Without wishing to fixate laborious leverage on personal experience here, again I refer to a period, when, upon observing the myriad of worldly possibilities outside of the isolating bubble of a mobile phone in the event of my loss in Slovenia, I stumbled upon realisation of the cyclical nature of non-European football through the mediums of national sport-only broadcasters SportKlub and Šport TV. Around this time a fortnight ago, I would’ve been tuning in on a daily basis, from five o’clock local time to seven, and again from nine, on many occasions to discover action from the Copa Libertadores, Brazilian Serie A, or pre-season friendlies including a memorable tie between Rapid Vienna and Monaco’s youngsters, in each event with my attention drawn to a message under the channel’s logo in the top-right of the screen of their broadcasting of USA vs Panama, Martinique vs Nicaragua and French Guinea vs Canada at 2AM or so. It took me a day or so, and a full-length repeat of the previous’ morning’s objectively awful Curacao vs Jamaica match, to finally comprehend that these fixtures were not of a series of obscure international friendlies, but represented the diversity of the group stages of CONCACAF’s biennial continental tournament for North America; the Gold Cup. It hadn’t even registered in my reputedly broad sporting spectrum of consideration that such an event had sprung it’s resumption once again – not to say that I had even devoted more than two seconds’ glance to its occurrence in the past, of course – surely a direct confirmation of the appeal and media fixation – or lack thereof – that the tournament commands outside of its decidedly American home audience.
Finding my focus diverting almost immediately – scary, considering there was no alternative technological distraction, other than the thermostat, in my hotel room – from the action in the aforementioned Curacao vs Jamaica fixture I was fortunate enough to discover, I decided this emotional distance was attributable to the overwhelming bombardment of football English supporters experience for nine months of the year, and what I required was a detox. Needless to say this detox, with the only alternative comprehendible delights of Slovenian television being Sky News, or the far superior Russia Today and France 24, never rose to fruition, yet as astute as this analysis may have been, I can’t help but feel the pedestrian movement, repeatedly stray passes and pitiful striking prowess on display in what eventually resulted in a 2-0 victory for Jamaica was at least partly culpable for my lacking enthusiasm, especially considering I had felt an early emotional connection to the Reggae Boyz from my decade-long stint as national manager in Football Manager 2015.
I had the rare opportunity for a European; to view the events of the championships perennially hosted, in all but three of the 16 examples – 1993, 2003 and 2015, the former duo when they shared duties with Mexico, and the latter in coalition with Canada – in the US of A, yet the action failed to capture, let alone entertain, laying testament perhaps to the unfulfilled potential, or unfortunate circumstantial extent of the sport’s capabilities, particularly in the Caribbean and Central American states participating largely without a hope of eventual triumph beyond titans Mexico and the hosts. It is a competition with such remarkable disparities in culture and wealth, we must note, that this dominant duo have run out victorious on all but one occasion, with Canada’s showcase of sheer luck in 2000 – winning a coin toss to escape the group stage over invitees South Korea after returning identical records from two Group D matches, ousting the Mexicans 2-1 on a golden goal-decided quarter-final, seeing off a Dwight Yorke-inspired Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 after then-West Ham ‘keeper Craig Forrest saved a first-half penalty and impressively disposing with an invited Colombian outfit, including Faustino Asprilla, 2-0 to win the title.
Upon return to Sussex little over a week ago now, however, there was a conscious realisation of events on American soil in the global media, I discovered, as the Bleacher Report Football Instagram page, which has previously focused on the unlikely production of Christian Pulisic as a beacon of American ambitions, has skirted around covering the competition; regularly posting on the advancements, predictably, of the two powerhouses. Social media, markedly, is a tool the Gold Cup and those in favour of its expansion to a wider audience will have to utilise to achieve such lofty objectives, as the platform of immediately accessible coverage offers a distinct advantage to consumers, and has, in itself, ushered in the establishment of a fairly vast fan base for football in the region, notably in the example of the MLS, which was thought of before as a retirement home; a domain for the exploitation of rudimentary local skill but astronomic wages for David Beckham and Thierry Henry, among others, yet what now encompasses a knowledgeable and devoted fan base on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps it is the absence of a host of widely recognised American stars – DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, DaMarcus Beasley and Julian Green – from the tournament entirely, as well as elder statesmen Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey prior to the knockout stage (only arriving as reinforcements for those who boss Bruce Arena, in a quizzical feature of the tournament’s rules, was allowed to cut from his roster) that has undermined this summer’s edition particularly. It is not solely the case for the US audience, however, that their favourites are amiss, as aside from the 16 from Arena’s squad of 23 who boast fewer than 20 senior caps, Mexico’s Confederations Cup duty-depleted squad features just six individuals with appearance records in double figures, and forward Erick Torres as the only foreign-based member, Jamaica didn’t select any of their notable English-based contingent, nor tempestuous captain Rodolph Austin, Honduras’ Emilio Izaguirre, Roger Espinoza and Andy Najar ceded position to Honduran-based individuals and Costa Rica’s catalytic force Keylor Navas prioritised pre-season L.A training with Real Madrid. Even Joel Campbell, Christian Gamboa and Bryan Ruiz, the Ticos’ British-based triumvirate, were forced out of national service after the group stage by their pre-season domestic commitments – undermining the entire competition, which, by the inherent necessity of its month-long midsummer schedule, comes into direct conflict with the ever-increasing demands of club football.
Despite, then, being blessed with the fourth largest population of all continents, at 579,024,000, and three mega-nations in the top 20 largest economies in respects of both nominal GDP and PPP (Power Purchasing Parity) – the USA at 1st and 2nd respectively, while Mexico rank 15th and 12th, and Canada 10th and 17th, according to the International Monetary Fund’s 2017 estimates – why can’t North America aid the advancement of CONCACAF and regional football? We all realise, and accept, that football is far from the first choice for athletic children growing up in agricultural Kansas or along the vast coastline of Hudson Bay in Ontario, let alone the entirety of the continent north of where a certain President may have wet dreams of building a ten-foot socio-economic barrier of ignorant apartheid, yet amongst the sheer density of population in the region, while harnessing the contrasting passion and lack of facilities in the Latin American expanses of the association, surely immense potential lies untapped by the authorities of the region. American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice Hockey, followed by Golf, Tennis, Athletics and Swimming, rule from East coast to West, from the Great Lakes to the Rockies and from Death Valley to sub-zero Yukon, and as much as those sports are being adopted by University sides established by demographics as globally diverse as they are likely to be in debt here in the United Kingdom, a similar cultural exchange of rugby – union and league –, cricket, to an extent, and football should be expected Stateside, and into Canadian territory. No mean cultural feat, but judging by existing figures alone on football’s participation in America – 13.6 million individuals, of all age groups, representing more than its American namesake and Ice Hockey combined (12 million, at 8.9 and 3.1 million respectively) significant progress has been made since the 1994-hosted World Cup and the nation’s 2002 quarter-final appearance in South Korea and Japan.
Why, though, is the US so fundamentally central to the battle for exposure of the sport in the region? Having hosted the flagship event for their association, considering only two other nations have the capabilities to do so yet don’t wish to upset a system that has prevailed without significant issues for 26 years now, without interruption, some reward has to come from such a constant showcase of continental talent to an audience at first sceptical, yet one that has identified as more affectionate and loyal as time has passed. The US provides the stage for Curacao and French Guiana, both debutants at this year’s edition, alongside fellow minnows Martinique and El Salvador and past qualifiers Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Grenada, Belize and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to attract a wider audience, inspire future representatives, and more immediately for their players to broker contracts possibly in cities such as Houston, San Jose, Philadelphia and Seattle; each invaluable products of the organisation of such a lucrative event, yet such results that are, arguably, yet to show face on the same proportional scale for the hosts.
