Saturday 16 December 2017

Germany have power to extend Euro dominance


Once again, sport is going to indulge in a collective exercise of looking away. Now is the time when the stories are always scary and others mutter pointlessly that sport and politics shouldn't mix when the fact of hosting a tournament is always a political act.

Poland and Ukraine were awarded the tournament before Michel Platini took charge of UEFA but the president of Europe's football body will be tested as much as the teams, who will start to arrive this weekend in the host countries.

Ukraine will be the focus of most of the attention, not just because the most enthralling group in the tournament is based within its borders.

Sporting bodies, like empires, crave expansion. The fault lies not in the individual but in the system. Countries crave tournaments for nebulous reasons and ruling bodies, with everything financially adjusted in their favour, are quite happy to let them fight for them.

Greece's bankruptcy was accelerated by the money they blew hosting the Olympics, but time might be running out, especially for a tournament like the Euros.

Awarding the World Cup to Qatar was the most extreme example that the system has failed. Platini was among those who supported that bid, another sign that he might not be the agent of change some hope for if he succeeds Sepp Blatter at FIFA.

UEFA had to hustle to get countries to express an interest in the 2020 tournament and soon the model might collapse. This would be no bad thing. The idea that a country benefits economically has been refuted time after time but still it gets trotted out to win over a reluctant population.

Poland and Ukraine had other ideas but now they must deal with worrying talk of the racist abuse that is waiting for players and spectators; Ukraine, too, has to deal with a boycott because of its treatment of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. They will hope there is enough to distract people until July 1 but their own side might not do much about it. Any team which is said, as one preview stated, to rely on "the goals and inspiration" of Andriy Voronin has plenty of problems.

Yet they will have reason for hoping they can get out of their group. The opening game between England and France will offer greater insight into the potential of the French, who have so much to prove after the World Cup.

Laurent Blanc is analytical, considered and everything that Raymond Domenech wasn't, but he has already made some contentious decisions. Last week, he left Yoann Gourcuff out of the French squad, having already lost Loic Remy through injury. Gourcuff is a frustrating player, forced like many since 1998 to deal with the claim that he is the next Zidane. He isn't and after an injury-affected season, Gourcuff was cut.

The French should make it out of the group. England have their own problems, as they always do. The lowering of expectations has raised expectations that they might win the tournament because they won't be burdened by expectation. As long as news of the increased expectations doesn't reach the squad then they might be okay.

Roy Hodgson has made some impressively big decisions in his squad selection but he has lost the wrong member of the old guard through injury. If he persists with two men in central midfield and one of these is Steven Gerrard then England could really struggle.

When he was at his explosive best, Gerrard lacked the self-restraint to play in central midfield but what is clear now is that he also lacks the intelligence, the judgement about when to play the right pass. In some ways he suits the Hodgson philosophy -- when Gerrard dictates the play, England won't have much of the ball. Gerrard's shaky fitness could save England and get Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into the team.

Most teams find a different shape as tournaments progress and England's will need to change.

Poland have their own problems, mainly expectation. The coach Franciszek Smuda has put this down to the "malcontents" in his country who are full of inconsistencies. He has his own, selecting foreign-born players when he had previously said he would ignore them. A tournament is always more alive when the hosts survive but Poland have a better chance in an unappealing group, even if the world wants to see the grudge match if Greece can come out of the group and play Germany.

The Germans' greatest difficulty will be emerging from a potentially gripping group. Every team in it is capable of going far but the Germans are ready to climb to the summit.

Spain haven't looked so tired recently. Their Barcelona players looked refreshed in their Copa Del Rey victory and while they may be too exhausted to win the competition, they may just have enough energy to cause Ireland problems.

Those worries are for another day. Ireland are part of one of the world's premier tournaments for the first time in 10 years. Poland and Ukraine will be excitable and, it is hoped, welcoming hosts.

The truth of their politics and their nations shouldn't be ignored. Football matters too much for that. And when it comes to the football, Germany will demonstrate their domination.

Sunday Indo Sport

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