UEFA’s political football – what’s the worst that could happen?

Every two years UEFA is handed a near-impossible task: conduct an open draw of 53 European countries, trying to keep apart nations with political tensions.

Historically, Europe loves war. The last six decades have been the most peaceful in the history of the continent, and even they saw a handful of low-level wars, several revolutions, a few dictatorships, and one major regional war that involved ethnic cleansing.

It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that when deciding which countries definitely should not meet each other in Euro 2016, UEFA selected Spain and Gibraltar, and Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Kiev's Independence Square: not an ideal spot for a quiet pre-match pint for Russian fans.
Kiev’s Independence Square: not an ideal spot for a quiet pre-match pint for Russian fans.

Not to detract from the issues surrounding these countries but it does raise an eyebrow that Spanish supporters traveling to Portugal to take on Gibraltar (for they do not have a stadium capable of hosting UEFA matches themselves) is deemed more politically sensitive than the prospect of Russians enjoying a pre-match beer on Kiev’s Independence Square next September.

Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia have all played each other over recent years, while Germany and Poland have been drawn together in Group D.

Serbia v Croatia: not deemed as politically sensitive as Spain v Gibraltar.
Serbia v Croatia: not deemed as politically sensitive as Spain v Gibraltar.

Even at the less violent end of the scale, England and Scotland could potentially have faced each other on the eve of a referendum to decide whether they should finally get a divorce.

In fact, what is really remarkable is that today’s draw produced so few politically sensitive encounters. Seedings kept some historical rivals apart (Germany and England, for example) but much of it was just luck of the draw.

Given the fact that the Balkan states were placed into separate seeding ‘pots’, UEFA could foreseeably have ended up with this situation:

Pot 1: Bosnia
Pot 2: Croatia
Pot 3: Serbia
Pot 4: Montenegro
Pot 5: Macedonia
Pot 6: Albania

Moving from the Balkans to the Baltics, security officials may have been having sleepless nights had this possible draw happened:

Pot 1: Russia
Pot 2: Ukraine
Pot 3: Poland
Pot 4: Latvia
Pot 5: Georgia
Pot 6: Kazakhstan

Ireland’s political rivals have traditionally been limited to the island immediately beside us. In so far as it is possible to produce a group of Irish political rivals, we could have got:

Pot 1: England (800 years etc.)
Pot 2: Ireland
Pot 3: Israel (some diplomatic tension recently)
Pot 4: Scotland (heavily involved in the Plantations, Rangers etc.)
Pot 5: Northern Ireland
Pot 6: Andorra (several skiing accidents over recent years)

Ultimately, the group we ended up in is not anything UEFA’s political department will worry about, although there are some historical grievances:

Pot 1: Germany (original home of the Saxons and, therefore, partly responsible for colonisation)
Pot 2: Ireland
Pot 3: Poland (involved to some degree with building all those ghost estates in Longford)
Pot 4: Scotland (they still have Rangers)
Pot 5: Georgia (Post-Soviet independence in the East has severely restricted out European Song Contest potential)
Pot 6: Gibraltar (let’s just pretend their England)

Roy Keane watches Georgia's 2009 Eurovision Song Contest entry in disbelief.
Roy Keane watches Georgia’s 2009 Eurovision Song Contest entry in disbelief.

For the record, the actual draw is as follows:

Group A
Netherlands, Czech Republic, Turkey, Latvia, Iceland, Kazakhstan
Group B
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra
Group C
Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Luxembourg
Group D
Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar
Group E
England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino
Group F
Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands
Group G
Russia, Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova, Liechtenstein
Group H
Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
Group I
Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia, Albania

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