Switzerland 0-0 England (5-6 PENS); Pickford penalty heroics secure the Three Lions the effectively meaningless Nations League third place

Switzerland 0-0 England (5-6 PENS); Pickford penalty heroics secure the Three Lions the effectively meaningless Nations League third place

It took some penalty shootout heroics from England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, scoring one spot kick before then saving another, to earn the Three Lions victory in the UEFA Nations League third-place playoff.

In truth, it was an accomplishment – and a match in general – that few cared about, myself included in that crowd.

It’s something I’ve never understood the desire for in international football – the meaningless third-place playoff. Teams are already spent, they’ve already endured the ignominy of being knocked out of the respective tournament, any yet are somehow expected to rally back around to care for a match that means so incredibly little to anyone.

I understand the format’s existence in just one footballing competition – the Olympic Games. That is because the third-place playoff takes the form of a bronze medal match. This is important for countries as the medals table is ultimately how nations are separated and ranked on performance, and therefore competing over the bronze can matter to teams (even though a number of sports with knockout tournaments actually just share the bronze between those knocked out in the semi-finals, and football so easily also could too).

Yet, despite this, FIFA and UEFA both seem to still have a burning love for the third-place match, leading to the drab spectacle that was on display in Portugal early on Sunday afternoon.

That feeling of pointless football was for all to see in Guimaraes, as the England and Switzerland camps lined up ahead of a match few even cared was going on. Just as easily as staging it, both sides could have instead shrugged off their shortcomings in the semi-finals and been on flights back home to enjoy the start of a summer break.

Instead, by decree of the UEFA higher-ups, they were forced to play out a slow, meaningless pre-amble to the actual final – played with all the disinterest and fatigue that you’d have anticipated in a third-place playoff that didn’t need to exist.

The match itself, a real low-key affair, saw England boss the chances, with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling both hitting the woodwork. Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer pulled off a superb save to deny Dele Alli.

Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson thought he’d won the game for England late into the second half when he turned the ball home, only to see his goal chalked off by VAR – with the video assistant referee ruling him to have fouled Manuel Akanji in the build up of the goal.

Ending goalless at the full time whistle, and failing to find any form of breakthrough in extra time, the game dragged its way through to penalties, where Pickford stepped up to perform – much like he did in last summer’s World Cup Round of 16 match against Colombia.

Harry Maguire, Ross Barkley, Jadon Sancho and Sterling all hit the mark for England, before Pickford himself stepped up to score England’s fifth penalty (the fact alone that the goalkeeper was taking traditionally significant, and potentially deciding, penalty number five probably tells all it needs to about the third-place playoff).

At that stage, the scores remained level heading into sudden death. Switzerland had been on target with all five of their strikes so far, seeing Steven Zuber, Granit Xhaka, Akanji, Kevin Mbabu and Fabian Schar all convert from the penalty spot.

Eric Dier then converted England’s sixth spot kick to put the Three Lions in the driving seat.

To respond, up stepped Swiss forward Josip Drmic but the Borussia Monchengladbach man saw his effort saved by Pickford, giving victory and third place in the Nations League to Gareth Southgate’s England.

It remains an utterly meaningless game, and one that everyone could have likely done without playing, but I suppose at least for the annuls of history Southgate’s tenure as England manager has another minor success on its record (even if the final, overall tournament win still eludes him so far).

Fabian Schar’s head injury v Georgia demonstrates football’s glaring issues regarding injury protocols

Fabian Schar’s head injury v Georgia demonstrates football’s glaring issues regarding injury protocols

It doesn’t take a medical expert to understand that there should be little messing around when it comes to serious head injuries in football. For example, should a player be knocked unconscious after a clash of heads, it’s probably not best he continues playing.

Yet, for Newcastle’s Swiss international Fabian Schar, that very situation did happen over the weekend.

The central defender suffered a nasty clash of heads with Georgian defender Jemal Tabidze as both players challenged for the ball early in the first half, and the Premier League centre back was left visibly unconscious.

Thankfully, the players around Schar – from both teams, it should be added – were quick to rush to his aid. Opposition midfielder Jano Ananidze even went as far as to reach into Schar’s mouth to ensure the 27-year-old did not choke on his own tongue.

