Football thugs, vaccines and 2022

IT has been a dire couple of years for the world and a challenging period for football at all levels. And it seems to be getting worse for the beautiful game – violence off the pitch, financial chaos at many clubs, a lack of cooperation around covid vaccination and to cap it all, Qatar 2022 is drawing closer.

The return of thuggery

We shouldn’t be too surprised about the behaviour of Hungary’s fans at Wembley, but given they fought with police, how come only one arrest was made? The country has a leader, Victor Orban, who has been eroding Hungary’s democratic system by implementing an authoritarian regime that some critics call “soft facism”. At the same time, he has encouraged the construction of new football grounds and around 10 of Hungary’s top clubs are owned or run by his acolytes. The behaviour of the Hungarian fans was appalling, but we should not kid ourselves that they are the only bad news in the modern game – on the same night, Albanian fans threw bottles at Poland’s players and forced a 20 minute delay. We’ve also seen issues with Czech fans in their games with Rangers this season. But let’s not forget the events at Wembley during Euro 2020. 

Something has changed and it may be part of the economic cycle that became in 2008. There’s been an upturn in right wing sentiment and xenophobia, partly driven by macroeconomic conditions, protectionism, the global migrant crisis and political instability. Although in terms of the numbers involved (with the exception of the Euro final) we have not returned to the late 1970s and 1980s, there is something very sinister about it all. The penalties have to be harsher and proper searches have to take place outside stadiums. The last thing we need as the game opens up once more is the worst elements of the football experience coming to the fore. UEFA, Orban, FIFA, sort it out, please.

The selfishness of the myopic player

Apparently, two-thirds of all Premier League footballers have not had the covid-19 vaccine. A mix of complacency, misguided indestructibility and misinformation have hindered the vaccination process, even though some prominent players from the past have died from covid-related illness. Some players have been spouting anti-vaxx conspiracy theories, much to the disgust of their clubs. Have they forgotten that football has been played in empty stadiums and fans have been unable to attend until the vaccine was rolled out and adopted? The problem is, a lot of players are social media addicts and there is a her mentality among dressing rooms. Pat Nevin, a former player with a social conscience, is not impressed: “Football players have had so many benefits over this period of time. Everyone has bent over backwards to get football back on. To not then be vaccinated and help secure other people’s safety as well as their own, I’m gobsmacked, I’m really upset about it.” Perhaps it is time for fans to show their feelings about players who have refused to be vaccinated?

The hypocrisy of Qatar 2022

Denmark and Germany booked their place for the 2022 World Cup but their players are far from comfortable about the competition being held in Qatar. Denmark captain Simon Kjaer has publicly stated that the Danish squad are emphatically against the World Cup being hosted there but will leave the politics to the DBU (Danish FA) to deal with. In theory, England’s players should boycott the competition given they have gone to great lengths to demonstrate their zero tolerance approach to racism by taking the knee. Yet if they felt that strongly, surely they should refuse to play in a nation that has a poor human rights record? Hypocrisy, of course, is no stranger to football, as we saw this past week in Newcastle. Being owned by a state that executed almost 200 people in 2019 is one thing, but celebrating it takes the discomfort to a new level. Time and time again, football lets itself down.

The cashless Non-league society and Luiz in Brazil

OK, it was my fault, I didn’t read the small print, AFC Rushden & Diamonds don’t take cash – unless, of course, you buy a programme. Whatever the reason for the club not to take hard currency, they are making a mistake. Non-league football is not big-time football – there were just 387 people at the game with Hitchin, not 38,700. The stewards claimed it was protecting their people, a bizarre statement given the rest of the ground was free and easy and there appeared to be no obvious precautions in place. They may only be losing a dozen or so fans per game as a result, but as a percentage of their average gate, that’s not to be sniffed at. Non-league football needs the casual fan who decides to turn up on the day, or at the very least, needs the facility to accommodate last minute decision-making. Hitchin, by the way, operate a similar system, although to be fair, they did show some flexibility at the recent FA Cup tie with Cheshunt. Non-league isn’t wealthy enough or popular enough to exclude people. On this occasion, I made an error of judgement and did not bring a wallet with cards, just a cash holder, but I truly believe operating cashless non-league football is flawed and not in the spirit of inclusiveness. Presumably, the clubs now pay their players electronically these days rather than little brown envelopes? The game, incidentally, was half decent, Rushden edged it 2-1 with a late header.

Crisis at United – again?

The new season is underway and we’ve already witnessed the start of the game-by-game assessment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. After the hysteria over the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, United have now lost three games, a 2-1 setback in Bern in the Champions League, a 1-0 home defeat against West Ham in the Carabao Cup and now a 1-0 loss at home to Aston Villa. People are now talking about 2021-22 season being make or break for OGS and insist he has to win a trophy. The Norwegian must be tired of the constant examination of his future. United do not have the playing resources to be genuine title contenders and their reliance on a 36 year-old striker is not exactly forward-looking. The Villa defeat was their first of the campaign and the Carabao Cup game saw a much-changed United team take the field. In the Young Boys game, they were reduced to 10 men. United’s season has not taken a turn for the worse, at least not yet. Nevertheless, OGS continues to be two or three games from the sack if you believe the rumours.

Familiar at the top

CIES Football Observatory, who provide some of the most revealing statistics and data in the football world, have published their forecasts for the big five leagues in Europe. The results are far from startling, as one would expect. According to CIES, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan will be champions. In the Premier League, Newcastle, Watford and Norwich will be relegated, and the top four will be unchanged from 2020-21. In Serie A, Juventus will finish sixth, according to CIES, with Napoli coming in second behind Inter.

Flamengo and Luiz dancing to the final

Brazil’s Flamengo won the first leg of their Copa Libertadores semi-final, beating Ecuadorian side Barcelona in the first leg. The second leg is on September 29. If they succeed, they will face fellow Brazilians, Palmeiras or Atlético Mineiro, who drew 0-0 in the first leg of their semi-final clash. This year’s final is on November 27 in Montevideo. The cup tie with Barcelona saw the debut of former Benfica, Chelsea, PSG and Arsenal defender David Luiz, who recently signed a 16-month deal with Flamengo. Luiz had an impressive first game and was roundly applauded throughout the game. Flamengo were delighted to capture the 34 year-old. Their official site trumpeted his arrival: “He’s won all over the world, and now is in a place where our anthem says, ‘win, win, win’. We want to welcome Luiz to Mengao! Our nation is more than ready to see you in the Sacred Mantle!”