Belgium's golden generation miss another chance at silverware after loss to Didier Deschamps’ France - The Warm-Up
For 45 minutes, Belgium looked like the best team in the world against France. Unfortunately, football matches are a bit longer than that. And the definitely-not-Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is complete. In other news, Antoine Griezmann is a footballer, a Football Manager player and perhaps, maybe a prophet?
Football, so the old saying goes, is a game of one half and then another half, and the two are often quite different. And the wisdom of those timeless words was shown to us last night, when Belgium and France took it in turns to take each other apart.
Nobody ever thinks about the fans in these games. One end of the ground saw five whole goals. The other saw one, and that was taken away a few seconds later. It's a cruel sport.
Roberto Martínez will agree with that sentiment, we're guessing. The first half was a fizzing display of all the things that have taken Belgium to the top of FIFA's rankings: overbearing pressure, fluid attacking, the sense that a goal could be coming from any angle. And Romelu Lukaku being brilliant.
Hugo Lloris made one wonderful save, a couple of decent ones, and still got wrongfooted by Yannick Carrasco — we're blaming the defenders here; those long barriers were all over the place — and then nearly decapitated by Lukaku. It's a tough life, being a goalkeeper. It's a nice life, being a social media intern.
Maybe Juventus' stadium is on a slope. Maybe — thinking outside the box here — the teams swapped shirts at half-time, couldn't be bothered to switch back, and just decided to play on as each other. Or maybe Didier Deschamps found a way to remind his players that there was a football match going on and it would be quite nice if they could get involved. "We've come all this way in a busy season, lads." But in French.
Whatever happened, it worked for France, who took the initiative, and then the ball, and finally the game. Though there's probably an important distinction to be made here between Belgium's collapse and the eventual result. After all, if Lukaku had timed his run just a little more precisely, and Belgium's third had been allowed to stand, they'd almost certainly have won. Unlike most football what-ifs, this happened late enough in the game to be decisive.
Paul Pogba of France celebrates during the UEFA Nations League 2021 Semi-final match between Belgium and France at Juventus Stadium on October 07, 2021 in Turin, Italy
Image credit: Getty Images
But even if he had done that, Belgium still would have been a team that fell to pieces. They'd have gotten away with falling to pieces, sure. But we'd still be worried about that soft centre, that creaky defence, that certain knowledge that things are going to go Extremely Martínez. How seriously history will take the Nations League remains to be seen, but here in the moment it seems important to all four semi-finalists. And so this goes down in the record books as another Belgian nearly, another Belgian not-quite.
Of course it also goes down as a very good France comeback. Karim Benzema's goal was the catalyst, and it was a beautiful thing: he's facing the wrong way, he's closely marked, and in four delicately precise touches he's got the ball in the net. In those moments, you can see why Didier Deschamps made the maverick decision to recall the guy who has nearly 300 goals for Real Madrid.
This is going to sound like an insult, and it isn't meant as one. But Belgium are the perfect team for a third-place playoff. Overwhelming in attack, wobbly in defence: 90 minutes of this lot against Italy sounds like a good time for the neutral. As for the final, Spain against France, we're predicting another game of two halves. Bold, but there we are.
Well, that all wrapped up rather quickly. 18 months of tense and occasionally unpleasant negotiations, with the prospect of lengthy legal battles to come, and then we went from "It's on!" to "It's happened!" in less than a day. Not very Newcastle.
Not very Mike Ashley's Newcastle, we should say. That strange, alienating institution where things were allowed to drift, to linger, to rot; where nobody important seemed to care about any of the important things; where decisions, when they came, were enervating or bizarre or just downright stupid. That institution no longer exists. That's a good thing, in isolation.
But nothing happens in isolation. The musings from Steve Bruce about whether he'll be keeping his job — "New owners normally want a new manager" — are jostling for space with statements from Amnesty International, which is a neat and dispiriting illustration of football's place in the modern world.
The key distinction on which all this pivots is that PIF — the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, chaired by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman — is a distinct entity from Saudi Arabia the country and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The former will not be influenced in all matters Newcastle by the latter. The Premier League's fit-and-proper-persons people have satisfied themselves on this point, and its their satisfaction that matters.
Cleverer people than the Warm-Up have pointed and laughed at this manoeuvre, and we're not going to argue with them. But while the juxtaposition of celebrations outside St. James' Park with the pleas of Jamal Khashoggi's former fiancée is a profoundly uncomfortable one, it's this cowardly sophistry and the lack of accountability — the Premier League has justified this decision with three paragraphs and no questions, for example — that are really concerning.
Football fans are intelligent people that can and should be guided in their support and their affection by more than just: player buying machine goes brrrrr. All decisions are moral decisions. But it's not the job of any football fan to hold this line, and that Newcastle's fans are being asked to is, more than anything else, an abject failure of governance. A sign that nobody else will.
Whatever you might think of the choices being made by Newcastle fans, collectively or individually, the significant failings here have come well above our heads. As we saw during the Ashley years, when it comes to the power to guide and shape their football clubs, the fans — happy or unhappy, present or absent, enthused or reluctant — are the least important people in modern football.
IN OTHER NEWS
Antoine Griezmann: footballer, Football Manager player … prophet?
On this day 16 years ago, Real Madrid's David Beckham returned to Old Trafford as England captain. A big day for him, and one ultimately ruined by the referee: by our reckoning, these two challenges barely add up to one yellow card, let alone two. But it secured him a place in history, as the first player to be sent off twice for England.
Make some time for this exceptional interview: Sid Lowe, in the Guardian, talking to Iñaki Williams about his parents' journey to the Basque country and his journey into the Athletic first team.
[His mother] told him how they had left Ghana and crossed the Sahara without food or water, about those who didn’t make it and how that could have been them. How they hid things the only place they could. How, pregnant with him, she climbed the fence into Melilla, Spain’s north African enclave. And how she and [his father] were arrested, a lawyer whose name he still doesn’t know and, to his regret, never will providing a lifeline, a way of reaching the city where he was born. His place, where he has made history.
While we wait impatiently for the Nations League final to roll around, there's some World Cup qualifying to tide us over. Wales travel to the Czech Republic, Turkey play Norway, and the Louis van Gaal reinvention rolls on as the Netherlands visit Latvia.
Have a good weekend. Tom Adams will be here on Monday with that sweet Nations League content.