Luckily for the Newcastle defender, after some treatment from the Swiss medical team, he had regained consciousness and was looking in better shape.

However, he still admitted after the match that he couldn’t remember anything from the incident and was still feeling some residual effects of it.

“It looks awful, I can’t remember anything,” Schar told Swiss newspaper Blick.

“I was to for a few seconds. My skull is still humming. And I’ve got a neck ache and a bruise on my forehead.”

Despite all this, Schar was incredibly given the all clear by the Swiss medical staff and allowed to return to the field of play, finishing the entire match for his side – who won 2-0 in the end.

In a modern sporting world where people are all too aware of the serious dangers head injuries can cause, particularly concussion injuries and those from a loss of consciousness, it was frankly reckless to allow Schar back onto the field of play.

Unsurprisingly, the decision has led to a lot of criticism, with brain injury charity Headway even calling for a UEFA investigation into the matter.

However, the issue is endemic of a problem with modern football, that just simply seems to be behind the times in terms of combating head injuries and the associated risks and problems.

Rugby, a much more physical contact sport, has concussion substitutions and significant and thorough protocols that must be adhered to in regards to even a suspected concussion. Yet, football does not.

There are FIFA guidelines, but it appears as if these are mere suggestions rather than strictly enforced and adhered-to principles.

Schar’s injury is not the first case of football’s lax rules surrounding head injuries rearing its head at a top level either; and more scarily, likely won’t be the last.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia had its own head injury controversy when Moroccan international Nordin Amrabat suffered what appeared clearly to be a concussion after a very heavy collision between his head and the turf. Visibly dazed and unaware of what was going on around him, he was substituted in the match thankfully – but then returned to the field of play five days later, sporting nothing more than a rugby scrum cap (which, incidentally, he then removed during the game in frustration).

Football seems to have an endemic problem with combating serious head injuries and working out appropriate ways to ensure player safety is the upmost priority.

I don’t necessarily think it’s intentional negligence from the football governing bodies, but rather a lack of needed consideration on the matter. Fixing football head injury protocol is hardly a glamorous, headline-grabbing action – despite how important it actually is – and therefore FIFA and its executives are much more focused on commercially-driven, flashy issues such as expanding World Cups and reworking major tournaments.

Hopefully the level of outcry and attention the Schar incident has received will force through necessary change to protect the safety of players involved in football. However, if it doesn’t, then it’s a real worry what would actually need to happen for change to come about.

In Schar’s case, some crucial fast-thinking from his fellow players on the pitch and good luck meant he came out the other side of the nasty collision relatively unscathed, but that may not necessarily be the outcome next time round.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to something like that to see football fix its currently woeful head injury protocols.

Why international friendlies should prevent players switching allegiances

Why international friendlies should prevent players switching allegiances

Declan Rice made his international debut for England in a 5-0 win over Czech Republic last night. Normally, seeing an exciting young talent turn out for England for the first time would be exciting, except Rice has already had an international debut… for the Republic of Ireland.

The 20-year-old has in fact represented the Boys in Green on three occasions in 2018, having qualified for their national team through his Irish grandparents.

Yet, in accordance with the FIFA rule book, Rice decided to switch allegiances earlier this year and pledge himself to the country of his birth, leading to him pulling on a Three Lions jersey at Wembley last night.

Now, I don’t have much of an issue personally with the West Ham United star wanting to switch over to Gareth Southgate’s England setup. Yes, it’s a bit of a slight on the Irish team that gave him a chance first, but the prospect of featuring in a youth-focused, exciting England side is alluring.

No, my personal issue is with the rule that allows for such changes in allegiance itself.

As per the guidelines of FIFA, any player is still able to represent another nation that they are eligible for up until the point they make a competitive appearance for one particular side. International friendlies do not count towards this, therefore allowing a player eligible for multiple nations to don the shirt of one respective national team, before making the switch to another perfectly within the laws of the game.

This was the exact situation that saw Rice now earn caps for both the Republic of Ireland and England. And he’s hardly the first to do so, either. Another notable player to have done so was Diego Costa, who in 2013 represented Brazil on two occasions, before making the switch to represent Spain the following year.

It makes a mockery of international friendlies, honestly, and while FIFA are attempting to combat that by introducing a greater number of competitive fixtures compared to friendlies – such as with UEFA’s Nations League – the situation is still able to occur.

