Journey to the centre of the Europa League – Matchday 3

‘O Jogo Bonito’, as the besotted Brazilians would have it. To us: ‘The Beautiful Game’. We know, however, that football has a hideously ugly side too.

No, this not another diatribe about VAR’s horrendously sclerotic (and pointlessly pedantic) application at the elite level, rather a brief reflection on the insidious instances of racism which still afflict the sport. A society-wide scourge – amplified and broadcast from stadia worldwide – continues to taint the people’s game.

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Unfortunately, football is a forum for the unenlightened to air their antiquated views. As such, innumerable incidents have littered the start of the European season, amid a cacophony of opinions on how to stem the flood of abhorrent behaviour. Naturally, the apparent ineptitude of those who govern the game, in terms of meting out suitable sanctions, has drawn focus.

Take the case of Slovan Bratislava, for instance. UEFA rejected the Slovak side’s appeal against a ruling laid down after their fans displayed banners and sang chants that were deemed to be racist by UEFA’s Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body during their game against PAOK, in August.

Slovan were subsequently fined €50,000 (and an additional €41,750 for “blocking of stairways, throwing of objects, invasion of the field of play and insufficient organisation”). They have also been ordered to display an ‘#EqualGame’ banner, in an empty gesture echoing that of similar banners present at England’s traumatic trip to Sofia last week.

Thursday’s game with Wolves will be watched by a full house, despite a virtually meaningless ‘behind-closed-doors’ ruling. Perhaps laudably, UEFA rules allow children under 14 to attend such matches free of charge. Up to 15,000 people (including one adult per every 10 children) are permitted, but there are, in fact, expected to be more than 21,000 fans filtering into Tehelné Pole. Farcically, it will represent Slovan’s biggest attendance of the season, as the club confirmed on Twitter that the entire ground will be filled for this crucial group stage game.

To the annoyance and exasperation of the club hierarchy and fans alike, only 200 Wolves supporters were offered tickets (at £55 each – as set by the hosts). This is because UEFA’s Article 73 states that ‘a maximum of 200 people…from the visiting club or association and a maximum of 20 VIP guests’ will also be permitted to attend.

UEFA believe that security issues could occur if visiting fans were allowed into a game from which home supporters were barred. However, the old-fashioned concept of ‘punishment as deterrent’ is far from being fully upheld.

A restricted attendance of only 5,000 children in their last home fixture, against Beşiktaş, failed to prevent them from sealing a late 4-2 win, followed by a draw with Braga which leaves them top of Group K on goal difference from the Portuguese side. Trailing behind their hosts, Wolves’ minds must remain on football matters – if circumstances permit – as they aim to regain ground lost so far.

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Celtic manager Neil Lennon fears there could “possibly” be similar issues arising when his side visit Lazio in the second game of their back-to-back contests – one which will be played in a partially-closed stadium after biancocelesti fans were found guilty of racist behaviour during the win against Rennes at the Olimpico earlier this month.

“I wouldn’t discourage any player from walking off the pitch if he is getting racially abused,” asserted Lennon.

I would encourage it because it is pointing out there is a wrong and we all have to do a little bit more to prevent it. And for the individuals it is personal and it is very hurtful.

With the Curva Nord emptied – and up to 9,000 ‘Bhoys’ fans expected to travel to the Eternal City – home advantage may be somewhat negated for the Serie A side in the November game. However, at Celtic Park this Thursday, they’ll be fired by red-hot striker Ciro Immobile, whose nine goals in eight games include two in the remarkable comeback draw with Champions League participants Atalanta at the weekend.

Former Borussia Dortmund forward Immobile used all his experience in winning a pair of penalties; converting both to steal an unlikely point against the high-flying visitors from Bergamo.

Celtic are early leaders of Group E; both sides having registered home wins on the second matchday. The Scottish champions have tallied four points so far: a home win against CFR Cluj following a creditable 1-1 draw away to Rennes. Lazio start a point in arrears, though they recovered from a shock opening loss in Romania to beat Rennes in that blighted game at the Olimpico, thanks to second-half goals from Sergej Milinković-Savić and the razor-sharp Immobile.

