Euro 2020(1): Day Two – The Before & The After
Everybody knows that the real reason why football’s moral compass isn’t broken is because it doesn’t exist, but sometimes it’s worth questioning questions of moral bankruptcy regardless. UEFA’s decisions to keep hosting events such as this in Baku don’t exist in a vaccuum. When Arsenal and Chelsea played the Europa League final there in 2019, the experience was fairly universally considered to have been unsatisfactory. “The backdrop of rows of empty seats seemed distant and strangely detached from proceedings and so did most of the players”, wrote the BBC at the time, and that was before even touching on the fact that thousands of fans were having to travel 2,500 miles for the privilege of attending.
The official attendance in Baku yesterday was listed as 8,672 (in a stadium that was cleared by local authorities to hold 35,000 for this tournament), but the television cameras inside the stadium seemed to indicate that even this might have been a somewhat optimistic number. The BBC commentator confirmed during the first half that, faced with the prospect of bank after bank of empty seats, tickets had been on sale at reduced prices. Well, they weren’t reduced sufficiently, by the looks of things. We can only guess at the reasons why this city keeps getting handed major sporting events that it doesn’t even seem particularly interested in hosting.
None of this would be that much of a problem, were it not for the fact that it’s thousands of miles of unnecessary travel from anyone likely to be travelling to it. Yet travel, some of them did. It was estimated that there were around 500 Wales supporters in the stadium yesterday. It’s perfectly possible to argue that, under the current circumstances, to make such a trip is somewhat foolhardy, but their loyalty to the cause is unquestionable.
Wales vs Switzerland ended up not quite being the match that was being described to us. By half-time, there was nervous whispering that this looked a little like the Italy vs Turkey match from the night before. Switzerland had dominated possession, and Wales had spent mist of the half chasing shadows. This assessment, though, felt like a bit of an overreaction. The biggest difference between the two matches was that, while Turkey offered nothing, the dynamic of this match was very different.
Switzerland had a considerable amount of possession, but failed to do much of significance with the ball. Their delivery into attacking positions was dreadful, and half-time arrived with both sides having had one clear-cut chance each. Kieffer Moore, brought into the Wales team as a truly old fashioned ‘target man’, attempted to loop a head over Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who was off-balance and moving the wrong way but managed to contort himself and flick the ball over the crossbar. Not long afterwards, a flick from Schar from a cross from the right brought an excellent save from Danny Ward. Switzerland had other half-chances, but half-time arrived with the score goalless.
That opinion had broadly changed by the time an hour had been played. Switzerland took the lead four minutes in, when Breel Embolo headed in from a corner that had been won by Ward making another superb save. Wales, however, were not Turkey. They’d had less possession and completed fewer passes, but every time they pushed forward they looked capable of scoring. They may have less of the ball by volume, but in terms of effectiveness they were matching the Swiss team kick for kick, and with sixteen minutes to play they forced their way back into the match when a corner from the right was pushed back to to Joe Morrell, whose cross was flicked on and in by Moore.
There was a close save towards the end, when Mario Gavranovic stabbed the ball in from close range, but after one of those now familiar lengthy waits while the Roboref did its business, the goal was correctly disallowed for offside. It was a heart in mouth moment like no other. The offside was right there in front of us. But, while we all know that Roboref was specifically hatched in order to eradicate the concept of error from football, it is entirely possible for the human involvement in it all to chuck that out the window, as well. This time, though, the conspiracy theorists were denied, an indirect free-kick was given, and Wales held out for a draw that they deserved, albeit in a slightly backhanded fashion.
Switzerland, meanwhile, have issues of their own. They were profligate with their possession, and wasteful with their final ball too many times. There are reasons to believe that they’re capable of better. Their performance throughout the first fifteen minutes of the second half demonstrated this. Wales, though, will be the happier of the two teams going into their second match. The team that falls behind usually is, isn’t it?
Russia’s players didn’t take the knee prior to their game against Belgium in Moscow last night, and there was a powerful photograph doing the rounds last night of the Belgian striker Romelu Kulaku doing so in front of two (somewhat uncomfortable looking, it has to be said) Russian defenders. Lukaku scored twice as Belgium’s multi-cultural team swatted aside a distinctly white Russian team by three goals to nil.