Sunday, June 17, 2012
Michel's big top is working, more or less
Euro 2012 is setting Michel Platini on course to run the world game
It has mostly been a fun Euro 2012 so far, which begs the question why UEFA feel the need to expand it to 24 teams in 2016. We always knew it was not the World Cup, and were happy with that.
It might grant the likes of Wales and Finland their moments in the sun, but with 2/3 of the first round making it to the second, there will be less of the titanic clashes like Spain v Italy a week ago and fewer high-octane final group games.
Four years ago I wallowed in UEFA hospitality around Austria and Switzerland for a month and got the sense the organisers were on a major, if bizarre PR offensive. After flashing my accreditation and passing my laptop through the X-Ray machine, I entered a UEFA theme park at every stadium on the way to my seat. This was not just the European Championships, it was the UEFA show, it implied.
Their self-promotion and vanity was everywhere, which seemed odd considering they had a monopoly in organising football in Europe. But as the takings and global viewing figures have increased, the overseers of big football tournaments have begun to look at themselves more as quasi-governmental organisations whom corporate giants like Coca-Cola and VISA hurry to court.
Taking their cue from FIFA's pretensions to grandeur, the UEFA name and logo is everywhere to be seen at Euro 2012 when it was largely inobtrusive and functional at the eight-team Euro '92 in Sweden, the first tournament I attended in a major way.
Do they want to topple FIFA in the future? Certainly UEFA President Michel Platini has his name on Sepp Blatter's throne once the beleaguered regime finally calls it a day in 2015 after 17 turgid years of sleaze and scandal. And if the Frenchman can disinfect the Augean stables of Zurich, so much the better. Platini is a storied ex-player, which helps his credibility, but the fact he has had a foot in both the pro and anti-Blatter camps for so long means the champagne remains on ice. We simply cannot be sure what sort of a FIFA President he will be.
While minded to trust Platini, the needless expansion to 24 teams and apparent willingness of European football's governing body to ape the commercial excesses of its Swiss neighbour give me cause for concern. So many members of the FIFA Ex.Co. (Jack Warner, Ricardo Texeira, Chuck Blazer...) have had their snouts in the trough, has Platini been uniquely immune from the prevailing culture of greed? I hope so.
Euro 2012 has been a major headache for him ever since two ill-prepared countries won the hosting by default in 2007 thanks to Italy's latest match-rigging scandal. The talk in the Alps four years ago was that the finals would soon be reallocated to Germany or Spain instead. A UEFA official told me at the 2009 U-21 tournament that it was going ahead because of the sensitivity of Western Europe's energy supplies being pumped through the Ukraine. So several 'last warnings later', here we are hoping Michel's big night goes off without a hitch.
Plain sailing it certainly has not been and UEFA will be glad when it is over. Racism was always going to be a factor with a tournament in Eastern Europe, and remains an embarrassment for an organisation so obsessed with its 'Kick-it-Out!' campaign. The many instances of abuse have been depressing but at least publicised, although the offending nations have been loathe to admit it. And while the hooliganism has been sickening, it could have been a lot worse and Russia's vast visiting army is on its way home now, much to the relief of the Polish police and UEFA.
Then there is transport, a worry I raised personally with the Polish organisers at the preliminary draw in Warsaw in 2010, for what it was worth. The vast distances and lack of high-speed rail demanded cheaper airfares for travelling fans, but they never materialised in time.
Poland and especially Ukraine missed their targets for accommodation improvements as well. Existing hoteliers jacked up their rates obscenely, leaving Platini to decry them quite rightly as "crooks and bandits" on the eve of the tournament. Some of the prices advertised truly beggared belief.
Many potential visitors were put off, while others held their noses and forked out. In truth, TV and sponsorship money matter more to UEFA than fans, so they did their best to disguise the empty seats at England v France in Donetsk with some fallacious figures about ticket sales.
At least the football has been worth watching, but a tournament is much more than the television spectacle. The real fans who have made the effort to travel to faraway places deserve more respect.
Four years from now France will host a much smoother competition for all concerned, although a bloated line-up could mean unwelcome bore-draws and dead rubbers in the first round.
Platini meanwhile, should be watching from high in the clouds above, his journey to becoming the most powerful man in world soccer complete.