I don’t envy the position UEFA are in with hooliganism on and off the pitch in their territories. It’s easy to criticise. What would you do? But I know what I’d like UEFA to consider when they read the referee’s report and decide in action. Something radical.
It’s about time nations – and it would almost certainly be more than one – were under threat of being actually thrown out of competitions.
The latest unacceptable situation unfolded in the most problematic of regions for UEFA, the Balkans. We have all become accustomed to ugly images from games involving Balkan nations, but I have to say an incident in the Montenegro v Russia qualifier actually managed to shock me.
You could say it was unlucky for Akinfeev to be struck by the flare thrown in the first minute of the game in. Conversely, he was lucky not to be more seriously injured, even blinded, if it had been thrown before the match started. In the event he was facing forward.
After a delay of 30 minutes while Akinfeev was rushed to hospital – how depressing is that line – the game was eventually restarted with second choice Lodygin in goal. Why should Russia have had to switch goalkeepers because of hooliganism? But in the second half the match was abandoned when players fought each other after a saved Russian penalty.
Echoes of the dreadful scenes in Belgrade in October when Serbia and Albanian players clashed. This was politically motivated of course, and so is a lot of the behaviour in and out of football stadiums in the region.
So what to do? The threat has to be there that this behaviour simply has no place in a football stadium in the year 2015. If people want to act like cavemen, there is nothing UEFA can do. But they CAN and should protect visiting teams.
Remember how England under-21 players were exposed in Krusevac in 2012? Racially motivated attacks that provoked a response from the players and chaotic scenes off and on the field. It may not have been a full international, but there was no reason for UEFA Disciplinary Committee to treat this with fines and suspensions. They should finally have got tough, having already delivered a severe warning to the Serbian FA. But the Committee bottled it.
And that leaves UEFA with a problem that is in danger of recurring. Hooliganism is not for them to deal with alone, but there is obviously every chance of further issues in this qualifying campaign.
That’s why I believe the threat of expulsion has to be there. Imagine if Montenegro could be excluded over the flare. Would the perpetrator really have launched it into the Podgorica night? Maybe he still would but I can’t imagine he’d have been as popular with his mates.
Yes expulsions could create qualifying chaos, but the qualifiers are already a farce. 24 teams go through, it’s almost harder for a decent nation to fail to reach France 2016. So further unsatisfactory situations with groups and points may be a necessary evil.
Racism is the associated problem of course. Not in the Montenegro incident, but it’s an open sore for UEFA to try and treat. And offenders include Russia, Italy and Spain, not just the Balkan nations. FIFA’s Blatter and Webb continue to talk tough on racism and suggest expulsions and relegations are the way forward. I agree it is.
And if any nation thinks it’s acceptable for one of their fans to throw a flare on to a goalkeeper’s head, I would be quickly assuring them that it isn’t, to the tune of at least a year in the European football wilderness.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact himat firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport