World Cup power rankings

The World Cup group stages are done and dusted for another four years, and now we’re into the rounds where stories are written and legends forged. With half the original 32 teams eliminated and the remaining half still harbouring dreams of getting their hands on the trophy come 15th July, here’s how the runners and riders are shaping up based on their pre-tournament expectations, performances so far and standard of opposition faced.

Into the knockouts

1. Brazil 🇧🇷

Ominous. The Seleçao didn’t really have to shift out of second gear in Group E, despite being held by Switzerland and, for large periods, Costa Rica. In stark contrast to the 2014 side, who were ridiculously dependent on Neymar, Tite’s men are built from the back, with the central spine of Thiago Silva, Miranda and Casemiro allowing the flair players to flourish. Already look like the team to beat, despite being in the more illustrious half of the draw.

2. Croatia 🇭🇷

Made child’s play of the most difficult-looking group in this World Cup. Renowned as an attractive footballing side, Croatia have struggled to make an impact on this tournament since finishing third in 1998, but three wins out of three have earmarked them as real dark horses in Russia. The way they brushed aside a hopeless Argentina in the second half will live long in the memory.

3. Spain 🇪🇸

Feted by many as favourites, suffered a blow losing their manager on the eve of the tournament but kept up their two-year unbeaten run with a win and two draws. Looked out of sorts in the draw with Morocco and were thankful for the late drama in Saransk which allowed them to top the group and avoid a dangerous-looking Uruguay.

4. Belgium 🇧🇪

As in 2014, the Belgians won all three of their group games, but this time around you get the sense that they’re a serious contender, rather than just a team of very good players who could possibly sneak into the latter stages. The key trio of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku is arguably unmatched in the competition, while Thibault Courtois, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen boast years of experience at the back. Looked a little shaky defensively against Tunisia, but showcased their strength in depth in beating England.

5. Uruguay 🇺🇾

Yet to concede a goal, La Celeste’s performances in their games against the weaker sides were stodgy at best. However, spearheaded by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, the 2010 semi-finalists comfortably dealt with a resurgent Russia and look good bets to go deep into the tournament.

6. Mexico 🇲🇽

The earth-shaking win over Germany had many tipping the North Americans as potential outsiders, but the shock 0-3 reverse to Sweden means another round of 16 exit looms large. A counter-attacking side, spearheaded by Javier Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Hirving ‘Chucky’ Lozano, Mexico have the potential to hurt Brazil – but will they be affected by their old demons?

7. England  🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿

It seems as if the whole country has got carried away with the possibilities the next few weeks hold, but we still don’t know exactly how good the Three Lions are. A late Harry Kane header saw off a limited but organised Tunisia side, before England – for once – put the worst side in the tournament to the sword. Gareth Southgate opted to rest most of his first XI in the stupifying defeat to Belgium, meaning we go into the Colombia game with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

8. France 🇫🇷

All the talent in the world, but yet to truly impress in this tournament. The first-half performance against Peru showed signs of what Griezmann, Pogba and Mbappe can conjure up, but the less said about the insipidness of the Australia and Denmark (when Deschamps made numerous changes) games, the better. Will hope they can replicate Euro 2016, when they significantly improved in the knockout rounds, but there’s a sense that, as long as Didier Deschamps runs this team, they won’t reach their potential.

9. Portugal 🇵🇹

Played their part in one of the games of the tournament, but don’t seem to have progressed much from the reactive, unspectacular side that became European champions by winning just one game in 90 minutes. Will go into the second round tie with Uruguay as underdogs, but with Cristiano Ronaldo in form, anything could happen.

10. Colombia 🇨🇴

Arguably the best side at Brazil 2014, Colombia are a dangerous outfit who few sides will relish coming up against. Were unlucky to lose to Japan in their opener, but blew away a stodgy-looking Poland, with the creative triumvirate of James Rodriguez, Juan Quintero and Juan Cuadrado effervescent throughout.

11. Switzerland 🇨🇭

A famously reactive unit, they looked oddly easy to get at in Group E. Will be relieved that Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, arguably their two most important players, escaped bans for their politically-charged celebrations during their win over Serbia. Place highly in these rankings due to a more favourable round of 16 draw; quarter-finals is surely their limit.

12. Argentina 🇦🇷

A swing of Marcos Rojo’s boot away from exiting the competition after flattering to deceive in Group D. Pre-tournament fears about the balance of Argentina’s squad came to fruition as Lionel Messi struggled to elevate the performances of an average bunch much higher than, well, average levels. Still, they’re in the knockout rounds, and as we know, anything can happen there.

13. Sweden 🇸🇪

Just another football team that has improved exponentially after Zlatan Ibrahimovic has exited, stage right. The outspoken striker, arguably the country’s greatest ever player, came out after the Germany game and said he could perform much better than the current players. Janne Andersson’s side made a mockery of that theory as, marshalled superbly by captain Andreas Granqvist, they picked off Mexico and topped Group F.

14. Russia 🇷🇺

Raced out of the blocks, but pre-tournament concerns about lack of quality came to fruition as they were eased out in the group decider by Uruguay. Even with an out of sorts Spain waiting in Moscow, the hosts are unlikely to make it further than the round of 16.

15. Japan 🇯🇵

Looked good in spells during the 2-2 draw with Senegal, but benefited massively from Carlos Sanchez’s third minute red card in the opener against Colombia. Play neat, tidy football and have a few individuals who can change games, but round of 16 should be a step too far for this ageing outfit.

16. Denmark 🇩🇰

Arguably the most limited of the 16 sides to have made it to the knockout rounds, the Danes can at least boast a solid defence, having conceded just once in Group C. They are, however, massively reliant on Christian Eriksen for goals and should find Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod a step too far.

Eliminated

17. Senegal 🇸🇳

Eliminated by virtue of having picked up two more yellow cards than Japan; a real hard luck story for Aliou Cisse’s men in just their second World Cup. Sadio Mane, Mbaye Niang and Ismaila Sarr impressed with their link-up in attack, while several youngsters also shone, such as the right-back Moussa Wagué. Ones to watch in future?

18. Peru 🇵🇪

One of the most enjoyable sides to watch at this World Cup, and certainly one of the best supported, Peru will look back at their unfortunate defeat to Denmark in the group opener with regret. Had Christian Cueva’s penalty gone in, the South Americans’ first tournament since 1982 could have gone very differently.

19. Nigeria 🇳🇬

Creditable second half showings against Iceland and Argentina, and only minutes away from progress, but inexperience and an anaemic performance in their tournament opener cost the Super Eagles. Promising squad who could make a mark in 2022.

20. Morocco 🇲🇦

Somehow only managed to glean one point from their three games, despite playing attractive, buccaneering football. Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda were among the competition’s finest playmakers and it’s tempting to wonder if they’d have escaped the group with a more clinical centre-forward.

21. Serbia 🇷🇸

First half good, second half not so good. At half-time of their second game against Switzerland, Serbia were 1-0 up and cruising towards the last 16. The furore over a penalty not awarded for a clear foul on Aleksandr Mitrovic, as well as the Swiss’ ‘double eagle’ celebration clouded over Serbia’s second-half collapse in that game, meaning the encounter with Brazil was always going to be an uphill struggle.

22. Iran 🇮🇷

As resolute as ever, Iran gained plenty of admirers with their organised display in the narrow defeat to Spain. Were a hair’s breadth from qualifying for the second round, despite only scoring twice. Both goals – an own goal against Morocco and a disputed penalty in the game with Portugal – came deep in injury time.

23. Iceland 🇮🇸

A credible first World Cup showing for the Scandinavians, with the superb rearguard effort against Argentina the undoubted highlight. Performed well against Croatia in the final group game, and perhaps unlucky to lose, but were blown away by Nigeria in the second-half of the encounter in Volgograd.

24. South Korea 🇰🇷

Looked very limited until the incredible late win against Germany, which will no doubt go down in Korean football folklore, next to those famous nights in 2002.

25. Australia 🇦🇺

Defensively the Socceroos were as dogged as ever, but lacked quality elsewhere on the pitch, with their only two goals both coming from Mile Jedinak penalties. Had the better of a dull 1-1 draw with Denmark, but never really looked like escaping the group.

26. Germany 🇩🇪

Has a reigning world champion ever exited the tournament so meekly? If Toni Kroos’ late, late strike against Sweden was supposed to ignite the holders’ title defence, it seems no-one informed Die Mannschäft. Whether it’s Manuel Neuer losing the ball on the left wing, Jerome Boateng tying himself in knots or countless Mexicans pouring into oceans of final-third space, none of the images of Germany’s World Cup flatter Joachim Low’s side.

27. Poland 🇵🇱

Is there a nation which regularly disappoints at tournaments more often than Poland? Is there a player who flatters to deceive on the big stage as much as Robert Lewandowski? One of the worst World Cups from a seeded nation in living memory; the Poles looked slow and uninspired from the first whistle and the win they gleaned from the game with Japan must have an asterisk next to it, considering the manner in which the Samurai Blue saw out the game.

28. Tunisia 🇹🇳

Went into the tournament as the highest ranked African nation, but were hamstrung by the injury suffered to star playmaker Youssef Msakni. Showed little in the defeat to England but reacted to that setback by being too open against Belgium. Spearheaded by Wahbi Khazri, they secured a first World Cup win since 1978 in the dead rubber versus Panama, with Fakhereedine Ben Youssef’s goal a particular highlight.

29. Costa Rica 🇨🇷

An already ageing side were hamstrung by the fact that their two key players – Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz – lacked match fitness after being out of favour at their clubs last season. Had the impressive Keylor Navas to thank for keeping Brazil from the door for 90+ minutes but, the late 2-2 draw with Switzerland aside, a poor World Cup for the 2014 quarter-finalists.

30. Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦

Looked set to become one of the worst World Cup sides in history after their opening day horror show against the hosts, but saved face with a creditable performance against Uruguay before securing a first win at the tournament since 1994 in the dead rubber with Egypt.

31. Egypt 🇪🇬

Unlucky to concede late goals to Uruguay and Saudi Arabia, but fans won’t look back at a first World Cup appearance in 28 years with too much adoration. Mo Salah clearly wasn’t fully fit, but the limited talent he had to work with was found out, even in a weak group.

32. Panama 🇵🇦

Well, it was an extraordinary achievement simply to reach the finals. Panama, whose population is 80 times smaller than the United States, may have been outclassed by Belgium and England, but Russia 2018 is a tournament their fans won’t forget in a hurry.

 

Advertisements

5 potential World Cup debutants

With WC qualification reaching its final stages, here are 5 potential debutants still in with a chance of reaching Russia…

Next summer’s World Cup in Russia will be the 21st edition of the tournament and, up to now, every four years has seen at least one new country make its bow on the world stage. In 2014, Bosnia-Herzegovina were the sole debutants, but since the turn of the century, 15 national teams have made their first appearance, including Ecuador, Senegal, Ghana, Ukraine and Slovakia.

With the World Cup qualification rounds entering their final stages this week, let’s take a look at five countries which still harbour hopes of qualifying for FIFA’s greatest event for the first time in their history:

Syria

Syria’s problems over the last half-decade have been well-documented by the international press and it’s a minor miracle that the Qasioun Eagles still have a chance to emulate neighbouring Iraq by qualifying for a major tournament. Of course, no-one is predicting that Ayman Al Hakeem’s side will win the World Cup (the war-torn Iraqis memorably took home the Asian Cup in 2007)  but if they come through a set of two-legged play-offs against Australia and CONCACAF’s fourth-best team, the World Cup will have another great story on its hands.

Homeless due to the multi-faceted conflict still raging across the country, Syria have been playing their ‘home’ fixtures 4,500 miles away in Malaysia, but this hasn’t affected the team who mustered an impressive qualifying campaign just four years after being disqualified from qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil. Inevitably, politics has entered the equation, with some accusing the team of championing the government’s cause, but it’s remarkable that Syria are still in with a chance, especially when the riches of China and Qatar are already out of contention.

Star man: Firas Al Khatib – The veteran captain has a goal-every-other-game scoring record at international level and has played his club football at some of Asia’s premier teams, including Shanghai Shenhua.

Chances: Unlikely. Australia have been poor by their recent standards, but lost just once in the group stages. The Socceroos will be clear favourites and, in the unlikely event the Syrians do pull off a shock this week, the USA, Honduras or Panama will lie in wait in November.

Iceland

Even after their heroic Euro 2016 exploits, it’s still tempting to look upon Iceland as one of Europe’s minnows. The reality is that, under Lars Lagerback and now Heimir Hallgrímsson – who was joint manager with the Swede up until last summer – the team from the continent’s far north have established themselves as regular contenders for qualification. Four years ago, Gylfi Sigurdsson and co. enjoyed their best ever World Cup qualification campaign, finishing second in Group E behind Switzerland and narrowly losing to Croatia in a play-off.

In France, they entrenched themselves in the hearts of football fans across Europe, beating Austria and shocking England before exiting in a blaze of glory against the hosts in the quarter-finals. So, can 2018 be the year Iceland make their debut on the grandest stage of all? Should Hallgrímsson’s men qualify, they’ll easily be the smallest nation ever to play in a World Cup – the current holder of that title, Trinidad and Tobago has a population four times larger than Iceland.

Star man: Gylfi Sigurdsson – the Everton star takes up four positions on the list of the top 10 most expensive Icelandic footballers of all time and is integral to everything the side does.

Chances: Good. Iceland currently sit second in a close Group I, behind old nemesis Croatia on goal difference. That means they need four points to secure at least a spot in the dreaded play-offs, but the next game – away to Turkey – could prove problematic. Gain a positive result and, with Croatia and 4th placed Ukraine facing off on 9th October and Iceland due to play at home against bottom-of-the-table Kosovo, the Viking Thunder Clap could well be getting an airing in Russia next summer.

 

Iceland v Hungary - EURO 2016 - Group F
Gylfi Sigurdsson – Everton’s £45m playmaker and Iceland’s undisputed star.

 

Panama

Los Canaleros – the Canal Men – came within seconds of qualifying for the play-off for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Leading 2-1 after 90 minutes against the USA, Panama were set to finish above North American powerhouses Mexico on goals scored and set up a tie with New Zealand. But two goals in injury time, from Graham Zusi and Aron Johansson, meant the Americans saved their rivals from an ignominious exit and left the Panamanians ruing what might have been.

Four years on, however, and the picture is looking much rosier. Currently third in the ‘Hex’ – the final CONCACAF qualifying round – Panama have been solid if unspectacular, scoring seven and conceding five in their eight games so far. A point ahead of the US and Honduras, two wins from their final two games will secure an automatic berth in Russia, although four points may also be enough.

Star man: Román Torres – one of a number of MLS-based players in the Panama squad, Torres recently passed 100 caps and scored a key late equaliser in a home draw with Honduras.

Chances: Panama are in a strong position, although whether that’s down to the US’s poor form so far is up for debate. Los Canaleros have won just twice and may have to double that tally to qualify for their first World Cup. The trouble is, they have to make a trip to the States before hosting second-placed Costa Rica. They may have to settle for a play-off against either Australia or Syria.

Burkina Faso

Africa hasn’t had a World Cup debutant since 2006, when Ivory Coast, Ghana, Angola and Togo all made their bow, to varying degrees of success. When the competition expands to 48 teams in 2026, the CAF confederation will be one of the main beneficiaries, but, for now, Burkina Faso are leading the charge when it comes to breaking the boundaries.

The Burkinabes – who represent a nation of 17 million people – were narrowly edged out by Algeria in a play-off for Brazil 2014, but it’s in the Africa Cup of Nations where the team has really made its mark, finishing as runners-up to Nigeria in 2013 and taking the bronze medal in Gabon earlier this year.

Star man: Bertrand Traore – the former Chelsea and Ajax forward now plies his trade at Lyon and, despite a quiet start to his international career, should be the long-term successor to currently injured talisman Jonathan Pitroipa.

Chances: Very good, although dealt a blow by FIFA’s recent decision to have the South Africa v Senegal match replayed. South Africa won the original game, but the referee has been given a lifetime ban, meaning the Senegalese now have the chance to leapfrog Burkina Faso back to the top of the group. With only one spot in the finals to play for, Burkina Faso have understandably appealed the decision, but will be confident of winning their remaining games against Cape Verde and South Africa to give themselves a fighting chance of making it to Russia regardless.

 

04022017_burkina_football
Burkina Faso celebrate third place at this year’s AFCON.

 

Cape Verde

Another African nation vying for qualification are Burkina Faso’s group opponents, Cape Verde. Although this tiny island nation has long had a penchant for producing very good footballers – ex-Manchester United winger Nani was born there, as were Gelsons Fernandes and Martins – most have opted to play for Portugal, the former colonial occupants. African Cup of Nations qualifications in 2013 and 2015 were evidence of a bright new crop, though, and, after four games, the Blue Sharks sit second in their group, with more than a decent shot at playing on the global stage for the very first time.

Star man: Garry Rodrigues. The 26 year-old Galatasaray winger netted twice in Durban as Cape Verde completed the double over 2010 hosts South Africa.

Chances: Again, this depends on the fallout from the decision to replay the South Africa v Senegal match. Should Senegal win that replay, Cape Verde’s chances would be severely hit. If Burkina Faso’s appeal is successful, however, the island nation’s fate will be in their hands: beat Senegal in Praia in October and win in Ouagadougou in November and it’ll be party time in the Atlantic archipelago.

Several other African nations, including 2012 African champions Zambia, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon and a dangerous Uganda are also in contention to make it, but face tough qualifiers this week against Nigeria, Morocco and Ghana, which could dash their hopes.

Stay tuned for some more World Cup-related posts as we get closer to the tournament.

On going to watch Morrissey by myself

Three weeks ago. I’m stood outside the homecoming gig of one of my musical idols, Morrissey, in Manchester. Billed as ‘his only UK date of the year’, and potentially his last in the country, I’ve taken the marketing spiel hook, line and sinker, but I’ve ended up coming alone. The weather is typically Mancunian; damp, drab, depressing, but the overall mood is jovial as I stand outside the Beerhouse at Victoria Station, pint of Thornbridge Jaipur in one hand, iPhone in the other, my fingers swiping frantically through various social media feeds to give out the impression I’m busy, rather than lonely.

He thrives on being aloof, indecipherable and, well, different in the world of pop but, in reality, fairly normal.

Now, I know that’s a prime candidate for moribund paragraph of the year, but hear me out. Is there any better way to sample the Pope of Mope’s ouevre live for the first time than in the company of yourself? After all, this is an artist who has built a career on appearing the odd one out; a character whose literary canon is largely formed on the basis of not fitting in. The Smiths were a band that appealed to teens who liked to ‘go to clubs and stand on their own’. I’m not saying I’m a social outcast, but the segment of Morrissey’s image that has always appealed to me most is this sense that he thrives on being aloof, indecipherable and, well, different in the world of pop but, in reality, fairly normal.

Morrissey is seen by those who don’t understand – including my parents, who were my age when the Smiths hit – as depressing, his music suicidal. His views on animal welfare and the establishment are controversial, perhaps arrogant, and a great deal of people in the music industry look upon 2016 Morrissey as a caricature of himself, desperately clinging on to his old fan base while regurgitating the same old poisonous gripes with meat-eaters, the monarchy and the mass media. As a young man born in 1992, I struggle to reconcile this modern day image of the man with my idea of him at his peak in the ’80s.

For me, Morrissey is a figure best exemplified by the candid interviews given around this time, when he was still a figure who could very much shape how he appeared in the public’s perception. This example, from 1985, shows the-then Smiths frontman discussing his youth and upbringing, talking about how he used to pound the streets of Manchester to pass the time, then go home and ‘write furiously’. Everything about this interview paints Morrissey as a shy, awkward, lonely figure – he struggles to look his old teacher in the eye and admits that he ‘never had a social life’, preferring to sit at home and read, rather than fraternise with his peers from the school he hates. It’s a feeling we’ve all had – at varying intensities – at some point or other, but, as young Steven suggests in the video, it’s commonly perceived as a ‘negative’ feeling. Yet, in the idea of Morrissey the individual, I found something I liked.

A musical example: The Smiths’ anthem for the criminally shy, Ask, is one of their best songs and the source for the title of this blog. When I was 17 or 18, and more impressionable and less cynical than I am now, I used to listen to verses like Shyness is nice, and/Shyness can stop you/From doing all the things in life/You’d like to and think ‘sure, I know what this guy is getting at here.’ I’d never been crippled by shyness when I was younger, but I sometimes wondered whether my general circumstances would benefit from being more, you know, outgoing.

Even as part of a band – in pop culture, the ultimate symbol of brotherhood and camaraderie – Morrissey could often cut an isolated figure. Although, without doubt, he and Johnny Marr combined to make magical music for a few years, the method behind the recordings, with Marr apparently sending Moz tape recordings of his guitar tracks for the front man to embroider with his lyrics, was less than conventional, anti-collective, even. As in our lives, as with me, Morrissey did sometimes wish to thrive in the spotlight, among others, but he also appreciated and enjoyed being left to his own devices and being in control of his own time.

smiths-1

Exterior. Beerhouse. A couple, perhaps in their mid-30s – or maybe I’m being generous – step out. The woman has yellow gladioli shoved down the back of her trousers, the bloke is drinking Stella. He tells her the flowers don’t look right; they’re not the same as when Moz first appeared on Top of the Pops, and in the nation’s conscience. He’s correct: Morrissey’s gladioli were red. I tell the couple this much. They ask how I could possibly know, say that I don’t look old enough to know. But I explain my love for the man’s music, and we get chatting. The woman is more of a fan than her partner, just as I’m more of a fan than any of my absent friends. We discuss some of the lesser-known songs, recite a few lyrics, and ask each other what we’re most looking forward to seeing.

10 minutes later though, I’m back on my own, waiting to gain entrance to the arena. Most people would call you a sad case for going to the cinema alone; some folk don’t even venture to the shops without going on a whip round of their mates to see who’s coming. But here I am, seeing one of my favourite artists, with nothing but me and my thoughts for company. You know what, though? I don’t care. And, deep down, I think that a 23 year-old Morrissey would understand. Maybe he’d even approve.

The last 16 of Euro 2016: who’s going through and who’s going home?

With the elongated group stages finally out of the way, this weekend marks the start of the European Championships’ first-ever ’round of 16′, with the remaining teams doing battle over three days to decide who will progress to the quarter-finals.

While none of the traditionally big nations have exited the competition, the likes of Hungary, Iceland and Northern Ireland have caused a surprise at the expense of Austria, Russia and the Czech Republic, all of whom have gone home after disappointing campaigns. Here, I’m going to preview each of the eight games played this weekend, starting with Saturday’s opener in Saint-Étienne.

Switzerland v Poland

When? Saturday 25 June, 2pm

Where? Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Étienne

The lowdown

The first of several similarities between these two much-of-a-muchness sides, both took on the label of dark horses before the tournament began, but have been a little underwhelming thus far in France, managing just two goals apiece, with stars such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Robert Lewandowski failing to reprise their club form. Poland should have put a below-part Northern Ireland to the sword in their opening game, but their failure to do so meant they finished runners-up to Germany, while Switzerland, after victory against Albania, seemed happy to settle for second place in Group A.

With only one goal conceded (and that was a penalty from Romania’s Bogdan Stancu), the strength of these two is undoubtedly in defence, with Poland’s Kamil Glik and Switzerland’s Fabian Schar featuring in many experts’ ‘team of the group stages’. Whoever wins this one will probably fall victim to the superior technical ability of Croatia or Portugal in the quarter-finals, but, to fans back home, it won’t matter: Euro 2016 marks the first time either Poland or Switzerland have qualified for the knockout stages of the continental competition, these halcyon days a far cry from the dark ages of the barren 1990s.

Blast from the past

The two met in qualifying for Euro ’80, with Poland – boasting the likes of the legendary Zbigniew Boniek – winning both games 2-0. Despite this, the Poles failed to make it to the tournament proper in Italy.

Prediction

Two of the more sterile teams going forward so far, this won’t be a classic, but Poland should edge it by virtue of their stronger midfield. Poland to progress.

Wales v Northern Ireland

When? Saturday 25 June, 5pm

Where? Parc des Princes, Paris

The lowdown

A clash between arguably the two loudest sets of fans in the tournament, both sides will be delighted to have made it this far, but Chris Coleman’s Wales, joint-top scorers in the competition, will have their eyes on a potential quarter-final against qualifying opposition Belgium. With a strong midfield and Gareth Bale in healthy goalscoring form, the Dragons will probably look to start on the front foot, although it could be an interesting tactical battle, with both playing three at the back (Wales’ full-backs are a little more attacking.)