For example, since their 2007 tournament debut – in which they had an astounding run to the semi-finals –, islanders Guadeloupe, with the vast majority of their representatives plucked from the French second and third divisions, saw four players - Stéphane Auvray, Miguel Comminges, Eddy Viator and Wolves hero Ronald Zubar – sign for MLS clubs and a number of others make the step up to Ligue 1. Since their one-and-only appearance in 1996, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have had two MLS representatives, Martinique another two in the repercussions of their 1993 debut and 2002 quarter-final run, Grenada and Belize one each following respective 2009 and 2013 losses of tournament virginity, and Trinidad and Tobago, the first side in terms of lowest population (1,357,000) outside of such a ‘minnow’ bracket, have had an emphatic 36, more than El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala combined, despite only having 4.66% of their combined population and nine tournament appearances to the 22 of the Central American trifecta. Clearly, this is attributable to the respect that individuals who firstly qualify, but latterly impress on such a stage, command, and for heads to turn in the offices of what, to date, are accountable as eleven different MLS sides – past and present – for players from the aforementioned quintet (Trinidad and Tobago aside) of undistinguished states, who, prior to Curacao’s qualification, were the five smallest nations/overseas territories to reach the tournament finals, the testament to the indiscriminate appreciation of such talent is entirely visible.
In this respect, the Gold Cup fulfils its premise without hindrance; supporting its less inherently socio-economically fortunate by offering four finals places to the semi-finalists of the Copa Centroamericana and Caribbean Cup alike, while acknowledging the remaining outfits by organising a play-off between the fifth-placed sides in both tournaments for a final spot alongside automatic qualifiers Mexico, Canada and the USA itself. Mexico aside however, as a result of their proud historic performances on the global stage and revolutionary hosting of the 1986 World Cup, neither of the remaining automatic qualifiers boast football as their most popular spectator sport. I don’t argue it’s a prerequisite to hosting such a tournament *cough*QATAR*cough*, or necessary when on the scale of these two unfathomably vast nations to preordain success when only faced with the remaining 37.11% of the continent’s population at the earliest stage of qualifying as competition, but you would surely imagine that, at least in the US, acting for so long as the trading market of the sport in a region where passion and violence are synonymous in the stands, a greater advantage of the opportunity by this moment in time would have been taken. Christ, there were even occasions as lucrative as when Brazil’s senior side – Romário, Cláudio Taffarel, Edmundo and Gonçalves, notably, who would make the squad that went on to the final months later of the 1998 World Cup, included – and under 23’s – Kaká, Robinho, Júlio Baptista and Maicon, et al. – featured as invitees at the tournament, yet their gratifying presence was not transferred, majorly, at least, into an inspirational upsurge in overall participation; something that can only be made primarily attributable to the brainchild of João Havelange and Ronald Reagan’s pact of favourability, in the American hosting of the 1994 World Cup. As for Canada, they have never made any conceited effort to expand the sport, still relying on ex-patriots and second-generation migrants to even sustain a competitive squad.
Evidently, there is an achingly languid cultural progression manifesting in both the US and amongst their Canadian cousins. Momentum is insufficient to force the sport to the forefront of each nation’s psyche, yet ‘soccer’ is established as one of four of five leading commercial entities of the North American sporting spectrum. Could it be classed as a limbo? Are stadiums, particularly those in use for this tournament, sold out on every Saturday? Well, of the 20 clubs in MLS competition, eight sides have an average 2016 season attendance equivalent to 90% or more of their stadium’s capacity, including the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City, who returned figures of 111 and 106% respectively (?!?). Seven of these sides, however, had capacities below 21,500, and only one club in the entirety of the MLS faced attendances, on average, of more than 32,000; Seattle Sounders, so even with a divisional 77.55% average attendance rating, that only equates roughly to 25,244 people regularly attending the average MLS stadia, of 32,552 seats. Ticket sales may have been on the rise since the league’s inception, or at least for every season from 2004 – 2013 aside -, but for the standard of football to have advanced so rapidly with the influx of designated players and for the amount of fixtures to have more than doubled from the 160 of 1996 and ’97 to 340 today, yet the seasonal attendance figures having not even tripled in that time from 2,785,001 to 7,375,144, while the Premier League, from 1992/93 to the mid 2000’s, produced extortionately progressive sales figures season-on-season (largely thanks to the expansion of Old Trafford and St James’ Park, and the construction of the Etihad, Stadium of Light and Emirates), and fellow European leagues, particularly the Bundesliga, have also enjoyed exponential development. These nations would not be so blasé about the possibilities posed by the hosting of an established continental tournament every two years if it meant increasing ticket sales and encouraging more youngsters in the sport, though clubs in these divisions have scarce capacity for further growth in the respects of attendance, as 95.87% and 86.29% average 2016/17 season attendances in the Premier League and Bundesliga respectively leave little room for drastic improvement.
Besides, when eight of the MLS’ 20 stadia are multi-purpose facilities, and are each larger, at full capacity, than the largest purpose-built football ground belonging to LA Galaxy – which itself is only the 185th largest sports facility in the entire United States – such a degradation of the advancement of football in the region is made more obvious than from any other statistic, in my opinion. The 71,795-capacity NRG Stadium, where Manchester United faced Manchester City in the first overseas Mancunian derby, early Friday morning? The home of the Houston Texans American football team, only converted to football purposes for the sake of such lucrative events. The Rose Bowl, where Barcelona memorably met Manchester United in another pre-season fixture a few years ago, and before it the 1994 World Cup Final was hosted, with 88,500 attendees packed into Pasadena’s world-class cauldron? An athletics track and college football host by day. Just three of the fourteen stadia selected for this summer’s Gold Cup – the smallest three, by quite a margin, I add – are ‘soccer-specific’ facilities, leaving little room for a more damning assessment of the awkward, slightly demeaning circumstance of the sport in the nation; that it cannot realistically host such a competition without reaching for aid from its big brother American football. The smallest of these stadia, Frisco, Texas’ Toyota Stadium, failed even to sell out its meagre 18,000 capacity, registering just 10,048 attendees in an admittedly dire 0-0 stalemate between Canada and Honduras.
If you would permit me to lament the failings of the American system for a further statement, there are certain statistics, published by NBC News’ website in an article about the sport in their nation, that I find fascinating, and oh so revealing. A nation historically founded on migration and immigration alike, with 90%, if not more, of all citizens said to be of European origin alone, the influence of Hispanic and Latin-American culture in southern states, particularly New Mexico, California, Arizona, Florida and Texas, cannot be underappreciated. Disproportionately, then, to the other ethnic demographics of such a diverse nation (82.4% non-Hispanic or Latino), the fact that 56% of America’s football-observant audience in non-World Cup years, and 34% of the MLS’ entire regular viewer base, were revealed to be citizens of Hispanic or Latino origin, by YouGov Research and Nielsen respectively, is extremely telling of the lack of progress outside of the established market of customers, who would have had footballing tendencies inherited possibly as second or third generation migrants from Mexico or Central America, where the sport dominates commercially and culturally. Other than a few nations in the region, Cuba, Nicaragua and Panama included, which rank baseball as their most popular spectator sport, and a handful of Caribbean nations where cricket may be the more accessible pastime, football attracts the largest audiences, the largest funding sums, the superior youth talent, and so the cycle continues. In short, the US relies significantly and excessively on a minority of its overall population to maintain the gradual growth of football, creating a subservient internal structure that, understandably, fails to prosper even when graced with the prize of hosting a tournament continent-wide in its streaming. We could go so far as to argue it is an organisation that is stagnating.
