interest perked by clinical continental striking, most notably from Serie A. Following his own meagre recruitment process in the past twelve months, Simeone will also require significant financial backing, albeit with few placed to condemn him it; Torres confirmed in his departure, while Antoine Griezmann’s past two seasons of endless rumour may finally be acted upon, so requiring offensive attention.
Then remains the anomaly that is Bayern. Their season, though culminating in a possible treble, began with ignominy and descended into sacking, albeit treatment Carlo Ancelotti was hardened to, given exits at Chelsea and Real soon after grand accomplishment. Niko Kovač recently announced as Heynckes’ permanent replacement, in what will surely be the club icon’s final of four managerial terms – over 30 years on from his first appointment – their platform could not be better positioned for the perfect bestowal. An outfit that have certainly evolved since their last final appearance – in 2013 – with a spine of stalwarts Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger and strikers Mario Mandžukić, Claudio Pizarro and Mario Gomez deserting Heynckes with ageing of their own, their qualities are multifaceted, and imperious on the domestic stage; albeit against competition dampened by a ransacked Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen’s inconsistency and Leipzig’s unprecedented multi-competition burden.
The impressively resilient Croatian Kovac, the first of his nationality to take control at the Allianz Arena – at least in its modern capacity, after the Zagreb-born duo of Zlatko Čajkovski and Branko Zebec led the club through the 1960s – and arguably with this appointment the most prestigious coach to emerge from Yugoslav dissolution, could scarcely be in greater opposition to Heynckes’ tactical solidarity. His Eintracht Frankfurt side, characterised by his own slick, confident appearance, have lit up an otherwise mediocre Bundesliga season with their high-risk chiefly 3-4-3/3-4-1-2 reliant philosophy, and trail only behind Heynckes’ revival of James Rodríguez at the creative heart of a dynamic and direct 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-1-4-1 Bayern for the major achievements of the division this term. Such is the depth of talent in Bavaria, Kovač would have ample ability to replicate his Frankfurt policies at the summit of German football but could also tinker with his predecessor’s approach along numerous other pathways.
Against a Real side that have exhibited defensive vulnerabilities at various stages of the season, with the naivety of Achraf Hakimi, Jesús Vallejo and Theo Hernández as understudies evident in disappointments in almost every competition entered, the omnipotence of Messrs Lewandowski, Robben, Ribery, Coman and Rodríguez – who under UEFA jurisdiction is perfectly obliged to turn out against Zidane, with whom his relationship is no small secret to be fraught, and Real despite only being on loan to Bayern for now – could prove overwhelming. Nonetheless, we have learned never to discount a Cristiano Ronaldo-fronted squad, and never to position them as underdogs; when under apparent pressure, the Portuguese forming the most astute of contingents in the global game alongside Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Bale, while Isco – the best we have ever seen him, in an ominous spectre for all of Spain’s upcoming World Cup opponents, also – will enact a tantalising rivalry with Arturo Vidal and Javi Martínez. The supporting cast present enough fascinating battles of their own, with the tactical flexibility of either side raising the prospect of a tie that will live long in the memory.
Even if Klopp and Di Francesco, in contrast, are unlikely to break ranks from tangibly dissenting – free-flowing in the former’s case, and more direct in the latter – 4-3-3 policies, and the clash of classically continental 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2/4-3-3 systems, within ambitious and confidently-planned Marseille and Salzburg institutions may go right down to the wire – in distinct opposition to their escapology acts against Leipzig and Lazio – the diverse range of tales encapsulated within these ties may be sufficient to satisfy the thirst of a decade’s staple of Spanish-Germanic, and occasionally Italian, arid dominance. No continental status quo has been upended, nor any kingpins culled in favour of emergent empires. Those who remain, as ever, are fully merited in their surviving ambitions, UEFA’s stock, in fact, will only rise with the expansion, or more correctly repopulation, of their relevance in five of seven distinct European metropoles, and the individual FAs whose representatives have profited – not least the English – will view events as intensely encouraging. It was only inevitable that, given the endless strive for evolution, the continent greeted new monikers, icons and brands onto its most prestigious stage, and if it is to remain at the forefront of the global club game, this instrumental factor must be heralded and further pursued. Various means are required to achieve such glory, and from unfolding silverware distribution much will be studied and many ideals redrawn – never to remain stagnant. UEFA, yet again presiding over events that, while assuring its subjects of inspiration through innovation intrinsic to each club, capture a continent, and indeed the world – yet again demonstrating how mastery and romance will always shine through.
