Every now and then, football teams play what I think it is fair to describe as ‘uncomfortable’ games – matches they would rather not be involved in if they could avoid it.

Scotland had one of those last Wednesday when they faced Ukraine in the World Cup play-off semi-final. And Wales have one this evening when they face the same opponents in the final.

Of course, despite everything that is happening in Ukraine, Scotland went into their match aiming to win. But, at the same time, the tragic events unfolding in their opponent’s homeland would have been at the back of their mind. Whether that had some bearing on the Scots losing the game 3-1, I suppose we will never know. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it did.

Wales will also be desperately looking for the victory that takes them to Qatar later this year, especially as they have only ever been to the World Cup once before. But the Welsh players will be well aware that most of the world will be willing Ukraine to win and give the country’s beleaguered people some small relief from the horrors of war.

As I said, these are games that teams don’t want to play in. Like those when you face a side that has just suffered a tragedy or major incident. They almost feel like no-win games where, even if you triumph, you also lose.

On paper you would say Wales have a squad that should be able to overcome Ukraine. But then again, the Ukrainians are probably using the motivation of what is happening in their country to inspire them to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Under normal circumstances, when I sit down to watch this evening, I would be willing Wales to win. And a big part of me still wants that happen. But another part, maybe even slightly bigger, is not averse to the idea of the Ukrainian team boarding a flight to Qatar next November. Something positive to look forward to must be the very least that country deserves.


Picking on the English

Let’s not beat about the bush – last week’s Champions League final was a shambles. Obviously not the match itself, which was a relatively tame affair, but the utter mess of confusion, discrimination and heavy-handed policing that took place around the stadium.

Various UEFA and the French officials can dress it up any way they like – using excuses like supporters arriving late and counterfeit tickets – but the truth is the Liverpool fans were targeted just because they were English.

The truth is the Liverpool fans were targeted just because they were English

Every social media platform has been smothered in footage of fans being picked on in what can only be described as pure, unadulterated discrimination. You see numerous clips of fans queueing peacefully outside the ground having been waiting hours to get in when the police suddenly decide to pepper spray them. Why would they do that? How is that justifiable?

Of course, nobody is more aware than me that English football still has a stigma attached to it. The reputation supporters developed in the 1970s and 1980s for being thugs and hooligans never entirely went away. And to be fair, there is a growing (if still comparatively small) numbers of hooligans still attached to English football. Unfortunately, that is a problem that just won’t seem to go away and may never be completely eradicated. But that absolutely doesn’t justify the treatment Liverpool fans received in Paris.

UEFA have launched a formal investigation into the way things unfolded and I sincerely hope we don’t end up with some sort of whitewash that finds a few incidents of Liverpool fans acting inappropriately and pins all the blame on them.

Needless to say, that is exactly what I am expecting.


The man who could have been king

Everybody knew Paul Pogba was on his way out of Manchester United. It’s been blindingly obvious that that was going to happen for a very long time. Years in fact.

Well, last week the club made it official, saying their £89 million 2016 signing would be leaving the club when his contract expires at the end of June.

With the news confirmed, why don’t we take a look back at some of the player’s key moments and decisive contributions to Manchester United over the past six years. …..

Actually, let’s not bother. Digging them out would take time, effort and probably end up being an exercise in futility anyway.

Pogba is a player with world-class talent and unbelievable skill who is capable of changing matches single-handedly. Unfortunately, at Old Trafford at least, he was way too busy being in love with himself to let those talents shine through.


Top ref joins Jake in coming out

When Blackpool player Jake Daniels came out last month we wondered if it might open the floodgates with other gay players following his brilliant lead.

So far that hasn’t happened.

Despite Jake showing it can be done, and that, in fact, the football world is going to be immensely supportive, no other players have followed suit. However, the young man’s bravery has helped at least one other person in the British game to take the plunge – Scottish referee Craig Napier. The top-level official, who took charge of 32 big matches last season, came out as gay last week, saying he had been inspired by Jake’s decision.

“I don’t think this needs to be a news story but I think at the moment, it really does because we need to see the climate change so that people do feel that they can be their true self and live happily and comfortable in their own skin. And then that needs to transcend into football,” Craig said.

The floodgates may not yet have opened, but I suspect this slow trickle will be growing in strength over the course of the summer.


E-mail: James@Quizando.com

Twitter: @Maltablade

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