That is where such a dramatic hypothesis meets with the reality of the tournament, continuing tonight at the semi-final stage if you’re reading this on the day it is uploaded. With the US, Mexico, Costa Rica and Jamaica still alive, harbouring ambitions of lifting the trophy in Santa Clara on Wednesday, the favourites remain, guaranteeing drama in the remaining stages. Anything but an eventual US victory will be an unexpected result, in all truth, as they are the only nation with anything close to their first-choice XI available, but anything, we should presume, is still possible, considering Canada’s 2000 tale. As a tournament, it is creating little significant more impact on the global footballing scene than previous editions, but as I mentioned a long time ago now, social media is the key to the exposure of the event, and steadily, the tapping, in equal measure, of furious and elated fingers is attracting greater sections of the globe’s media to the source of such progressive ripples. Slowly, something could be working. It is hardly attributable to the organisers, however; rather the thankless efforts of fans present for their exploitation of the idiosyncratic interconnected modern culture, particularly of Latin American nations, but also visible in the span of news on Twitter from the US to the UK and Europe within minutes, if not seconds, of its occurrence.
Perhaps, considering this underlying factor, the tournament, either at this stage or in future editions, desperately requires a seismic upset or two to send its audience, and doubters, into raptures, à la Canada ’00, Martinique ’07, or Panama ’05. It would be undoubtedly favourable if new threats to Mexico and the US’ dominance emerged, but in the distant socio-economic circumstances, let alone populational disparities, that pervade crime-ravaged Central America and the hurricane, earthquake and flood-threatened Caribbean, little such opposition appears likely; condemning the Gold Cup to a continued spell on the side-lines of global footballing relevance; cowering away from its potential as a result of the stubbornness of organisers, the begrudging relationship of European clubs and their players to its schedule, the inability of the hosts to capitalise on potential fervour and the aforementioned position of any pretenders to the crown. It makes for a powerful recipe of dispiriting failure to engage with audiences and exploit such a considerable population ripe for influence; an entire generation apart from those who witnessed the fantasy of the 1994 World Cup on home turf consciously permitted to slip through the incompetent, corruption-liable hands of CONCACAF bureaucrats.
Honestly, it does appear ludicrous when I demean it so, but I can’t realistically imagine a relevant future for the tournament amongst an ever-increasingly competitive year-round schedule where even a pre-season Manchester derby will overshadow an entire tournament of 12 nations happening only, in the case of the BBVA Compass Stadium, eight miles across the centre of Houston. They may well be expanding to 16 teams by 2019, but when none of the adjoining Caribbean or Central American nations will stand realistic opportunities of escaping the group stage, let alone actually emerging victorious overall, what advantage does that bear? Inclusivity without tangible interaction with what will only be an added audience, at most, of about 5 million, providing everyone in these nations are bothered, is a waste of everyone’s time and money when it comes to international competition. There you have it; the failure of a continental association laid bare, let’s see if they amend their atrocious methods, shall we?
An Irishman, Regional Tensions and the English Premier League; How Has Belgian Football Got This Far?
Upon the announcement of Romelu Lukaku’s long-anticipated transfer to Manchester United – the culmination of a saga that spanned a number of months and encapsulated the political manoeuvres of two of the world’s most powerful suitors – a momentous series of records were broken. Possibly overshadowed by the striker’s arrest by the Los Angeles Police Department upon accounts of the misdemeanour citation of ‘excessive noise’, in addition to the Irish Herald’s now-infamous front-page faux pas, the fee involved - £75 million, rising to £90 million, depending on performances – reflects the worth not only of arguably the world’s greatest striking prospect, but of the brutish yet largely polished jewel in the crown of talent scouting and development in a nation graced by unprecedented aptitude belying its slight geographical stature – Belgium. Historically a lowland hotbed for continentally resonating culture, for pivotal diplomatic relations and more recently for its leading geopolitical and economic roles in a united Europe – in which its embracing of migration has played a key role – it is a nation that has found a defined identity amongst previously domineering neighbours, particularly in the 21st century, and especially in a sporting sense.
This is a subject we stumble upon in the event of a conjunction of necessity, subservient fascination and testament to time constraints. In all truth, this week has been a conundrum of time, circumstance and out-of-practice rituals personally, as upon return from Slovenia on Wednesday evening – almost two hours later than planned, thanks to Gatwick’s lack of consideration for flights from the Jože Pučnik Airport –, I had anticipated sufficient opportunity to sit down, thoroughly consider this blog’s direction and transfer such planning into communicative realisation. Since Thursday morning then, I’ve had time only to relax and realign myself with the ever-changing cycle of news amongst attending an event I irritably described, on a word document, as a ‘charade of gluttony, materialism and egocentricity, each above Americanism’. I carried this message on a folded-up piece of paper to what, if you hadn’t assumed, was my school’s prom, but couldn’t bring myself to brandish the message. Nevertheless, it has only been the limited timeframe of this Friday afternoon and evening left allocated to construct a coherent and vaguely provocative blog, a period in which I hope to finally answer a niggling query that has been persisting in my insatiable footballing consciousness for a while now; how has Belgium established itself as a leading global force, despite lacking a vast record of inspirational achievement or a continentally competitive domestic division?
It is certainly a quirk of the modern landscape of the sport that a nation so seemingly insignificant in ranking, let alone geographical or populational eminence, around a decade ago – 66th back in 2009 -, could have made such a dramatic ascent all the way to a world-leading position in late 2015, and could had maintained such perceived triumphs in challenging the established elite. Admittedly, the FIFA world rankings aren’t always the most statistically reflective of measurements of talent – evident in the categorising of Switzerland and Poland at fourth and fifth, above Chile, Colombia, France, the Belgians, Spain and Italy, in the globe at time of writing – but they undoubtedly pertain ambiguously to the effectiveness of particular national approach on the global scene, something that Belgium’s post-World Cup senior squad featured in abundance in their pensive, understated air of impermeable defence and lethal attack. These visible playing results were not the result of a massive stroke of Red Devil luck, but the tangible products of a youth-friendly set-up that has paved the way for the ilk of Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Lukaku to hone their trade over a significant period of around 15 years from the academies of Anderlecht, Genk, Gent, Standard Liège and Club Brugge, to create profit in their sales to England, France and Germany and to realise such promise upon their instalment to the starting line-ups of such Champions League-qualifying bigwigs.
In order to survey such a drastic alteration in fortune, admittedly without results on the tournament stage for what has been often dubbed the ‘golden generation’ to date, however, we must roll back the years all the way back to the cultural roots of the game in the settlement that only came into existence in the Revolution of 1830. Throughout its chequered past, both as an integral feature of Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Dutch, French, Spanish and Austrian colonies, and an independent constitutional democracy, Belgium has undoubtedly been both the victim and the profiteer of being situated at the heart of Western Europe’s trade routes, as the influence of each, and all, of its modern neighbours – France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg – has given platform for the cross-road’s metamorphosis into a leading beacon of diplomacy, unity and bourgeois affluence. In its modern guise, describing poverty in the nation is comparable to conjuring thoughts of nonconformity in North Korea; unrealistic, though, in both cases, it does exist in minute pockets.