Immediately reminiscent of 2014’s Brazilian melodrama, the 2016 European Championships saw Didier Deschamps’ France undoubtedly suffocated by their hosting duties – aside from romping to victory over the jubilant Icelanders and carrying momentum into a clinical ousting of Joachim Löw’s stuttering Germany, never able to truly shake the manacles of public expectation.
Not producing any particularly inspiring sides, the tournament will surely be remembered as a relative damp squib compared to its predecessors; albeit in the context of celebrating traditionally lesser nations and allowing them a stage on which to test, and encouragingly assert, their mettle. For Deschamps, defeat to often-turgid, yet undoubtedly hearty, Portugal on a momentous Paris evening could be conceived as the lesser of two evils, at least when now approaching their true ambition – this summer’s World Cup. Once downed by the cult status-defining strike of perennial substitute Eder, after all, there would be no deflecting of questions of ill-performance by an achievement-infatuated media. The only particular qualm since, ominously, has involved the hangover of such symptoms – held to a qualification stalemate by Luxembourg in Toulouse? Embarrassing, to say the least.
Seemingly unable to balance the embarrassment of riches at his disposal throughout a near-six-year reign, former World Cup-winning captain Deschamps certainly has a task to ensure Hugo Lloris replicates such feats in Russia. For only a naïve individual would it appear that significant deviation from these trends will occur and hand the generation of Griezmann, Mbappé, Dembélé, Varane, Pogba, Umtiti, Lemar and Kanté global glory ahead of the inspired – and shackle-free – Brazilians, self-reinventing Germans or resurgent Spanish, yet we must temper such exalting sentiment with the consideration that a glimmer of fortune may not be far from French grasps; lest we forget Thierry Henry downing Irish hearts, or recompense for Zinedine Zidane’s final act.
The practicalities of the argument are, nonetheless, regrettable for Noël Le Graët, if not a result of his own corporate styling of la Fédération Française de Football (the French Football Federation, or FFF). If the English administrative establishment was deemed outdated and unmoving, 76-year-old FFF President Le Graët – in place since 2011, following a prior six-year tenure as vice-president – has profited from the misfortune of predecessors like few others in such lofty positions, while surviving to this stage chiefly due to adept financial management. A domineering business figure in his native Côtes-d'Armor region – specifically Guingamp – he cultivated the nous for the role in a tenure as Ligue 1 President from 1991 to 2000, interspersing his loyalties to En Avant de Guingamp, where he indeed made his name as a callous administrator unafraid of regular managerial causalities. Despite his apparent high regard in the region – in all but the managerial demographic, of course – his enforced divorce from the Guingamp chairmanship from 1992 to 2002 was otherwise the club’s most profitable spell, and remains so to date; after he laid the foundations, beginning in the early 1970s, with a sustained spell in Division 2 and earned them professional status, the outfit evolving to again obtain promotion to the renamed second division in 1993-94 and in the three subsequent years win their first promotion to Ligue 1 and adorn such feats with joint-winning honours at their first ever continental competition in the 1996 Intertoto Cup (albeit against exclusively post-Communist opposition, Finnish outfit Jaro aside) and a runners-up result in the 1997 Coupe de France (in a vastly weakened field).
While Le Graët gained the occupancy of mayoral responsibilities, unsurprisingly, in Guingamp – representing the then-coalition-reliant Parti socialiste – during an era of constantly relocating honours, post-Marseille dominance, in his Ligue 1 administration, his political motivations would be made scarcely inconspicuous. Now an elderly, yet irresistible figure of absolute obduracy from his position to his fashion – continuing to tout the comb over, oversized glasses and slightly-dishevelled tie of decades previous on his maniacally diminutive frame – it would be churlish, not least as a figure representative solely of an ailing establishment, to expect his re-election if international honours were not restored to the nation of impervious 1998 World Cup-winning exploits.
