The Nations League Semi-Finals: England Get What It Deserves

Perhaps semi-finals are going to become the new quarter-finals, then. At the end of forty-eight hours that have embarrassed England both on and off the pitch, Portugal will play the Netherlands in the final of the Nations League, whilst England will face Switzerland in a third/fourth place play-off that ranks amongst the most pointless competitive professional football matches of 2019. All in all, the last forty-eight hours or so have been a dismal reminder of shortcomings on the pitch and within a following that the rest of Europe surely can’t wait to see the back of. Indeed, the continental European football supporter could well be forgiven wishing that Brexit extended to expelling the English national team from UEFA as well.

No-one has successfully provided a satisfactory reason why cities such as Oporto, or Amsterdam last year, or Marseille three years ago, or any one of a lengthy list of the other cities that have been scarred by a visit from probably the worst football supporters on the planet, should have to put up with the game’s equivalent to the Norovirus, who pitch up their cities in their cargo shorts and polo shirts and cover their homes in booze, vomit, racism and hatred for a couple of days before going back home again. And much as we back in England may wish to ‘other’ these people, they walk amongst us. It’s been happening for decades now so it spans generations, and platitudes that “it’s a minority” and that “they’re not real fans” now amount to little more than exercises in deflection which excuse everybody else from doing something about them. And it’s clearly England’s problem. Welsh travelling supporters don’t act this way. Scottish travelling supporters don’t either.

The truth of the matter is that there is no easy fix for English hooliganism. If there was, it would have been applied years ago. They’ve tried light-touch policing and paid money for fan zones. They’ve tried heavy-handed policing and kettling. Hell, they even banned all English clubs from European competitions for five years, only to find that it continued at international matches regardless. As such, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is a fairly stark binary choice. Either everyone else in Europe has to continue putting up with this, or the England international team should simply be suspended from competition until such a time that it actually gets its house in order once and for all. Until such a point that someone can come up with a convincing reason why anyone living in, say, Dublin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Marseille, or any of the other myriad cities that have been visited and spoiled by the worst tourists on the planet over the last four decades or so, should have to put up with all of this because there happens to be a football match taking place there. 

It’s obviously cultural. Singing songs about a war that none of them can remember. The exceptionalism. The boorishness. The wanton – some might say gleeful – unpleasantness. Perhaps it’s time that everyone else in England looked at these people and wondered what it is about this particular country that so consistently turns out hundreds, if not thousands, of people who seem to have no issue with behaving in such a way. It’s been going on for too long and too many people have been involved for it to be pinned on the individuals concerned.

Knowing the origin story and failing to do anything about it is the point at which we are all guilty of a collective dereliction of duty. Yes, there are thousands of relatively innocent England supporters who get tarred by this brush. And yes, that does suck. But there does come a point at which turning the other way and saying, “Nothing to do with me, guv” is simply not good enough. This doesn’t just go for the government, the police or the FA, either. If it is society’s problem, then we do all have a role to play in finally trying to eradicate it. There are no easy answers to these extremely difficult and uncomfortable questions, but if the day after they’ve just trashed yet another city centre isn’t the time to ask them, then when, exactly, is?

As for the football itself… well, England matched the Netherlands for ninety minutes, although they did find themselves increasingly pushed back throughout the second half after having taken a first half lead thanks to a penalty kick from Marcus Rashford. Jesse Lingard’s disallowed “goal” with six minutes to play was called back by the VAR, but to call this as ‘unlucky’ would obviously be a stretch because it was reasonably clearly a correct call. In extra-time, two individual errors from John Stones and Ross Barkley – either of which would have looked more appropriately at home had they been playing  for the People’s Republic of Keystonia – cost England a place in the final of the competition. The Dutch pressed hard throughout, but surely even they couldn’t have expected that this policy would result in them being handed two goals in the manner in which they were.

The night before, Portugal had beaten Switzerland by three goals to one in Porto thanks to a hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo. The Guardian’s match report opened with the line “What more can be said about the man?” There is an answer to this question, but our legal adviser has suggested that we don’t say it publicly. Otherwise, the main talking point from this match was the award of a penalty to Switzerland by the VAR shortly before half-time. Steven Zuber fell inside the Portuguese penalty – it looked from the copious replays as though he’d tripped himself – but play switched quickly to the other end, whereupon Bernardo was quite clearly tripped by Fabian Schär. The referee, however, called play back to the other end of the pitch, the decision to award the penalty kick to Switzerland instead was wrongly given, and the Swiss drew level. Portugal’s two late goals rendered this mess a comparative irrelevance, but yet again UEFA have demonstrated VAR’s flaws just as much as its benefits. Referees and other officials are going to have to get used to the fact that even the most the most innocuous challenges (in this case, there was barely even a challenge at all) can look like Roy Keane sliding in on Alf Inge Haaland when viewed in super slow motion, from forty different angles. Who’d have thought?

The Portuguese will likely have breathed a huge sigh of relief at England’s implosion last night. After all, who’d want guests like those chucking bottles at the police for no particular reason other than that they felt like it staying any longer than the absolute bare minimum period of time? The FA may be charged with something they can’t do anything much about and the world will likely continue turning very much as it did before. And all of this will happen because no-one has an answer. And no-one has an answer because perhaps the only other solution that exists is a nuclear option which no-one really wants to take. In the 1970s, we were “the sick man of Europe.” In some respects, nothing has changed over the course of the intervening decades.