Garnering an understanding for its sporting and recreational culture, however, we have to look further than to its quarter of close neighbours for inspiration. Reportedly, it was in 1863, six years prior to the nation’s eventual international recognition of independence, that football found its catalyst for rapid expansion, without an Englishman to credit. Rather, it was the Irish student Cyril Bernard Morrogh that happened to bring the elitist luxury of a round leather ball upon arrival at the College of the Josephite Fathers at Melle, a suburban pocket on the edge of Ghent, and while his English compatriots at the college were said to have inspired the game amongst the locals, Morrogh still deservedly receives credit for being the first individual to bring a football to mainland Europe. The first official Belgian club emerged in 1880, as English students living in the city formed the Antwerp Athletic Club, now Royal Antwerp F.C and more famous for their links to Manchester United than for their domestic performance; promoted back to the Jupiler Pro League, or top division, last season after a third-place second division finish.
There was no organised competition for Athletic, however, until 1887, and the club had to wait a further eight years until the Union Belge des Sociétés de Sports Athlétiques (UBSSA) sports board came into organisation, and the first footballing league was brought forth. Of the seven sides that represented the founding fathers of this division, two - Union d'Ixelles and Sporting Club de Bruxelles – folded within three season of existence, two more – Racing Club de Bruxelles and Léopold Club de Bruxelles – survive today at amateur and semi-professional levels after name changes and turbulent pasts, FC Liégeois play at the third tier after a similarly peculiar history including their involvement at the heart of the scandal that lead to the Bosman ruling of 1995, and the emergent duo of FC Brugeois and Antwerp FC flourished, despite not winning titles until 1920 and 1929 respectively; now Pro League clubs as Club Brugge and the aforementioned Royal Antwerp. The vast majority of professional and semi-professional clubs today, in addition to a few who have since folded, were born in the decade between following the first league season, and by 1906, there existed 31 garrisons of the game, mostly in the suburbs of Brussels and Liège, but increasingly to smaller, less central cities including the French-influenced Wallonia’s Verviers, Limbourg, Seraing and Charleroi, while the Dutch-fixated Flanders boasted expansion in Leuven, Kortrijk, Mechelen, Lier and Ostend.
It is vital to recognise, at this stage, the distinct separations, in culture and politics, between the Walloons and Flemish – two regional divisions so averse to one another’s method of operation that it can often appear that Belgium is scythed in half across its heart. So distorted are they in their belief of the superiority of their language and identity that national politics can be thrown into unworkable disarray upon an uprising of particular anger, as there was in 2007, explaining why there is such a complex system of six governments in only the 34th largest European nation by land mass and the 13th largest by population – its 30,510 km2 housing 11,250,000 or so people, or each km2, on average, laying host to 372 Flemish, Walloons or Brusselèèrs. There has been distinct competition between the guard of Liège, the pride of Wallonia, and Flanders’ Antwerp and Brussels (an autonomous but largely Flemish Northern city) on the football field throughout the history of Belgian football, and while the supporting cast from Ghent, Genk and Bruges, all from Flanders, have led for Northern dominance in the past 70 years, there is no love lost in the North-South rivalries of yesteryear. Despite the fact that, since 1953, only 10 of the 64 Pro League titles on offer have gone to Walloon sides – or to a Walloon side, considering Standard Liège have won them alone – and Brussels’ Anderlecht ran out victors on 30 of the other occasions, Southern football has not yet been hindered in its ability to produce the exports the national side requires to continually flourish, with relevant current born-and-raised products including Axel Witsel, Eden and Thorgan Hazard, Nacer Chadli, Kevin Mirallas, Thomas Meunier and Laurent Ciman, while Christian Benteke, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was trained at Liège.
Having cooperated closely with the English, French and Dutch Football Associations during the early years of their existence, the UBSSA were, unsurprisingly, alongside their French counterparts, one of the establishing members of FIFA just three weeks after the nation had played its first ever match, a diplomatic 3-3 draw with the French in the Brussels district of Uccle that defined Paris’ minor neighbours as a definite sporting force. Their leading position on the continent, far from undermined by the atrocities that the First World War brought to Flanders’ expanses of poppy fields, was further confirmed by a Gold Medal-winning performance in front of home fans at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics – what was, prior to the World Cup, the pinnacle of the international form of the sport – although, on the subject of pinnacles, the Belgians were eliminated in the first rounds of all three inaugural 1930’s World Cups. If the pre-World War Two period had appeared, however, a testing one for Belgian football, then the 1950’s and 1960’s, with only one World Cup appearance, days after becoming one of the founding states of UEFA, in 1954, saw the nation slump to lower competitive levels amongst increased continental and global revolution; even if remarkable victories against then-reigning World Champions West Germany and Brazil in 1954 and 1963 respectively, in addition to a perhaps greater feat in the 1956 upset of the Mighty Magyars – the Hungarian side who should have written themselves into history as 1954 global victors – that spelled the sacking of the pioneer of socialist football, Gusztáv Sebes, and the collapse of the Hungarian Aranycsapat, or Golden Squad. Due to their proficiency in such high-profile friendlies, the Belgians even gained themselves the self-deprecating title of the “world champion of the friendlies” in this era, one that wouldn’t, however, stick in successive decades.
Inaugural World Cup and European Championship tournament victories arrived in 1970 and 1972 respectively against El Salvador and Hungary, as in the latter they finished third of four nations competing, having defeated World Champions Italy to even book a place at their home tournament, while their next taste of tournament football ended in succumbing to defeat in the 1980 Euro Final to an almighty West German XI, marking the beginning of the first ‘golden generation’ years the nation experienced under the coaching of Guy Thys. His erudite stewardship saw them defeat, again, the reigning world champions – on this occasion Argentina -, in their first match of the 1982 World Cup, while being inflicted with revenge four years later, as the Diego Maradona-inspired South Americans overcame the brave Belgians in front of a 115,000-strong audience in the sweltering Semi-Final conditions of the Estadio Azteca. If only to prove they weren’t one-trick ponies, the Belgians qualified, during and after Thys’ era, for six successive World Cups from Spain ’82 to Japan & South Korea ’02, mostly realising impressive second-round potential and confirming themselves as amongst Europe’s leading beacons of the sport throughout, even as superior generations passed. Guess what? They even defeated reigning world champions in this period – France, prior to the 2002 World Cup.
A 2005 defeat of Greece – the 2004 European Championship victors – could do little to quell national disquiet, nevertheless, in the event of a intermittence of both playing and managerial talent, as the national side failed to qualify for three successive Euros, in addition to the German and South African World Cup finals; a gaping spell lacking the inspiration of even a couple of stars prior to the gradual emergence and transition of the 2007 European Under-21 Championship squad to senior football. From this squad, notably, came 21 individuals capped at the senior stage – the only two devoid of such an opportunity from the 23 being the back-up and third-choice goalkeepers – including Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin Mirallas, Axel Witsel and *sigh* Marouane Fellaini, compared to the ten who were picked at a senior level by England, with only Gary Cahill, Joe Hart, Leighton Baines, James Milner and Ashley Young worthy of reference. With the exception of the then-teenager Witsel, all of these Belgians were joined at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where the nation would finish Bronze Medal runners-up, by future senior captain Vincent Kompany and Mousa Dembélé, creating a nucleus of gifted individuals those involved in the long-term strategy of the Royal Belgian Football Association (KBVB) trusted to develop and thrive off of their close continued collaboration. Such results were not primarily obvious upon the arrival of such a renovated spine, however, and falling to defeat in a 2009 World Cup Qualifier, having made the long haul to Armenia, proved the very depths of national despair, far beyond the embarrassment which had usurped all emotional connection to the nation’s pastime in the years previous.