Surprisingly subservient on the international stage in all examples other than their late ‘90s hosting, and the infamous events of Ronaldo-gate, the motherland of Michel Platini, Raymond Kopa, Jean Tigana, Marius Trésor, Just Fontaine and Jules Rimet had long fallen foul of Brazilian brilliance, Argentine artistry and more local tactical innovation before a star-studded line-up becalmed the nation pre-millennium. Since, a second European Championship title and consecutive Confederation Cups entered into the sparsely populated national trophy cabinet, yet disaster in their title defence in 2002; even with 1998 manager Aimé Jacquet installed as technical director, his earlier assistant Roger Lemerre buckling under the pressure of the role and Jacques Santini surprisingly resigning before former under-21 helmsman Raymond Domenech, while forging a squad entirely in his image with Jacquet’s departure and a record gained as managing the most matches of any such Blues employee, carried the squad through two radically contrasting World Cup campaigns; the latter arguably the nation’s lowest ever point, when they should have been buoyed by news only a fortnight earlier of their selection for hosting duties of the 2016 Euros. Throughout, an imposing generation of diverse talents – so happening to represent the diversity of the nation and its colonial past in North Africa, the Caribbean, South America, West Africa and beyond – experienced the social upheaval of vociferous racially-motivated criticism from Front national leader Jean Marie Le Pen and his supporters but were emphatic in their mental infallibility. Eventually, discord told against Domenech and his former youth players at both Euro 2008 and during ropey 2010 qualification, until frayed loyalties spilled over and eventual blaspheming implosion occurred in the lavish backdrop of the Western Cape’s Pezula Resort.
If not reimagining, certainly rebuilding with Laurent Blanc – perhaps pre-emptive in his decision to resign after Euro 2012 – and Deschamps, the FFF, free of the unenviable events of South Africa in the expulsion of the dissenting Nicolas Anelka and resignations of Domenech and President Jean-Pierre Escalettes (an FFF loyalist rewarded with regular promotions after joining the institution in 1985), invested in beacons with whom former and present players could console, and who had performed admirably at Bordeaux and Marseille, respectively.
A fatal flaw in their domestic-professing theory, however, was, and remains, the perpetual frailties of Ligue 1 on the continental stage. Since the dissolution of Bernard Tapie’s fortune and Marseille momentum, and defined by the eventual early 2000s supremacy of Olympique Lyonnais, the innovation of the French first division has been minimal in its presence, with economic strength given greater implicature on the direction of silverware, and of continental representation. The nation’s eviction from such a prestigious stage has been emphatic in recent seasons, and with the mounting managerial fatalities of Paris St Germain – Blanc, Carlo Ancelotti and now set to include Unai Emery – has proven detrimental to entire careers with Qatari funds seen as spurned in search of glory on the ultimate Champions League podium.
Let alone the of abundant comparative qualms of their competitors, if PSG and AS Monaco are revelling in a relative Renaissance of academy production at present, the direction in which these graduates can drive their employers, if so given the opportunity, is mired in uncertainty. While the horrifically unethical Paris are deemed a long-term project, yet to be brought to fruition in the first season even of Neymar’s record-annihilating transfer and with Kylian Mbappé soon to seal his permanent switch, few others are making consistent progress; Monaco liquidated of assets, as with others, by the Parisian behemoth and subsequently unable to sustain any genuine threat, while Ligue 1 and UEFA authorities watch on in aimless apathy. The true extent of this domestic demise will be painfully apparent in what may prove Deschamps’ final managerial action. Albeit decorated with vast continental honours elsewhere in their squad, Mbappé, Thomas Lemar and Djibril Sidibé aside this summer, the French may be bereft of significant Ligue 1 representation. Moreover, with the league saturated by amoral economics, fans have little other than the national side to take genuine pride in.
If domestic issues are existential, however, Deschamps’ tactical foundations have been found wanting far too often for a nation with potent aspirations on honours this summer. Unlike the financial stranglehold of PSG, and to an extent Monaco, this is a pervading error for which the FFF are held fully accountable, and one that could have conceivably been resolved at a much earlier stage. Once emerging from Euro 2016, however, their cards were dealt; unless a seismic personal matter arose for the Bayonne-born 49-year-old and forced his resignation, nothing would depose a regime they had invested heavily, and certainly after a home tournament in which accolades were so tangible, irreversibly in. Non, je ne regrette rien, they could not argue – at least not without appearing bare-faced frauds.