Northern Ireland, despite their heroics in Group C, are probably the weakest side left in Euro 2016, and will struggle for goals, with Kyle Lafferty still unfit and Conor Washington more of a workhorse than a prolific forward. Michael O’Neill will send his team out as disciplined as ever, but this will probably be a bridge too far.

Blast from the past

A 1-1 draw in Swansea in 1984 – with Mark Hughes and Gerry Armstrong the goalscorers – helped secure the last-ever Home Championship title for Northern Ireland.

Prediction

Neither side has any experience in tournament knockouts, so it’s anyone’s guess, although Wales, with the better squad, will probably have the run of the play while Northern Ireland will look to sit back. The individual battle between Gareth Bale and Michael McGovern could be key. Wales to progress.

1466530947-07c199b6e057f58683d49c21ae6678ca-1038x576
Michael McGovern was man of the match in Northern Ireland’s 0-1 defeat to Germany, keeping the score down to ensure his nation’s progress.

Croatia v Portugal

When? Saturday 25 June, 8pm

Where? Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens

The lowdown

Arguably the most intriguing last 16 encounter of all sees Croatia, the group stages’ most impressive side, facing Portugal, who dominated possession and chance creation in all three of their games, but failed to win one. For Croatia, it’s all about the team, particularly the midfield, where Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic control play and Ivan Perisic provides pace out wide. For Portugal, well, it’s all about one man: Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo, to put it mildly, didn’t have the best of starts to Euro 2016, but a brace against Hungary does much to reinvigorate Portuguese hopes, especially when one considers the brittle way in which Croatia ceded a 2-0 lead in the latter stages of their draw with the Czech Republic. Whoever emerges from this game will probably be favourites to reach the final, so expect a titanic tussle between some of Europe’s most talented and technical players.

Blast from the past

The two nations met at Euro ’96, in Croatia’s first-ever tournament as an independent nation. Portugal won 3-0, through goals from Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and Domingos, but both sides progressed to the quarter-final.

Prediction

On group form, Croatia should have the required nous to unpick Portugal’s suspect defence, but with the continent’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo, you get the feeling that Group F’s draw specialists have a lot more to offer. Could potentially go all the way to penalties. Croatia to progress.

France v Republic of Ireland

When? Sunday 26 June, 2pm

Where? Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon

The lowdown

Ireland’s late victory over Italy was one of the moments of the tournament so far, but you get the feeling that Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane will have a big effort on their hands to get their players to focus on the next game after the celebrations in Lille. France will have had an extra four days to prepare for the last 16, although considering the pressure on them back home, this could easily be a negative, rather than a positive.

Despite being labelled as pre-tournament favourites, the hosts haven’t convinced yet, with Didier Deschamps struggling to find the best system to suit the attacking players at his disposal. The form of Dimitri Payet has been encouraging, but more is expected of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kingsley Coman, if he plays ahead of Anthony Martial. For Ireland, Wes Hoolahan is the creative influence, though the tireless Robbie Brady has impressed. More is expected of Shane Long, who had the run of Laurent Koscielny when playing for Southampton last Christmas.

000c6fd1-800
Robbie Brady rejoices in the moment and Ireland win their first game at the Euros for 28 years.

Blast from the past

Thierry Henry’s handball, which allowed William Gallas to poke home a winner in a play-off for the 2010 World Cup, still smarts in Ireland, and Martin O’Neill’s men would love nothing more than to knock the hosts out of their own tournament.

Prediction

Ireland will prove a hard side to beat for France – who have by no means moved into anything approaching top form yet – to break down, but Italy was Ireland’s big result. France to progress.

Germany v Slovakia

When? Sunday 26 June, 5pm

Where? Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille

The lowdown

While world champions Germany have yet to hit the dizzy heights of 2014, their insistence on unsettling the opposition through their relentless ball retention – the 65% possession recorded so far by Joachim Low’s team is the highest of any side in France – meant their goal was rarely threatened in a dull Group C. Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng have thrived, as has Toni Kroos, who never seems to misplace a pass. The question now is can the likes of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze break down a Slovakia defence which proved so adept at keeping the English at bay?

Slovakia had a strange group campaign, playing well in fits and bursts against Wales and Russia and looking entirely incompetent at times, too. Marek Hamsik is the undoubted star, but they lack a striker of any note, which doesn’t bode well considering the Germans’ penchant for keeping clean sheets. The end looks nigh in Lille on Sunday evening, where Germany will surely, finally cut loose in this tournament.

Blast from the past

The Germans will be out for revenge – Slovakia recorded a shock 3-1 friendly victory over the world champions in sodden conditions in Augsburg at the end of May.

Prediction

Slovakia defended well against England, but looked suspect late on against Russia, and Germany are due a few goals. Comfortable win for the world champions. Germany to progress.

Hungary v Belgium

When? Sunday 26 June, 8pm

Where? Stadium Municipal, Toulouse

The lowdown

Who would have bet on these two meeting in the last 16 two weeks ago? Hungary have been a breath of fresh air, romping to victory over Austria, having the better of the game against Iceland and provoking Cristiano Ronaldo into finally pulling his finger out for Portugal. Bernd Storck’s men have made a mockery of those who said they were ‘the worst team in France this summer’, although they’ll go into the game against Belgium as big underdogs.

Marc Wilmots still doesn’t exude charisma – or indeed, the air of a man who knows what he’s doing – but Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and co. dispatched stubborn Ireland and Sweden sides while under pressure and, with all the other highly-rated nations in the opposite half of the draw, there’s never been a better chance for Belgium to write their name on a major international trophy.

romelu-lukaku-1806.jpg
Romelu Lukaku notched a tidy brace against Ireland to momentarily silence his critics.

Blast from the past

Back in the days the Euros had a third-place play-off, Belgium defeated Hungary 2-1 to take the bronze medal at their home tournament. That was the Magyars’ last game in the competition until their opener this summer against Austria.

Prediction

Hungary have undermined all pre-tournament predictions, but their performance in the last half-hour against Portugal – minus the substituted Zoltan Gera and Adam Szalai and the rested Laszlo Kleinheisler – was a concern. Belgium haven’t performed to their potential yet, but should be galvanised by being in the ‘easier’ half of the draw. Belgium to progress.