Deciding upon a total upheaval of the malaise that had festered for almost a decade upon his assumption of the caretaker’s managerial position, Marc Wilmots, in 2012, drafted in the wider group of 20 to 30 Premier League, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga players we all respect today, with immediate results. Freed from the chains of expectation – considering they could hardly fare any worse than their immediate predecessors – these promising, yet unheralded, physical specimens of early-20’s age romped to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in such ease that it captured the global media’s attention and confounded all home expectation to boot. An ultimately disappointing quarter-final defeat to Argentina, the remarkable testament to such a significant 24-month transformation, brought the end to what many wildly imagined would be the seizure of global dominance in the absence of clear trendsetters at the time, yet it was reinforced by a consecutive qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championship so ruthless in certain examples that it led them, mystifyingly – even for Wilmots and his squad – to a world number one ranking in October 2015.
It is only natural, however, that with such performance and appreciation of talent, there comes the reactionary realisation of title-winning potential. For Hungary, in 1954, it became paralytic when fatally concocted with the overwhelming sense of Soviet, yet more broadly Communist, ideological pressure that bore down upon the clearly battered ankle of Ferenc Puskás alone, while in more recent examples, Brazil’s 2014 campaign, which hinged on the fitness and form of poster boy Neymar, was obliterated by the ruthless Germans in consequence of a visceral quarter-final with Colombia, in which Juan Zúñiga’s hurtling knee spelled the departure of the Barcelona star upon its connection with such a coveted lower spine. Particularly amongst young players, expectation is a challenge that few can surmount without sufficient trials even at club level, yet without regeneration, even a tightly-bonded collection of individuals can struggle to correct the misdemeanours of the past, such is the culpability of the will for revenge.
Everything has to be tempered in the mental respects of the competitor; rarely are emotions expressed by unassailable legends of the sport until they receive full confirmation of their triumph, demonstrated objectively by the pragmatic, learned Roger Federer at every stage of a Wimbledon tournament all expectation has been heaped upon his shoulders to win. Having played with fire, and had their fingers defiantly burned for repeating such foolish moves, Belgium’s artillery should have taken responsibility upon themselves to remain level-headed when it comes to action in next year’s World Cup. In many respects, this makes the KBVB’s decision to hire Roberto Martinez, alongside long-term assistant Graeme Jones and surprise package Thierry Henry, from last autumn all the more intriguing, as Martinez is hardly a manager famed for his control of a squad’s mental advancements and response to adversity, nor his handling of the repercussive egos of such respected talent, especially compared to the more obvious candidates if prioritising such aims, where Arsene Wenger, Gerardo Martino or Marco Bielsa could have prospered.
Martinez’s inherent advantage, if ascertaining the natural playing approach of a squad largely borne from the higher reaches of the Premier League, is that he comprehends the tactical horizons of a vast majority of his players, and will not act as an immovable force in such an impasse as could be likely with other higher-profile options. Seldom is he the fountain of controversial comment, or even devoid of his trademark definitely-hiding-something grin, and is in many respects well suited to the international scene. Whether he prioritises the pursuit of long-term ambition is uncertain, as his career, while progressing at each opportunity, has a beleaguered aura around it, featuring Swansea, Wigan and Everton, presiding over League One promotion, an impossible FA Cup victory and a fifth-placed Premier League finish in such spells. Yet each are achievements undermined by wider circumstance; in the Swans’ fans revolt against the Spaniard upon his departure to Wigan, the relegation of his Wigan side days after the cup accomplishment and the mid-table slump of an unconfident and uninspired Everton side lacking sufficient investment that led to his inevitable sacking. Personally, I am a believer in the old adage that it takes one to know one in the case of an international manager, and for Martinez to have never played at a level anywhere close to representing his nation, his authority is pre-empted to have been undermined in such a star-studded dressing room. It is no coincidence that, if ignoring the pre-1954 and pre-professional history of the World Cup, only on three occasions has a side coached by a manager uninitiated with the international game, in terms of their playing days at youth or senior level, lifted the World Cup – Brazil’s sides of 1958, 1994 and 2002 being these anomalies.
If it is Belgium’s ultimate ambition to win the World Cup, there is scarcely a superior opportunity presenting itself than next summer’s World Cup; by which time Simon Mignolet, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Kompany, Radja Nainggolan, Fellaini, Mirallas, Dembélé and Dries Mertens, though not all starters, will all be the wrong side of 30, Eden Hazard, Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier and Lukaku will all be approaching their peaks following hopefully successful Champions League campaigns, and the buds of a subsequent generation in Youri Tielemans, Leander Dendoncker, Yannick Carrasco, Michy Batshuayi and Divock Origi, all 23 or under, will stamp indelible impressions upon the history books.
Martinez is only so fortunate to have such an embarrassment of riches at his disposal in a prompt of response at the depths of despair attributable to former KBVB Technical Director Michel Sablon in 2006. Sablon, inspired by his studies of close neighbours France, Germany and the Netherlands, initiated a tactical evolution in drawing up a 4-3-3 formation for every youth side that would eventually enable every potential future senior team representative to be fully assured in the particular demands of such a highly demanding and fluid structure. This was followed by reforms that saw results rendered irrelevant at the youth stage, with league tables even abolished at some age levels in order to stimulate development over competition, and players barred from returning down age groups once they have progressed, for example, from under-18 to under-21 competition, encouraging every individual to challenge themselves physiologically, as well as psychologically, without the disjointed effects of a system reliant on two or three star players performing for numerous age groups. These simple, yet profound, alterations to a moribund national establishment allowed the generation we see today to arrive at the eight centralised development centres, where many remaining members first met and sparked invaluable friendships that endure today after tests from under-16 level all the way up to senior – unless they were fast-tracked from teenage groups in the manner of Courtois, Kompany and Vertonghen. It appears remarkable that such continuity has survived the separation of these individuals to all corners of Europe, but in a nation reliant on exports for the invaluable exposure for players to physical and mental tests against Champions League-quality opposition, let alone the televisual motivation for future generations and the financial rewards that can be ploughed back into funding academy expansion at the likes of Anderlecht and Standard Liège, making assurances over the continuity of the conveyer-belt, such circumstance is natural.