To truly comprehend French football’s apparent systemic underachievement, nonetheless, a perspective encompassing of the innate cultural factors of the state is imperative. As aforementioned, football has not traditionally proven the form of choice, nor the scene mastered, by the stereotypical Frenchman, and instead profited vastly from the nation’s colonial heritage and cosmopolitan present, while cultivated specifically by the maverick figures within its expanse; the mercurial philosopher Eric Cantona, extraverted exponent Jacquet, serene master Zinedine Zidane et al. each indicative of the global popularity of France’s distinguished interpretation of the sport. The Black, Blanc, Beur (the last being an informal term used to describe Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian migrants) identity interwoven in their every act long before its coinage as a term in the late 1990s, Les Blues nonetheless have a negligible impression on their managerial history from such ethnically diverse skillsets. Perhaps akin to elite-level French politics and socio-economic superiority, ethnic natives have dominated the role in the history of the side; all but Marrakech-born Fontaine, in a temporary 1967 stint, and the generation-defining Romanian Ștefan Kovács, figures of the Western European elite. Regardless, by virtue of his prophetic allowances and patronage of former Reims and Monaco player Michel Hidalgo when the future Euro 1984-winning manager had no prior senior professional experience, the late Kovács may have claims on a repute as the most momentous appointment ever made by those within the FFF; even when lasting only two years in the role, and returning a win percentage, while instigating institutional transition, as low as 40%.
Courting controversy and rivalry throughout the early history of formalised French football, the true native architects of the sport set a great precedent that casts, rather poetically, today. This was, after all, a nation left behind by the global footballing trend while distanced from British compatriots and occupied itself with the return of the Olympic catalogue through Baron de Coubertin. Amidst the pioneering de Coubertin protégé Rimet’s reformation of the sport from within both FIFA and the FFF – socialist principles espoused through the formation of Paris’ Red Star, yet undermined with mass bureaucratic failing during the conspicuously fascist Italy’s 1934 World Cup hosting – Englishman Sid Kimpton had introduced tactical stringency to the French with his WM formation, and thus British-professing, philosophy in the early 1930s, yet quickly ran into conflict with a native backroom triumvirate headed by the moustachioed Gaston Barreau, the ultimate figurehead of the establishment who managed to manipulate proceedings and assert power for the entirety of the interwar era.
Even today, the FFF are yet to truly relapse on their subservience to an almost alarmingly, but not nationally atypical, patriotic status quo; though striving to become a more diverse administrative establishment, the fulfilment of this practice is far from the genuine realisation many continue to campaign for. The harsh reality is that they have stagnated as an operative force since the idolised fecund days, and through the election of Escalettes and Le Graët opted to retain their existing fortunes, as opposed to drastically reinventing in search of further glory. Theirs was a narrow perspective with falsified ambitions – sadly, it remains so to this very day.
Progress, undoubtedly, also stems from youth. Deplorably, of the various Les Bleuts (Little Blues) ranks, their under-21 side has not qualified for the UEFA European U21 Championships since 2006, as the generation of Sagna, Mandanda, Lassana Diarra, Yoann Gourcuff, Jérémy Toulalan and Mathieu Flamini led the nation to the semi-finals in one of only two post-1998 finals appearances, while the under-19 ranks, though finishing European champions in 2005, 2010 and 2016 and running to the semi-finals at least in all appearances since 2005, have not featured at more than two consecutive tournaments throughout this run; consistently lacks. Guided by contrasting figures in former Lorient manager Sylvain Ripoll and 1998 squad member Bernard Diomède, the continuity between the outfits has proven minimal, favouring few products in recent years other than, most prominently, Mbappé, Jean-Kévin Augustin and Odsonne Édouard – three of very few figures in direct proximity to elite academy facilities while at Monaco and PSG. If the nation is indeed to enter the lofty stratums of sporting favour, focus must be placed on spreading burdens and sharing fortunes, never to be solely reliant on, nor biased towards, the financial centrepieces of domestic affairs.
None of this apparently discouraging evidence serves to condemn them as a failed, or indeed failing, nation, however; at the very least, Ripoll’s under-21s have all but sealed qualification for the 2019 European Championship, while an Amine Gouiri-inspired U19 outfit will head to Finland this summer with quiet designs on the European Champs title. As with every popular opinion, there is a degree of validity within the lauding of their talent pool’s sheer depth. Optimism still shrouds the possibility of Deschamps assuming a more intrepid and accountable philosophy. Most importantly this summer, the very impudence of youth may favour an unproven Les Blues.