Italy v Spain

When? Monday 27 June, 5pm

Where? Stade de France, Saint-Denis

The lowdown

With five World Cups and four European Championships between them, this is a true clash of continental heavyweights, and one we didn’t expect so early in the competition. Spain and Italy were the standout teams of the first two rounds, but defeats to Croatia and Ireland – whatever the surrounding circumstances of a controversial missed penalty or a much-changed team – will have tempered supporters’ expectations a little, and neither will go into this one feeling too confident.

For neutrals, this should be an absorbing clash of styles, with Italy’s Juventus-dominated defence sitting deep and attempting to keep soon-to-be-ex-club-mate Alvaro Morata quiet, while spoilers Daniele de Rossi and Marco Parolo try to stymie the magical feet of Andres Iniesta and David Silva. Italy have little choice but resort to attacking on the counter, and they have several dangerous, quick options – most likely Lorenzo Insigne, Antonio Candreva and Ciro Immobile – to bring off the bench when Eder and Graziano Pelle start to tire. As many have said, Antonio Conte is the most adept coach at the Euros this summer, and he’ll have developed a game plan – it just depends whether his players can recover from the ignominy of 2012 final defeat and carry it out.

Blast from the past

Spain have knocked Italy out of the last two European Championships, with Mario Balotelli’s tears flowing after a 4-0 routing by La Roja in the 2012 final.

Prediction

Hard to call, given Italy’s defensive prowess and Spain’s imperious record in this competition. Likely to go to extra time, with Spain winning by the odd goal. Spain to progress.

England v Iceland

When? Monday 27 June, 8pm

Where? Allianz Riviera, Nice

The lowdown

It’s difficult to know what to make of England’s campaign so far. The victory over Wales was the Three Lions’ best tournament moment since David Beckham, Argentina and Sapporo in 2002, but an abysmal Russia should have been dispatched and none of the players – other than perhaps Eric Dier – have performed consistently throughout the three games. The Liverpool and Spurs contingent in the squad means England have never been so good at pressing, jockeying and quickly winning back the ball, but there’s a certain lethargy when it comes to poking and probing the space, with Daniel Sturridge and Harry Kane having to drop deep and Jamie Vardy suffocated by deep-lying defences. Hodgson has said his side will flourish against teams who come out and attack them, but will Iceland do that? It’s doubtful.

England-v-Russia-Euro-2016-Group-B.jpg
Eric Dier – goalscorer in the game against Russia – has been England’s best performer so far.

Wayne Rooney’s comments that “if England score early, we could get several” are slightly disingenuous. Portugal netted early in the opening game but Iceland didn’t collapse, and the ‘sons’ are one of few teams to have registered in every game in France. Goalkeeper Hannes Halldórson has stood out, making 19 saves – the most of any goalkeeper – while wide midfielders Birkir Bjarnason and Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson are hard workers who won’t tire having to track England’s marauding wing-backs. Three games, five points, four goals. For a first tournament for any nation, that would be a fantastic record. For a nation of only 330,000 people, it’s bloody remarkable. Part of me wants them to knock us out. We’re not going to win it anyway, are we?

Blast from the past

England beat Iceland 6-1 in a warm-up friendly for Euro 2004, with Wayne Rooney scoring twice at the City of Manchester Stadium. It’ll be a lot closer this time.

Prediction

The game should pan out like all of England’s group fixtures, with Hodgson’s men dominating possession and the opposition soaking up pressure. Whether England can find a way through this time is a question the veteran coach has to answer if he’s to keep his job. England to progress.

Notes on Euro 2016 so far

Now that every side has played once in the tournament, I thought I’d share a few thoughts and insights on the 12 fixtures held up to now.

Note: I completely missed Spain v Czech Republic, Ireland v Sweden, half of Turkey v Croatia, most of Albania v Switzerland and alcohol was consumed during the Wales and England games, so this is by no means exhaustive.

Standard of play

Although there’s only been an average of 1.83 goals per game so far, I wouldn’t say any of the games have been particularly tedious. The first halves of Poland v Northern Ireland and Hungary v Austria lacked quality, but there’s been plenty to enjoy, even if there’s yet to be a 90-minute humdinger for the neutrals. Only three of the 12 games have been decided by more than one goal, each of those involving a slightly skewed scoreline due to teams being hit on the break while pursuing an equaliser. It seems that teams, once a goal ahead, aren’t wanting to take risks and throw away three points – it’s likely that only four will be needed to guarantee qualification. Ireland and, to some extent, England, were perfect examples of sides being bitten by their eagerness to sit back and protect their lead. Perhaps in the second round of fixtures we’ll see more adventure, particularly from the likes of Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and Austria, who, having lost their opening games, really cannot afford to ‘put the feelers out’ for too long.

Lack of quality strikers

It’s not as if chances have been at a premium – Spain and Germany could have had a hatful, while England should have finished off a poor Russia. The modern game’s tendency to produce diminutive, creative playmakers seems to have come at a price, with prolific strikers now very hard to come by, at least in international football. Adam Szalai, without a goal in 40 games for club or country going into the tournament, and Haris Seferovic, with just four in the Bundesliga for Frankfurt, are first choice for Hungary and Switzerland respectively, but the problem isn’t just limited to the smaller nations – are Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud and Graziano Pelle really good enough to be leading the line for former world champions? As a side note, no player has yet scored more than once, while only three of the 22 goals have been scored by an out-and-out ‘number 9’.

Poor goalkeeping?

Giroud’s header, Gareth Bale’s free-kick and Vasili Berezutski’s header are just three examples of goals where the goalkeepers could have done much better. I saw someone say on Twitter that, while we’re always quick to criticise mistakes and errors in the African Nations Cup, we’re a little more on the attacker’s side when it comes to our own tournaments. That’s partly true, although the excellent of Gianluigi Buffon, Manuel Neuer and Petr Cech probably skews public opinion a little, so I’ll reserve further judgement.

Excellent officiating

This won’t get mentioned in the mainstream press, but I think the standard of refereeing has – so far – been very good. An average of 3.33 yellow cards have been dished out per match, and most of these, it seems to me, have been merited, for fouls on the break or persistent offending. I can’t recall any goals wrongly awarded – or disallowed – while Mark Clattenburg and Cuneyt Cakir managed the Italy and Portugal games very well.

Impressed with

Croatia – Only saw the last 35 minutes or so, but a midfield containing Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic could control any game, while Ivan Perisic is dangerous on the break and Mario Mandzukic a big tournament player. Turkey were toothless in attack, but Croatia should have won by more than 1-0.