Belgium itself will never have the capabilities for a considerable few more than its current 34 professional clubs in its geographical reality, but if it can continue to ensure its top talents can realise potential in the Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga, Europe’s five key divisions where all but ten of the last 36 players to represent their nation are based, then Europe’s lowlands should remain relevant on the continental stage, with ‘golden generation’ a phrase consigned to the past, assuming those who reinforce this gradually fading one adopt their roles with similar poise. Many nations of comparable geographical circumstance will long for the reality of modern Belgian football, yet lacking quite the population density, the adept financial management, access to facilities, proximity to genetically gifted naturalised athletes in a nation well-versed in the necessities and benefits of migration, lack of overall competition from alterative competitive pastimes – cycling and athletics, being the other popular recreations in Belgium, being incredibly demanding individual sports with far from the potential financial rewards of football – or culture centred around a history of global overachievement – sporting or otherwise – it is impossible to perceive another in Belgium’s ilk arriving on the competitive international scene. Unique circumstances, over recent years, innumerable decades and a short few centuries, have delivered the melting pot of immeasurable talent that the small crossroads of North-Western Europe now boasts, and for such an endearing nation to continue to upset the odds it will take a few more of such circumstances. What the ramifications of Lukaku’s move could be for the future of their sport are as yet unfounded, yet the appreciation of the fruits of such a healthy system, to the extent that his exploits alone will have the scrutiny of a bona fide global icon, pay testament to the advancement of the Belgian system in such a short timeframe. Daring to observe the opposite direction of time, there is still far more to be achieved…
Having somehow lost my phone departing the tourist coach yesterday, whilst currently on holiday in Slovenia, I come to you from my hotel's communal computer - lacking both an at sign and an apostrophe, which I have to copy and paste, whilst also boasting a QWERTZ keyboard layout, as opposed to my familiar QWERTY. This is but the first of many unforeseen and unfortunate factors contributing to what I will now define as this week's blogging no-show.
I had anticipated a relaxing and inspired blogging opportunity in the temperate Slovenian evenings, overlooking Lake Bled, yet the failure to even ascertain a laptop has hindered any attempt at such an ambition. I certainly attempted, with my slight physical force, to force my laptop within the minuscule EasyJet-restriction suitcases that define any such trip to Ljubljana Airport, but it would have meant sacrificing the holiday essentials on what I now realise was a thankless task, as I would not have had the time, nor the mental capacity, in the evenings as standard. I'm sure you can understand and sympathise with my plight - restricted to Slovenian-narrated sports channels or Sky News as the only bearable technological, let alone televisual delights -, so, until next Saturday, I will, with a heavy heart, have to bid you, as the sustaining factor to my indulgent passion, adieu. Normal service will soon resume, but for now I wish you all the best of weeks as I strive to rearm myself with a new phone upon return to Blighty and return refreshed for next week.
In bestowing relevance to the Europa League’s First Qualifying Round, which commenced on the Thursday evening (June 29th) upon my initiation of the weekly blog-writing process, UEFA’s – and therefore Europe’s – footballing calendar restarted this week in its standardly inconspicuous obscurity and mystique. For some nations – those in Scandinavia, whose domestic season runs according to the severity of Nordic winters, for example – such reboots of the same tired schedule will have hardly felt significant, but for the larger, more temperate, of Europe’s territories, whose citizens have lacked considerable action for a number of weeks now, this week marks the sleepy recommencement of the two-tiered continental tournament establishment that endears such frenzied popularity come the point of the knockout stages within another six months, and therefore commands respect and attention even in its primary stages. While the cream of even the most minor of domestic divisions gather for their Second Qualifying Round matches, and First Qualifying Round second legs, in some cases, in the Champions League, then, the runners-up, third-placed and fourth-placed teams, in addition to cup winners in a few examples, from nations as obscure, in respects of European football heritage, as Lithuania, Montenegro, Moldova and Malta, are criss-crossing much of the 10.18 million km² of Europe (as well as far-flung regions of Asia in Kazakhstan, Israel, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) in a fruitless attempt to further their respective national and club pedigrees, much less actually reach the group stages of their given competition.
Traversing the cities of Vaduz, Priština, Andorra la Vella, Tórshavn, Tirana and Podgorica, which encapsulate the passion in the repeatedly futile efforts of their local sides in scenes of natural splendour, adversity in their comparative lack of resources and often detailed histories of socio-political unease, our study will pose pressing questions at UEFA, the masters of these minnows’ fate, in this era of great upheaval in global, continental and national society and football. For example, having accumulated, in many cases, decades at the peak of their domestic divisions, do these ‘smaller’ clubs deserve a more generous arrangement from their continental overseers? Will they continue to exist in relative squalor, or can they, and their national leagues, be reprieved by the effects of a high-profile Champions League, or even Europa League, group stage appearance? If so seemingly keen on a Europe-wide footballing upsurge on the exterior of their Nyon-based headquarters, when will Aleksander Čeferin and his team deliver on their promises and ignite a footballing revolution in such beacons of reluctant, even untapped, potential in the sport they represent? More importantly, is there room for compromise from UEFA in reforming what has been a steadily evolving, but ultimately stagnating and less rewarding qualifying process in the eyes of the clubs that are confronted with its punishing tumult?
All are relevant and immediately obvious questions posed by an easy observation of the state of qualifying for either tournament in recent years. Having been finally imposed in the 1992-93 season of rebranding from the European Cup to the Champions League, and in the 1994-95 season in what was still, at that stage, the UEFA Cup, preliminary stages opened possibilities of showcasing talent on a truly continental stage originally for every minor nation’s league champion in the former competition and runners-up and domestic cup achievers from every corner of Europe in the latter. As this policy was realised to be ineffective in creating competitive intercontinental football in the Champions League, however, champions from the Faroe Islands, Malta, the Baltics, half of Scandinavia, post-Soviet Union dissolution Albania, Georgia and Moldova, as well as Northern Ireland, Ireland and Wales were axed from the bill, restricting Europe’s premier tournament again to only the most fortunate from the 1994-95 season through to the expanded 1997-98 edition; when two qualifying rounds and six groups, as opposed to the previous four, were introduced, while a host of former Soviet-controlled states made their debuts.
In 1999-2000, a Third Qualifying Round – further minimising, after innumerable thrashings in previous years, the proportion of minnow qualifiers - and another two groups were added, while fluctuations between 72, 73, 74 and 76 teams entering in the years following led to the 2009-10 introduction of the Play-off round and a ‘Champions Path’ and ‘Non-Champions Path’ in both this round and the Third Qualifying Round to at least raise the likelihood of non-establishment nation representatives arriving in the group stages, as those who won divisions lower on UEFA’s coefficient faced each other rather than Arsenal, Atlético Madrid and Lyon, for example. Participation has since increased to 78 sides, but the tournament maintains its apparent premise; largely benefitting clubs so fortunate as to be the representatives of nations steeped in tradition of achievement, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands and England included, amongst others.
What only became the Europa League by 2009-10 continually remained an afterthought in these times of great upheaval. Absorbing what would have been the entrants of the Cup Winner’s Cup in its reformation in 1999-2000, the tournament finally gained a qualifying round, as opposed to the previous system of a preliminary round, further expanding what was already a competition of considerable diversity and scope, accepting a vast array of cup winners, minor division victors and larger league underperformers. In the 2004-05 season, however, the continuous bi-legged knockout stages were finally ousted as a method of whittling down the endless array of sparsely located sides and replaced with a group stage, while a Second Qualifying Round came into existence as a method of limiting the masses of small fry the competition had to cope with, signalling again a reluctance from UEFA to embrace its diversity and to retreat into its shell when posed with such a conundrum of apparent preference; its inherently frivolous establishment or the debt-stricken, notoriously hostile Eastern European outposts of the organisation’s delegation. By 2009-10, a Third Qualifying Round and Play-off stage were established, deeply entrenching such inequalities in the format for years to come, and as no significant alterations have since come to fruition, we are led to believe that unless there is a sudden cultural revolution and relative baby boom of naturally blessed footballers in any of the less proficient nations in the coefficient tables, no such changes will occur, perhaps for the next decade, in the development of the two tournaments.