Featuring in-form forwards of their own, last years’ semi-finalists Eintracht Frankfurt enter a home and away double-header with Standard Liège with a spring in their step. An unexpected 3-0 thumping of Bayer Leverkusen last Friday not only boosted spirits after an inconsistent start to the campaign, but also allowed nearly a full week of recuperation before Thursday’s Group F fixture.

An electric start – propelled by the incessant Filip Kostić – saw Gonçalo Paciência bag a brace inside 16 minutes to help continue their unbeaten domestic start at the Commerzbank-Arena. Left-winger Kostić is the sole survivor of last year’s now-disassembled attack, which featured Real Madrid’s Luka Jović, Sébastien Haller (now of West Ham) and Ante Rebić (since loaned to Milan).

Goals have not dried up, however. Options open to coach Adi Hütter include André Silva (on loan, in exchange for Rebic), former Sporting goal-machine Bas Dost and prolific Portuguese poacher Paciência. These three have notched nearly 80% of Frankfurt’s league goals this term, though Silva sat out the Leverkusen game with a foot injury.

Both sides sit on three points, having shared the misfortune of heavy defeat apiece against many people’s competition favourites, Arsenal. Standard, in particular, will be acutely aware of the need for positive results, as they failed to progress from this phase last year despite notching up ten points. It is likely that whichever side emerges with an edge after the games in Frankfurt and Liège will follow the Gunners into the last 32.

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This is Michel Preud’homme’s third spell in charge at Standard, his most recent return in May 2018 coming after ten years away. Hot on the heels of Club Brugge in the Belgian Pro League, the ex-Belgium goalkeeper’s prolific side feature talents such as nomadic French winger Maxime Lestienne and Paul-José M’Poku, a Tottenham academy graduate who once featured on loan at Leyton Orient back in 2010/11.

Like M’Poku, tiny Austrian club Wolfsberg’s ascent to this level has been vertiginous. Their scarcely-believable opening group stage game saw Borussia Mönchengladbach feel the bitter sting of humiliation by a genuine continental minnow, as Gladbach slumped to a crushing 0-4 defeat. It was their worst loss at home in Europe.

Since, the ship has steadied – aided by the sterling contributions of a starlet with a familiar surname. Marcus Thuram (son of World Cup winner, Lilian) built on an impressive start to life in the Bundesliga by netting a double in the derby with Fortuna Düsseldorf; immediately lifting Marco Rose’s side from the ashes of their Europa League nadir.

The fast-developing forward has gone on to combine with fellow attackers Alassane Pléa and Breel Embolo to fire his new club to the top of the early-season table; then found himself deservedly crowned Germany’s September ‘Rookie of the Month’ (ahead of Schalke’s Everton loanee Jonjoe Kenny).

Thuram was primarily engaged in tracking the relentless surges of Dortmund’s Nico Schulz at the weekend, as Gladbach were defeated, courtesy of Marco Reus’ customary goal against his former employers. While emulating his famous father’s exploits in defending the right flank was an admirable effort in a losing cause, the Frenchman will instead hope to demonstrate his sparkling form in the final third as his side take on Roma.

A heavy-pressing focus and the emergence of a significantly Swiss spine (in excellent ‘keeper Yann Sommer, centre-half Nico Elvedi, Denis Zakaria and the powerful Embolo) has seen die Fohlen emerge as plucky challengers to the big two in Germany. Club captain Lars Stindl also made his comeback as a second-half substitute following a six-month absence with a broken shin and can now continue his reintegration in the Europa League. The 31-year-old Germany international has registered an impressive 12 goals and 11 assists in his 38 appearances in UEFA competition to date.

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Roma, meanwhile, should feature another famous surname, as Justin Kluivert is expected to feature in an attack shorn of injured pair Edin Džeko and Nikola Kalinić. The giallorossi could only manage a goalless draw with ex-boss Claudio Ranieri’s Sampdoria on Sunday: another game spoiled by monkey-chanting morons – England U21 midfielder Ronaldo Vieira suffering abuse by a section of Roma fans.

“I heard it but I don’t want to talk about it. This happens too often, it shouldn’t be this way,” Vieira told Rai Sport after the game.

While governing bodies can’t be expected to cure society’s ills and dissolve all discrimination, these incidents are bringing a latent issue in Italy – and across UEFA’s entire jurisdiction – to a head. Until more radical action is taken, football’s grand claims as the world’s most inclusive sport are nothing more than just empty bluster.

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