Italy – Assured at the back, combative in midfield and hard to pick up in forward positions. Conceded chances to a poor Belgium and took advantage of slack passing and movement to break for the second, but with the pace and trickery of Antonio Candreva and Emanuele Giaccherini (!) out wide, and with Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne to come off the bench, they’ll cause lots of teams problems.

Hungary – must confess I didn’t know, or expect much, of Hungary. Szalai, as said, was in the midst of an almighty drought, while Zoltan Gera and Gabor Kiraly are both very very old and even in their halycon days weren’t tournament-standard footballers. But they kept the ball well, completing more passes than Austria, and took their chances superbly.

Players – Dimitri Payet, Fabian Schar, Modric, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Toni Kroos, Leonardo Bonucci, Giaccherini, Laszlo Kleinheisler.

Pundits – Slaven Bilic. Charismatic and insightful, Bilic treats the ITV studio like a private cafe, holding court and discussing patterns of play with notepad and pen in hand. Refreshing, but expected, from such a talented manager.

Disappointed with

Germany – OK, they won, but was anyone really convinced? Toni Kroos controlled the game, but was that because Ukraine allowed him to? Mario Gotze looked nervous on the ball, Thomas Muller was in and out of it and it took a man who hasn’t played for three months to come off the bench and seal it. Must do better against a Poland side who created chances for fun against Northern Ireland.

Belgium – England circa 2006, anyone? They’ve got the players, but not the system, and with Italy packing the middle, the Red Devils were found wanting in wide areas. If they could have found Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne in the channels, they might have had half a chance, but when you play three holders in central midfield, and expect the woefully out-of-form Romelu Lukaku to hold everything up in front of the world’s best defensive threesome, what do you expect?

Austria – Tipped by many as dark horses, the Austrians, who qualified easily (but with only Russia and Sweden – poor here – to challenge) now face Portugal on Saturday in a must-win clash. David Alaba faded after a bright opening 10 minutes, while Marko Arnautovic and Marc Janko didn’t turn up.

Players – Antoine Griezmann, Artem Dzyuba, Kyle Lafferty, Yehven Konoplyanka, Gotze, Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen, Janko.

Pundits – BBC, particularly Henry and Shearer. Their verdict on Iceland? Effectively “we don’t know much about these”. Do your homework, lads.

Gripes

Finally, because I love a good moan. The new kick-off rule came in on 1st June, and that’s fine – I always thought having to pass the ball forward from the centre spot was an odd thing to have to do. But the sight of one man, stood solitary in the middle of the field, waiting to give it back to his team-mates? Weird. We could also do without the tiresome countdown to kick-off and the constant playing of ‘Viva La Vida’ or ‘Seven Nation Army’ after every goal.

 

My predictions for Euro 2016

With Euro 2016 just 72 hours away, I thought I’d share my tips for the tournament.

Having predicted Leicester City to finish 19th in the Premier League this season, and for Chelsea to retain the title, I admit I’m not the footballing Nostradamus I hope to be. But, we’ve all got our opinions on our game, so what’s the harm in recording them for posterity’s sake, just in case we are actually right for once?

Sky Sports’ excellent predictor allows you to predict the results of each game, but here are my general predictions for this summer’s tournament, starting with the most important:

Who’s going to win the tournament?

There are three clear contenders: the host nation France, reigning European champions Spain and world champions Germany. While the latter two have arguably regressed since their last tournament victories, losing key players such as Xavi, David Villa, Miroslav Klose and Philipp Lahm, France have replaced Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri with younger, hungrier options. Les Bleus have a good record when hosting tournaments, winning Euro 84 and France 98; they have a talented squad, with Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann key players for three of the continent’s most famous clubs and Group A – featuring Albania, Romania and Switzerland – doesn’t look overly taxing. As long as Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud step up to the plate to replace their superior absent compatriots, there’s only one winner for me.

Zinedine Zidane
I’m backing France to repeat these scenes at home this summer. Credit: Ben Radford /Allsport

Who’ll push them close?

Spain may not be the controlled tiki-taka force of old, but they still boast one of the most experienced squads in the tournament. 10 faces remain from Kiev 2012, while 13 of the Spanish 23 were European semi-finalists last season. Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, among the greatest proponents of their positions in the history of football, are still performing at the highest level of the game, and if exciting new additions such as Nolito, Alvaro Morata, Thiago and Koke can dovetail with the old guard, La Furia Roja will make the semi-finals at least. I’ve got them down to face France in the final in Paris on 10th July.

Who are the dark horses?

Switzerland, who qualified for the tournament behind England, have a poor record in the European Championships but they’ve never competed with a squad as talented as this. Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri is the star man, but Arsenal new boy Granit Xhaka will make an impact in midfield while full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez are among the finest in Europe. Should they finish second to France, they have every chance of getting past likely round of 16 opponent Poland.

Austria strolled through qualification, dropping only two points, and have been rewarded with a generous draw in Group F. Hungary and Iceland are two of the least glamorous sides in the competition, and should be swatted away without too much trouble, while I’m backing Marcel Koller’s side to get the better of Italy in the round of 16. David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic vs. Daniele de Rossi and Emmanuelle Giaccherini? It’s no surprise Austria are above the Azzurri in FIFA’s world rankings.

Alaba_IMA_080914.variant524x295
With the versatile David Alaba pulling the strings, Austria should progress to the quarter-finals.

Who’s going to disappoint?

Disappointment depends on expectations, but the usual suspects – Russia (six group stage exits in their seven tournaments as an independent nation) and Poland (four group exits out of four since the 1980s) – will flatter to deceive. After such a long wait, fans of Wales, Albania, Northern Ireland and Hungary might find themselves wishing they hadn’t bothered. For me, however, there’s one side more likely to flop than any other. Portugal are worryingly reliant on a 31 year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, who finished the season a passenger in the Champions League final after his first significant injury problems for years. An ageing backline – Bruno Alves, Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho are all the wrong side of 30 – and a lack of options up front (Ronaldo aside) don’t bode well for Fernando Santos.

Who will be the star of the tournament?

