No-one could possibly argue with Wembley being chosen as host for the climax of Euro 2020. England’s national stadium is among the finest in the world while the country had the best bid and has not held a major football tournament since 1996. But anyone who believes there was no politics involved in last week’s decision by UEFA’s executive committee should think again.
Ever since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, there have been incessant reminders of the fact that FIFA’s technical inspection report flagged up serious flaws in the Gulf state’s capabilities. How could the technical experts simply be ignored? Surely there must have been some kind of corruption, vote rigging, or at the very least collusion between the various parties? So goes the thinking…
The whole debacle, as we know, is now in the hands of FIFA’s ethics committee. Anyone discovered to have taken bribes should rightly have the book thrown at them. But there is a difference between corruption – in other words a breach of the rules – and collusion. And there were plenty of indications of the latter in Geneva last week.
English FA chairman Greg Dyke may deny till he’s blue in the face that any deal took place with the Germans but there was considerable debate, in the aftermath of the ballot, over how the choice of venues was made for Michel Platini’s one-off brainchild of spreading the Euros across 13 cities.
For weeks, the German FA had been making noises about striking a gentleman’s agreement (where have we heard that before?) with their “English friends”. Everyone knew the strategy being discussed: Germany, England’s only rival for the 2020 semifinals and final, would downgrade their interest in the tournament to staging group games and an early knockout match in return for England supporting their solo bid for 2024.
Sure enough, on the morning of the ballot, Munich withdrew from the showpiece climax, allowing the exco to vote unanimously for London and Wembley. Don’t get me wrong, no rules were broken and no promises breached. But was it a case of calculated manoevring in order to satisfy both parties? You’d be hard-pushed to say it wasn’t.
As for the cities granted group-stage status in Platini’s innovative pan-European concept, 18 were anticipated to be left for 12 slots once Wembley had been selected for the latter stages. But, again on the morning of the vote four of them — Belarus/Minsk, Bulgaria/Sofia, FYR Macedonia/Skopje and Israel/Jerusalem — were “adjudged not to have fulfilled the bid requirements by the UEFA administration” and therefore did not participate. The result was that it made UEFA’s choice far easier, with only two cities left without a piece of the action instead of what would have been six.
As soon as it became clear that four slots had been yanked out of the equation, UEFA were able to make sure that the likes of St. Petersburg made it through despite the fact that Russia are hosting the World Cup two years earlier. Despite the fact too that other nations who have recently hosted major tournaments were told not to bother to apply.
Most disappointed of all, of course, was Cardiff who had put forward the Millennium stadium and, which on the eve of the ballot by UEFA’s 17-member exco, had seemed a virtually shoo-in for selection. After all, the UEFA inspection team had heaped praise on Cardiff’s credentials. The city was given a glowing assessment. Yet somehow that assessment was overlooked. Shades of Qatar in reverse?
As we know, Cardiff lost out to Glasgow by one single point (point, not vote, based on exco members listing their hosting preferences in order) even though the commercial aspect of Glasgow’s bid was described as “inadequate”. Crestfallen Welsh officials attempted to be diplomatic but admitted that “other factors” had played their part.
With the 13-city idea conceived to mark the 60th anniversary of the tournament, one of those factors seemed to have been based on history and heritage in terms of Hampden Park sneaking over the line ahead of Cardiff, given the role the stadium has played over the years in the annals of European football.
But another consideration was undoubtedly based on emotion. Three months ago, former Scottish FA administrator David Taylor, who later joined UEFA where he spent 15 years in a variety of prominent positions, died. As well as being a passionate fan of Scottish football, Taylor was a hugely popular figure at UEFA where he became a personal friend of Michel Platini who acknowledged that his death at the age of 60 touched the hearts of UEFA members. “I think that David’s disappearance, in one way or another, has probably helped Scotland and the city of Glasgow,” said Platini. “I’m even convinced of it, knowing the approach of members of the ExCo and the work that David carried out for many years in Scottish and European football.”
All that is true and one has to admire UEFA’s collective respect towards Taylor, a hugely approachable figure who I personally got to know well over the years. But that’s not the point. There is a strong argument to suggest that if UEFA wanted to honour the memory of Taylor, they should have made that clear beforehand. Everybody would have understood. Everybody would have been sympathetic. And the Welsh could have at least prepared for the likelihood of defeat in the knowledge that UEFA were never going to select all four British and Irish cities who were in the running. Instead, they were left to rue what might have been.
There is another consideration too. Platini has been keen throughout the process to stress that his revolutionary concept will result in neither teams nor fans having to travel vast distances as well as providing an opportunity for smaller nations to host games in an expanded Euros. The idea is for group games to be held in geographical clusters. Some of them are obvious. Budapest with Bucharest. Brussels with Amsterdam. And now, Glasgow with Dublin.
But who will Munich, handed early games and a quarterfinal instead of the grand finale, be paired with? And what must the Swedes think? Stockholm, like Cardiff, missed out but could easily have been accommodated. Take a look at the map of Europe and see where Baku is. Few teams will welcome travelling to the Azerbaijani capital for group games and a quarterfinal. Remember there is no host nation as such. Remember, too, cities chosen to stage games will do so even if their own national teams don’t actually qualify themselves. I appreciate the “Euros for Europe” concept but will Ajerbaijani fans really embrace the tournament if their own team isn’t even there? Likewise Romania. Likewise Hungary.
And then there is the Turkey factor. Of all the countries in Europe that, on paper, have the capability and fan base to stage games, have never done so before at such a senior level but who are not involved in 2020, none hit you between the eyes more than Turkey. Platini would have supported the Turks for the semifinals and final. That’s almost a certainty. Less certain is what happens next. It was their own decision to pull out on deadline day and target 2024 instead. But it could backfire horribly now that Germany have decided they want the same thing.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org