Certainly, whilst afflicted by recurrent cultural and administrative deficiencies – some of which may be at present unshakeable – they are far from the pedigree of world champions. Yet the competitive advantage they held over England, Poland, Belgium, Portugal – economically-driven, granted, but most imperatively of their sheer back catalogue of highly-qualified coaches and cutting-edge facilities – and other such mid-ranking nations in the past has dissipated rapidly with little French response; the originally Kovács-influenced Clairefontaine, nor its regional compatriots both as youth academies and multi-age group headquarters, no longer the unique facility it was once so acclaimed. It is a self-evident truth that had the squad inherited by Lemerre and Santini not experienced such gratuitous overarching triumph in Euro 2000 and both the 2001 and 2003 Confederation Cup tournaments, the FFF philosophy may, if not adapting to that of an opportunist, at least shirked from its complacent rigidity, and that the latter tournament was indicative of this; after experiencing the implausibility of 2002, their rhetoric was usefully rebuffed, after avoiding world champions Brazil as a drastically second-string South American squad exited at the group stage, on home turf. This is not to say their systems did not command such results at that stage; in 2006, also, the squad fielded was stacked with perennial club medallists and helmed sustainably by Domenech, but as Sepp Blatter aided socio-economically inferior nations for corrupt means and globalisation branded the industry with an indelible mark, their systemic ideology, as opposed to any managerial conceptualisation, was found vulnerable while obstinate.
Though culpable for ideological complacency and a failure to recognise simmering dissent, those in power could not help the private plotting of Anelka, Patrice Evra and a permanently nameless supporting assembly in 2010. An optimist, regardless, would deem it to have at least presented an emphatic message for constitutional reform – in far more respects than the employment of 1998’s icons, seemingly fulfilling roles with equal importance as youth mentors as the national “shop window” position, as so termed by Brian Clough. Fundamentally, it is irresponsible of the FFF to simply recycle prior success and repackage it as a vision for the future; the external advancement that sees Thierry Henry and Claude Makélélé plying their trade as assistant managers while Zidane and Patrick Vieira gain their managerial stripes, must be viewed far more objectively than the sentimental FFF have been proven to fall liable to with past appointments.
2016 represented their opportunity to change direction. While capturing the antithesis of Domenech’s regime – fluid, multi-faceted, youthfully exuberant in each act – defensive frailties showed. Supporter unrest reared as selections were deemed unmeritocratic. When it mattered most, the squad’s biggest characters cowered from the limelight. It was a learning process, granted, considering Deschamps’ squad – deprived of Raphaël Varane by injury – featured within its ranks the unproven Samuel Umtiti, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman and even N’Golo Kante (at the time capped only four times), but generally he, a coach in elite management since playing retirement in 2001, had selected a diaspora that was deeply entrenched on such a stage – Messrs Evra, Sagna, Gignac, Mandanda and Lloris each remnants of prior regimes. Resultantly, there was nowhere, truly, to hide.
Though bright young things Mbappé, Dembélé, Lemar and potentially breakout defensive starlets Presnel Kimpembe and Benjamin Pavard bolster these youthful ranks this summer, I would suggest an excuse on these lines cannot be realistically posed by Deschamps if he fails to deliver victory, or perhaps a runners-up or semi-final exit if deemed to represent a vast improvement in performance, through them.
In football, such is the beauty of the sport, the opportunity for redemption is never lost. Though it may require great patience to plot and enact a reprise of former glories – albeit in a revamped guise – it is always possible, especially for a nation of France’s political and economic security, let alone might, to manipulate the field. Culturally, if they do not make a radical adaptation – appointing a technical director, à la Dan Ashworth, Oliver Bierhoff or Fernando Hierro, at the very least – and position the correct processes, a German or (whisper it quietly) English recovery may be beyond their means. Far from the drama of Italian and Dutch grievances, perhaps, yet the spectres of such peril should loom large over any establishment figurehead who laughs off the very suggestion of this capitulation.
A peculiar prophecy it may seem to decry a nation presently ranked ninth in the FIFA World Rankings, particularly when Deschamps’ outfit are tipped so fervently for Russian glory, but it is not without its credence. Face value is indeed a deceptive force in this sport, and given the tactical versatility so revered within French ranks, the apparent embarrassment of riches has instead rebranded itself as a blessing in spite of, and hindered by, intermittent and unforgiving administrative circumstances. No competitor this summer is faultless, that is to say, but the eradication of such conditional infringements is as integral a foreboding feature of success as any tactical mastery, it must be argued. Unless willing to impart education on oneself as an administrator, this necessity is rendered immeasurably more difficult. Quite simply, the obdurate French culture must alter, initiating with studies of overseas accomplishments and enacted with unprecedented courage and unbending constitutional commitment. Unfortunately for Deschamps, it will not occur in the two months ahead.
Fare well France – may your fortunes always be fair.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!