There exists circumstances where a change in allegiance should be allowed. In the case of South Sudan and Kosovo, when both nations joined FIFA and became affiliated national teams, the world governing body allowed players to swap to those nationalities. That makes sense, given that before then, those national identities – at least in a footballing sense – weren’t able to be represented.

However, aside from those rare and extreme circumstances, players should be forced to commit to a national team the minute they played their first game for the national team, even if it was in an international friendly.

Wearing the shirt of your national team should be a huge honour, and that only continues to be the case if it is a true commitment that a player makes to representing that nation throughout their career.

If players are unsure, simply don’t commit and join a particular national team setup at that moment in time. There shouldn’t be an option to simply change halfway through.

Is it time to lift Fifa’s ban on female footballers playing in male leagues?

Is it time to lift Fifa’s ban on female footballers playing in male leagues?

It’s not a fact that too many people realise, since it doesn’t come up often, but Fifa in essence banned female footballers from ever playing in male football leagues above junior level.

In a time of supposed inclusivity, and when more and more is being done to promote and improve women’s football and its standards, surely this arbitrary ruling just stands in the way of that.

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a place for separate female and male leagues in this world, but a blanket ban as exists now seems far from intuitive if people are genuinely serious about improving the quality of women’s football. Yes, there are biological differences between male and female athletes, but in the modern game there are female players who could easily compete at certain levels of male football – even if not necessarily at the uppermost echelons of the game – i.e. Premier League and sorts.

The official ruling from Fifa regarding the issue came back in 2004, when Mexican second division side Celaya – a men’s team – attempted to sign leading Mexican women’s national team striker Maribel Dominguez. At the time, the then-26-year-old had scored 42 goals in 43 games for her national team.

However, the transfer was blocked by the world governing body, with Fifa’s executive committee saying that “there must be a clear separation between men’s and women’s football”.

It seems like a backwards system, especially considering that up until a certain age – depending on the country in question – both male and female players can compete together at junior levels.

Yet, once they hit that arbitrary age, it’s deemed in the eyes of football’s governing body that the two opposing genders couldn’t possibly share the same football pitch for a competitive fixture, regardless of the skill level of the players involved.

The situation cropped up again as recently as March 2018, when Canada women’s goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe sought to join Calgary Foothills FC in the North American men’s league, the Premier Development League.

She was promptly informed she would be ineligible for the club’s men’s team and would have to play for the club’s women’s side, despite her being a regular between the sticks at international level for her country, and likely being as good – if not better – of a goalkeeper than most of her male teammates.

At the time of the rejection by the league, Labbe told CBS Sports: “It’s a tough pill to swallow being denied something because of my gender. That’s not something I can go home and work on and fix.

“I’m extremely thankful for the Calgary Foothills but I’m not happy with [the decision].

“I’m doing everything I can to get that rule changed, whether it’s for my benefit or someone else’s. I’m clearly, in this environment, at a physical [and] biological disadvantage [but] if I’m able to overcome that and prove that my abilities are good enough, then that’s what should matter.”

Her statements are entirely rational and reasonable too. Why shouldn’t she, and fellow female footballers, be allowed to play with male players, should they and the club that signs them believe they are good enough to do so?

Now, the one thing I do want to make clear though, is that as much as I believe this rule should be repealed, I also don’t want it to become forced upon teams or trivialised.

There is little benefit to a blanket ban, but the same can be said if leagues or Fifa try to offset their previous decision by enforcing quotas on clubs of having x number of female players. That doesn’t fix an issue, but rather makes the female footballers in the team just token items to fill a requirement.

Instead, it should simply be that teams have the option should they wish to pursue it. Perhaps no team would and football would continue the same as it has done – then no harm done, right – but maybe one or two teams, especially lower down the league systems, might take a chance on a talented female star and get some rewards.

Particularly at grassroots level, where talented female footballers might have come through a team’s junior ranks but then are forced to leave and travel much further distances simply because their local clubs only have senior teams in male leagues.

It will always be a controversial topic, and one far more complex than can be entirely covered in this article, but the blanket ban that exists to this day just seems somewhat nonsensical in the supposedly-inclusive modern game.