That is, of course, unless either, or both, suddenly grow unpopular with their paying public. The temptation for the establishment to break away and form a financially favourable European Super League, much to Čeferin’s disgust – as was discussed in a blog almost a year ago on this site – became a heated debate last summer, and Real Madrid President Florentino Perez’s desire for the continued pursuit of such an extraordinary competition is no secret to those within UEFA HQ. Rule such a possibility out, and underestimate the influence of Perez and his counterparts in Western Europe’s biggest cities in shaping modern football, at your peril.
Currently, the only fathomable reasons behind an unparalleled public boycott of UEFA’s two-tiered Hunger Games are limited to the sole influence over the introduction of further qualification stages in the past; the lacking competition provided by the champions, say, of Latvia, Bosnia and Herzegovina or Macedonia when drawn against those in the hallowed ilk even below Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich’s quality. In short, the audience want to be entertained by close competition, dazzling skill and star names, rather than by fruitlessly spurring on an ineffective underdog against continental, if not global, heavyweights. That’s perhaps where I differ from the paying audience of Sky Sports, BT Sport and so on, as my most memorable matches over the past years include Tahiti at the last Confederations Cup, New Zealand at this edition, Iceland, Hungary and Albania at the last European Championship and FA Cup upset after FA Cup upset. The gulf in quality and resources has largely remained equal in each of these cases to their competitors, but whether the financial clout of Crusaders, of Northern Ireland, Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar and Wales’ The New Saints is comparable with their respective opponents in the Champions League’s First Qualifying Round last season -FC København of Denmark, Scotland’s Celtic and Cyprus’ APOEL - I highly doubt, let alone the former trio’s comparison with Manchester City, Roma and Monaco, who each entered through the Play-off.
In these respects, parallels can be drawn with another of my sporting passions, tennis. Through many media streams have I tracked the results and performances of British players, in particular, on an almost daily basis – as is my dedication and obsession with the cause – over probably the past two years. As a tennis nation lacking anything close to the depth of talent of Spain, France, the United States or Australia, many British players – Brydan Klein, Edward Corrie, Cameron Norrie, Naomi Broady and Laura Robson, for example – plough lonely furrows in racking up air miles in every corner of the globe on Futures and Challenger tournaments, with little financial reward, to continue their professional careers. While the likes of Kyle Edmund, Aljaž Bedene and Johanna Konta have exploited these opportunities and have risen up the rankings consequently, the dozens of British players still pursuing these second and third-tier tournaments without significant triumph leaves each individual at threat of losing their fragile livelihoods off the back of an injury or a run of poor form. Unless they are fruitful in passing the first or second rounds of these tournaments, prize money will often fail to cover the costs of travel, accommodation, rackets and apparel, not to mention the coaches who attempt to make a living alongside their charges. It is an extreme inequality that has been highlighted by Andy Murray in the past, as while he, as world number one, is able to garner millions of pounds in one season through commercial sponsorship in addition to tournament performances, those outside even of the top 100 in the world often fail to profit from their exertion. That must be directly comparable to the situation of squalor for those at the very lowest rungs of Europa League, perhaps even Champions League, qualifying.
Some may argue this situation is a just reward for the stature and historic performance of Europe’s elite. In most cases, this reasoning suffices for UEFA’s brethren and the majority of the viewing public. Outside of a leading six or seven footballing nations in Europe, notably, the only victors of the Champions League have been the Scottish-Romanian-Yugoslav trifecta of Celtic, Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade in 1967, ’86 and ’91, thus signifying the dominance of Western Europe in the 111-year history of the competition. In the more unpredictable Europa League/UEFA Cup, six of a total of 46 champions have belied their positions in Sweden, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine to overthrow the usual suspects, though as IFK Göteborg’s duo of victories came in 1982 and ’89, and Galatasaray, CSKA Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk – of 2000, ’05, ’08 and ’09 respectively - are far from the paupers of the continent, slight honour is detracted from these conquests.
Overshadowing events in both tournaments, also, is the circumstance of the implementation of UEFA coefficient rankings in 1979, in which fairly complex mathematics began to be used to influence the unfolding events of the organisation’s self-glorifying competitions, further defining what was continually blatant to fans in the pre-eminence of Spanish, German, English, French and Italian outfits. Attributable to these calculations is the matter that a staggering 23 of UEFA’s 55 current member states are yet to have been represented in the Champions League group stage – a pulsating representation of the inequalities that are nurtured by the commercially-pandering contest of gluttony. Granted, seven of these nations only came into existence in the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, their net population of 47,892,395 only equates, roughly, to that of Spain alone and three (five if including Wales and Northern Ireland) are regions devoid of UN acknowledgement of their independency – Kosovo, Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands – but a number of the nations within the 23 are ones with proud footballing legacies, many as first sports, and 11 have produced Champions League-winning players, while 15 have also spawned Premier League appearance makers.
These 23 are the minority – representing 6.48% of the total population, and 8.1% of the total land mass, of Europe’s considerable expanse – and there certainly is a reasonable argument to pine for the continuity of the established current façade of proportional representation UEFA presents in its tournaments. It makes for higher quality viewing – on that basis, nothing is disputed – but whether there is more entertainment in the cute stepovers of Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben on the repeated occasion of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s Semi-Final progression than in the gritty, body-sacrificing defending of a side risen from the poverty-stricken agricultural remnants of a once-prosperous Moldovan society, the diminutive Mediterranean tourist hotspot of Montenegro or the taxing and isolated volcanic landscape of Iceland can be challenged from any investigative angle. The prospect of witnessing the baby steps of the widespread establishment of the sport in Gibraltar and Kosovo, too, is an undeniably fascinating one, and if these stories fail to be portrayed through the transmission of the continent’s media then therein truly lies a shameful missed opportunity.
The issue of the matter is that such sides will continue devoid of notice if the current code of coordination persists. In the Champions League’s history, five nations are still only to have one representative club appear, at least, in the group stage – Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Belarus and Finland – in what, partly, is a testament to the authority of certain sides in each domestic division, but more to the limitation of the opportunities they are served by running out national victors, while 11 of the 32 nations that have appeared have had five or fewer successful group stage qualifications, raising the total of under-represented territories to 34. These 34, you may have noticed, outweigh the 21 nations – which all, other than Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania and Greece, hail from Western Europe – that represent UEFA’s formal establishment marked somewhere between the Iron Curtain and historian Dimitri Kitsikis’ geopolitical boundary between Western Culture and his ‘Intermediate Region’. Younger, poorer and smaller nations largely focused in Eastern Europe, with anomalies in the aforementioned Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Romania and Greece – each nations of great cultural, territorial and historic stature -, UEFA’s 34 undervalued regions face a desperate situation as a result of a deeply indoctrinated clamour for the elegance and refinery of socio-economically advanced Western Europe. UEFA simply faces a conflict of self-interest; they persist to reward those who fit its exacting criteria, who are, in all but miraculous examples, those with enough cash to fund stadium expansions, quieten fans whose passion threatens to blemish UEFA’s reputation and sign players of established international quality for millions upon millions of imprudently scattered pounds or euros. An ounce of sympathy for those clubs, within the restraints of our 34 nations, who can’t realistically afford to even rack up weekly wage bills over £50,000 for their entire squad, rather than just a single player, is impossible to locate in such a nauseatingly misguided government as UEFA proceeds to be.
