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Why Portugal & Sweden should both be kicked out of the U-21 Finals


In amongst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied England's latest dismal exit from a football tournament, the baying media managed to miss one rather important feature of England's elimination: it was grossly unfair.

While England were busy losing 3-1 to Italy in the European Under-21 Championships, the other two sides, Portugal and Sweden were playing each other with both realising early on - since Italy were three up with 72 minutes on the clock - that a draw would put both of them through at the expense of Italy. Portugal went one-up after 82 minutes, but the Swedes then equalised in the 89th. The final few minutes were then nothing short of a farce, with the teams passing the ball about between them with no effort to move upfield.

This situation is a major weakness of such a small group stage at major tournament finals. At club league level, it's very rare that two teams will play each other with the same result suiting both sides, but when there are just four teams and six matches, the odds are far higher.

The most famous example was the so-called 'Disgrace of Gijon' in the 1982 World Cup, when West Germany played Austria, with the sides knowing that a one or two goal victory to the Germans would put both sides through at the expense of Algeria. Horst Hrubesch's 10th minute opener for West Germany proved to be the last meaningful piece of action in the match, with both sides clearly coasting, while the unimpressed crowd chanted "Fuera, fuera" ("Out, out"), "Argelia, Argelia" ("Algeria, Algeria"), and "Que se besen, que se besen" ("Let them kiss, let them kiss"). The embarrassment was enough for FIFA to change scheduling so that final group games were always played at the same time.

However, this still hasn't been enough. Often, early goals will make certain results clear, freeing the way for a mutually-beneficial result and, even with the concurrent matches, a draw can still suit both teams before kick-off. All eyes were on Germany against USA in the 2014 World Cup, where a draw would have put both sides through. The Germans ended up winning that one, but USA still progressed by virtue of Portugal's win against Ghana.

Plenty would argue that the Portugal and Sweden players were simply being professional, but this is to insult spectators, who had paid money to watch, as well as to the team's own fans: if Sweden had pushed for the winner, they would have topped the group and - in theory, at least - played a weaker opponent in the semi-finals.

Yet here is another subtlety, which reared its ugly head in the London Olympics in an astonishing Badminton match. China's Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoliand faced off against South Koreans Jung Kyung-eun and Kim Ha-na in a final round-robin match knowing that the winners would face China's Tian Quing and Zhao Yunlei. Both pairs, having already qualified, attempted to lose - Yu and Wang in an effort to avoid their countrywomen and Jung and Kim to secure an easier match. A similar event happened later with a further two pairs, South Koreans Ha Jung-Eun and Kim Min-Jung and Indonesians Meiliana Juahari and Greysia Polii, who both attempted to lose to gain an easier draw in the next round.

There was no messing around: all eight players were disqualified, with the Badminton World Federation using a charge of "not using one's best efforts to win" and of "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport". Meanwhile, Great Britain's silver medallist Gail Emms said, "I'm furious. It is very embarrassing for our sport. This is the Olympic Games. This is something that is not acceptable. The crowd paid good money to watch two matches."

Where are the outraged voices in football saying this? They are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps one should not be surprised that the Badminton World Federation appear to be a ruling body with higher moral standards that UEFA or FIFA, but if ever there was a case of "not using one's best efforts to win", then the Sweden v Portugal match is it. Football seems to tolerate this situation via the cop-out clause of 'professionalism', but this is clearly a case of match-fixing. Regardless of it only being a few minutes of a game, the intention is the same: to a fix a result.

And, besides, using the 'it's just a few minutes' argument doesn't cut it: cricket has come down hard on those found guilty of spot-fixing, with Pakistan players Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir receiving huge bans in 2010, simply for attempting to 'fix' single deliveries to be no-balls; events which are unlikely to affect the result of a game. Never mind that their intention was to gain materially from the act, rather than in a sporting sense, the offence is still the same: not using one's best efforts, defrauding the public who expect teams to try to win, and for undermining the integrity of the sport.

It is depressing that this sad spectacle will barely merit a footnote in today's papers, but perhaps football waved goodbye to any moral compass long ago. This sort of event is surely another sad entry into the beautiful game's hall of shame.

(Image: Getty)



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