By Andrew Warshaw
December 8 – And then there were 12. If UEFA’s decision to drop Brussels as one of the 13 original hosts of Euro 2020 was widely anticipated, handing Wembley the four matches the Belgian capital would otherwise have staged is hard to justify in terms of what the tournament is supposed to stand for.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has been a much needed a breath of fresh air since replacing Michel Platini and has made all the right noises.
When he was elected, Ceferin was regarded very much as the champion of Europe’s smaller nations and has done little to dispel that notion, tackling the various challenges with a refreshing mixture of sensitivity and practicality rather than the shady politics that pervaded much of Platini’s tenure.
But the ruling to choose Wembley, already hosts for the semi-finals and final, over both Stockholm and Cardiff as a substitute for Brussels was arguably the Slovenian’s first faux pas.
Whatever one thinks of the 2020 format – and there are many who take the view that a pan-European finals is simply a madcap idea – what’s done is done. The point of it, to mark the tournament’s 60th anniversary, is to give countries and cities who have rarely, if ever, hosted a major football competition the chance to take centre stage.
In one fell swoop, that concept has now been seriously undermined.
Ceferin will no doubt argue that the decision was completely democratic and taken by his executive committee (minus its English and Swedish members who were not permitted to vote) rather than himself. He also claims it was unanimous.
Yet there is a strong argument to suggest that by selecting Wembley, with its huge capacity, numerous hospitality opportunities and global status, UEFA – and by association its president – is simply chasing the money and selling out to commercial interests.
That, clearly, is the view of the Welsh FA who expressed their “extreme disappointment” at Thursday’s verdict that ignored the claims of Cardiff’s Principality Stadium which, let’s not forget, staged the Champions League final this year – just as Stockholm staged the Europa League final.
“The concept of taking UEFA Euro 2020 to 13 different countries was devised to allow smaller countries, like Wales, to have a unique opportunity of being involved in staging a major tournament,” the FAW said in a statement. “Wales has never staged a Euro or World Cup final and this was its one and only chance of doing so.”
“UEFA ranked the UEFA Champions League final as one of their best events and praised the way in which the Cardiff 2017 local organising committee delivered the showpiece.”
The Welsh anger (and that’s clearly what it is despite the relatively diplomatic language) is understood to be shared by the Swedes. Both Cardiff and Stockholm missed out in the original bidding process. Just when they thought they might have a second bite of the cherry, both were snubbed for a second time in favour of Big Brother.
“The FAW complied with all of the bid requirements and has written to UEFA to request feedback on the decision so that it can understand the reasons behind the vote for future reference,” added the Welsh FA’s statement.
The Welsh and Swedes must also be wondering how on earth Thursday’s vote was unanimous when, by all accounts, they had apparently both been given various pledges of support from UEFA exco members which failed to materialise. Unless, as has been mooted, there was actually no vote at all and members simply backed a recommendation from their leader to follow the money trail. Indeed, it is even rumoured in some quarters that executive committee members examined Wembley’s credentials before Stockholm or Cardiff were even entertained.
Whatever the reality, it’s hard for Ceferin to argue that it was a vote for football, or that UEFA was going back to its roots. Handing Brussels’ matches to Cardiff or Stockholm would have transformed the footballing landscape in those regions, far more so than the impact of four more games being handed to London. Yet UEFA opted for the safest and most lucrative option. Even though Wembley already had their own package for the semifinals and final. Even though 13 cities were supposed to be involved, not 12. Even though it was never an option in the original process to bid for an opening package as well as the latter stages in one hit. Even though if England fail to qualify Wembley will still stage seven games.
Ceferin has so far been unquestionably the right man to lead UEFA. But this looks like an error of judgement that went against the spirit of Euro 2020 even though Platini might have invented the entire concept to suit his own political agenda at the time.
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