What else, though, can be anticipated from those presiding over continental jurisdiction in a Swiss city, Nyon, where a four-room apartment can set you back over €1,000,000? Aleksander Čeferin, although a Slovene, cannot be trusted to uphold the demands of his nation amongst its many neighbours as he is siphoned from the elite – a lawyer with little capacity for the niceties of the sport, and, akin to his predecessors, a President who panders to the organisation’s lawmakers and dignitaries far more than to its nations, clubs and fans. Whether there is so little interest for the plight of the underfunded clubs east of Prague, Warsaw and Zagreb that this issue will never come to head is difficult to ascertain, but for the continent to be democratically united and socially embracing of its diversity, surely seismic alterations require communicating, at the very least. While FIFA claims to be ‘For the Game. For the World’, and other than in the case of Sepp Blatter-influenced corrupt investments in African causes for the sake of dignitary’s votes has been slow to act upon their apparent intentions, UEFA have been reluctant to even emblazon themselves with any such inspirational slogan of acceptance. Perhaps they are so self-aware that in realisation of their loyal service to a long-touted internal institution they have shelved any intentions to make promises to their disregarded citizens. Or is it the polar opposite – that their confines have been permeated by a smokescreen of commercial success, created by funding the interests of their elite, that blinds them from any potential worries from Sarajevo, Vilnius or Skopje? My worries that, as always, it appears to be the latter, are wrought with disappointment and, in all truth, embarrassment on the part of Western Europe’s unfulfilled greed – case in note, the failure of English clubs to achieve little more than a disdainful exit to the superiority of Germany, Spain or France on an annual basis.
We need only consult my previous alignment with the drastic inequalities of the tennis tour to survey the potential contained within our voiceless 34, and much more pressingly 23, if to argue a more considered form of true proportional representation within Europe’s premier competitions. Admire Johanna Konta, world number 151 of yesteryear (March 2015, to be exact), who had risen dramatically to peak at world number six in May earlier this year, and from a continual failure to qualify for Grand Slams to threaten to topple the comfortable elite in the latter stages of such tournaments. Jeļena Ostapenko, the Latvian world number 47 at the French Open’s late May opening, went on to upset all odds and win her first Grand Slam, having just turned 20, on the Roland Garros clay – the first unseeded woman to have proven victorious there since 1933 and the first Grand Slam champion her nation has ever produced.
Tennis, however, isn’t a sport where backroom funding proves decisive – nor even does pure talent or exceptional coaching. Any permutation of events is arguably possible in a sport where a racket and ball can be put to so much destructive use by an individual so inspired on the day of a match, while a faulty mentality, persisting injury or distaste for a particular surface could each spell a defiant upset if the higher-ranked player is faced with such afflictions. Establishments are created by a consistent combination of physical and psychological skills, in addition to a sheer defiance of the extremely slight odds of the occupation. In football, however, it is teams, rather than individuals, that will survive centuries of endless action, rendering the actions of the playing cast effectively meaningless, as a hefty arsenal of factors have already been enacted into existence by club, or national FA, chiefs as to dramatically reduce the likelihood of an upset that when such an unforeseeable event occurs, it is etched into the very persona of the sport and studied endlessly.
Considering Europe’s minnows possess no such capacity for investment, nor overawing source of inspiration from which to progress, it is apparent that they can only continue to stumble aimlessly at a gratifying existence of unfulfilled promise. Undoubtedly, there is a vast scope of natural genealogical talent going to waste without an introduction to football in both our 23 and 34 nations as their national FA’s and largest clubs continue to appeal for sufficient funding, directly from UEFA and from their performance in the organisation’s tournaments respectively. Academies, grassroots clubs and participation campaigns go unfunded, and therefore fail to take advantage of the sporting prowess of generation after generation of possible national team-catalysing individuals, à la Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Edin Džeko and Gareth Bale in just four of our first 23 nations of note. Had more funding been available, and the scope for a contingency plan ascertained, for Armenia, Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Wales in these examples, then perhaps vaster crops of such indelible talent would be at the disposal of their national team managers.
Notably, the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus last month, hosted at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, was the first ever, in those 111 editions, to be hosted even in one of the 34 nations I point to. Only two Europa League finals, in addition, have been handed to any nation within our Eastern European and minor Western European plethora since the 1998 implementation of neutral final venues – 2011 in Dublin and Warsaw ’15. Why is this relevant information? Surely, to bolster participation in such territories, the least UEFA could do would be to spark national interest through the showcasing of global superstars, a proven tactic in achieving such aims. Accordingly, for such a pathetic effort, the results have, as of yet, been minimal. Speaking of alternative policies, a saving grace for UEFA is perhaps provided by the fact that eight of our 34 indeed qualified for last year’s expanded European Championships, with Wales, Iceland and Poland particularly impressing, but this is surely undermined by the underlying source of players for each nation; mostly playing, and in some cases, trained from a young age, abroad. Wales have utilised English academies, Iceland encouraged the crop after Eidur Gudjohnsen to follow his example in travelling the continent, while Poland have been blessed with many generations who fleetingly display talent in the Ekstraklasa prior to finding German abodes.
Scouring the names, then, that traverse the Europa League’s First Qualifying Round this season, not one would, I’m certain, compliment UEFA on the little opportunity they have for eventual qualification. Cities from Reykjavik to Baku are represented, while the new boys from the Rock of Gibraltar mix with the old hands of Tel Aviv, Belgrade and Budapest in a bittersweet crossroads of romanticism laced with misfortune upon bearing the brunt of UEFA’s greatest misdemeanours. At a realistic best, the chances of these clubs reaching the limelight of the group stage stands at 9.6% or so, by my calculations, but in acknowledging their prospective latter opposition – Galatasaray and Brøndby at the Second Qualifying Round; Everton, AC Milan and Zenit St Petersburg in the Third, if not the Play-off – you can immediately diminish those odds, as we already realise by their non-qualification record, effectively to zero.
Tell me where, then, 0% Champions League, or last season’s 6.25% Europa League, group stage participation – creating a 3.75% representation across the two competitions – for these nations represents the 6.48% of Europe’s population they embody? Is this sufficient to support the expansion of football throughout all corners of Europe that UEFA surely must desire and prioritise as a basic principle of their existence? It remains up to interpretation, but I vehemently argue otherwise, and feel ashamed of UEFA’s position and record on a matter their stance depicts their view on as fictitious. For the good of the wider game, I believe it is time the organisation is woken promptly from its slumber of naïveté and ignorance, and that they are held to account on failing the smaller voices amongst their committees, as true football fans want to see all capacities of the game performing to their optimum standard. When generations of footballers with such untapped reserves of potential pass without notice, the insinuation that UEFA is allowing each of its member states to prosper is totally unfounded and disrespectful to both the 23 and 34 countries and dependencies that could achieve so much more. It is an admittedly multifaceted matter of principle, and one that ultimately involves UEFA’s interaction with national and regional FA’s, clubs and grassroots levels, but to ordain tangible change, addressing the inequalities on the stage of continental competition is pivotal. No mean feat, certainly, but if achieved, its positive repercussions could be seismic for modern European football; what is supposed to be the foremost epicentre of the sport and its principles.
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!