Like Neymar in 2014, Paul Pogba will assume the mantle of the host nation’s poster boy, but teammate Antoine Griezmann, at the age of 25 and off the back of two excellent seasons playing under Diego Simeone, is better placed to deal with the pressure of expectation. The absence of Karim Benzema, and the promotion of either Giroud or Alain-Pierre Gignac to a starting berth should help, rather than hinder, the Atletico Madrid forward in his bid to emulate hero David Silva and lift the Henri Delaunay trophy.

antoine-griezmann-goal-celeb-for-france-v-albania_3229275
Antoine Griezmann has stood out in two seasons at Atletico Madrid, and can do the business for the hosts at home this summer.

Who will win the Golden Boot?

That’s anyone’s guess. The traditional giants – Germany, Spain, Italy and France – lack a striker with a proven pedigree at international level, while the most prolific names from the domestic season, Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski, play for weaker teams unlikely to progress deep into the tournament. Thomas Muller, who has scored 10 goals in 18 major tournament appearances, is probably the standout bet, although, given that the award has been ‘shared’ three times in the last six editions, I’ll stick my neck on the line and say Alvaro Morata and Griezmann will share the Golden Boot, with four goals each.

Who should we look out for?

After his rapid rise, it’s impossible not to predict further success for Marcus Rashford. The Manchester striker has scored on his Europa League, Premier League and England debuts – watch him add to that roll call off the bench on 11th June against Russia.

Elsewhere, Switzerland’s Breel Embolo, Germany’s Julian Weigl and Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco so impressive coming on as a substitute in the Champions League final – should also catch the eye, especially given the uninspiring form of the senior options in front of them.

And finally…

How will the Home Nations do?

England: Tournament finals aside, Roy Hodgson’s record as England manager reads thus: P37 W23 D11 L3. The Three Lions are a good side, but it’s time to prove it on the big stage. Traditionally, England dispatch weaker opposition but come unstuck when up against the more cultured continental sides, but should reach the quarter-finals in France – semis if the draw is kind.

Northern Ireland: Michael O’Neill’s side are unbeaten in 10 games going back to March 2015, but the most challenging opposition they’ve faced in that time are Hungary (currently ranked 20th in the world). Poland, Ukraine and Germany will be too good, and a group stage exit beckons.

Republic of Ireland: The presence of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane should ensure Ireland have more fight than they did in Euro 2012, when they exited the competition with nul points, but their squad is ageing and lacks quality. Group stage.

loss8a
Sorry Irish fans; expect a repeat of these scenes in France.

Wales: Worryingly, Wales’ form has tailed off in the build-up to the tournament, with a 3-0 defeat in Sweden the nadir for Chris Coleman. If they can beat Russia – shorn of their two creative outlets Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denisov – they should get to the round of 16, but no further.

Agree or disagree with my predictions? Who do you think will be European champions come 10th July?

Always the victim: Hillsborough, and why we shouldn’t let them get away with it

‘Always the victim, it’s never your fault.’

As far as I can remember, those words first started echoing around Old Trafford – and many other Premier League grounds – in the winter of 2011, after Liverpool’s misguided attempt to back Luis Suarez in the Patrice Evra racism row. But the meaning behind this chant was much deeper than that, the sentiment echoing Boris Johnson’s comments in the Spectator after the death of Ken Bigley, when the future London mayor effectively portrayed an entire city as having an inferiority complex.

Of course, in his comments, Johnson was referring to the Hillsborough disaster – implying at first, then moving straight to the point – as were the Manchester United fans.

“The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.” Boris Johnson, the Spectator – 16th October 2004

Now, we know that the 96 who died at Hillsborough, and their families were the victims, and it wasn’t their fault. 27 years too late, the truth is finally out.

_63061960_mmftbanfieldtribute.png

The disaster, the long fight for justice, the smear campaign and the eventual verdict go beyond tribalism, beyond the hated rivalry between United and Liverpool, beyond the football pitch. Of course, it could have been any set of football fans: it could even have been United, who were knocked out in the previous round by Nottingham Forest, Liverpool’s opponents on that fateful day. Unpack Johnson’s rhetoric, though, and you’ll realise that it could have been anyone, from any walk of life.

Dear old Boris talks about Liverpool ‘being on the wrong side of England’. He mentions that the city has a ‘predilection for welfarism’. He actively defends the police and the Sun newspaper and the criticism they attracted. The way his argument is constructed isn’t just an attack on the victims of Hillsborough, the supporters of Liverpool Football Club, or even the city of Liverpool in general. His words are a slight on the north of England, the working-classes and anyone in the margins. How dare we band together and fight for a cause; how dare we question the received wisdom of the government, the authorities, the media.

I say ‘we’ here because, again, this could have happened to any group of people, at any time. In David Conn’s detailed and harrowing account of just how the disaster was covered up, he tells us how South Yorkshire police dehumanised the Liverpool fans, labelling them as drunken animals. A baseless rumour, instigated by a small group of senior officials to save their own skin, was soon accepted as gospel, and the might of these public bodies quickly crushed any grievance, any truth, any humanity these poor people and their families had. How easy it was to build the tower of lies; how hard it was to pull it down to the floor.

“The lessons for British policing from this needless devastation of so many lives stretch far beyond the failings of one out-of-his-depth officer who took 26 years to fully confess. The police have a difficult, vital job, to keep society safe. However here, where they failed, their use of the word “animals” documented an inability to see a group of citizens even as people.” David Conn, The Guardian, 26th April 2016

The whole episode exemplifies how little governments and organisations really value human life. It’s perhaps the starkest example of the ‘blame game’ we still see in action today, where they try to pin the woes of the country on anyone but themselves. The latest victims are immigrants, benefits claimants, the disabled, Muslims and junior doctors. On the surface, it might look like this media outlet’s saying this, this politician is saying that, but they’re all working together behind the scenes, skewing public perception and obscuring opinion for their own ends, to save their own skin.

‘Always the victim, it’s never your fault.’

The idiotic minority will always make themselves heard, but hopefully this – and similar chants – will recede now the verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ has been received. Maybe it’s time to lay old divisions aside and to twist the second half of that hurtful allegation back against the establishment.

Maggie, David, Bernard, Graham, Norman, Kelvin and the rest of those involved in this shameless episode: it was YOUR fault. Let us never forget the lies told, the hurt caused and the lives destroyed that fateful afternoon, and in the intervening years. The next time they play the blame game, remember the 96.

article-2204704-1511036F000005DC-507_634x532