UEFA's decision on Legia Warsaw an injustice

UEFA's decision on Legia Warsaw an injustice
Newly-appointed Celtic manager Ronny Deila speaks during a news conference at Celtic Park Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland June 6, 2014.

There is little charity, and an appalling injustice, in European football this weekend.

Arsenal and Manchester City contest the Community Shield at Wembley Stadium today - a preparatory match, the likes of which has been played out by English Premier League teams across the United States and Asia in the two months since England's first-round elimination from the World Cup.

The pre-season tours are about dollars, not as they are billed as goodwill spreading the stardust of the big European clubs. All of it, however, counts for nothing when the season kicks off for real next week.

And much of it is discredited by a decision Uefa took on Friday to wipe out a 6-1 win by the Polish champions Legia Warsaw over two legs against Celtic in the Champions League qualifying round.

The score reflected the reality. Celtic were outplayed at home and away in every measure of the sport - technical, tactical, and in team spirit.

But what Legia won so emphatically on the field was taken away from the club in a committee room at Uefa headquarters in Switzerland.

"The Uefa control, ethics and disciplinary body met today and announced the following disciplinary decision," read the official statement. "Legia have been sanctioned for fielding an ineligible player (article 18 of the Uefa Champions League regulations and article 21 of the Disciplinary Regulations).

"The match has been declared as forfeit, meaning Legia Warsaw have lost the match 3-0."

The match in question, the second leg played in Scotland last Wednesday, ended up in a 2-0 Legia win, confirming the 4-1 supremacy the Poles demonstrated in Warsaw in the first leg.

But someone spotted a breach of the regulations listed above, when Bartosz Bereszynski had entered the field as a substitute in the 88th minute.

Bereszynski was banned for three Uefa games after he received a red card last season. Legia thought they had complied with the ban because the player sat out the two previous qualifiers (also won 6-1 on aggregate) against Irish side St Patrick's Athletic, and sat out the first leg against Celtic.

Three games suspended, three games not selected equals punishment served? Apparently not.

It turns out that the Warsaw club committed the grievous error of not including Bereszynski in the squad list submitted to Uefa for the St Patrick's games.

He missed the matches, but Legia committed the technical error of omitting to name him for games he could not play in. Petty? It's worse than that.

"In addition, the player Bartosz Bereszynski, has been suspended for one additional Uefa competition match for which he would be otherwise eligible. The suspension shall be added to the remaining two-match suspension which the player still has to serve in accordance with the Control and Disciplinary Body decision."

So the player, who presumably is not responsible for the club paperwork, is to be punished in total for six games - twice the automatic suspension in the Uefa rules?

"There has not been a Polish team in this competition for 17 or 18 years," said Henning Berg, the Norwegian manager of the Legia side. "We thought we had a good chance, but it has been taken away from us because of this little technical mistake in the administration, and because of the decisions from Uefa."

Berg talked about the dream of his players being denied them.

He makes the mistake of talking like an ex-player, and a coach, rather than a pen pusher. Quite possibly his words will rebound if and when the club lodge an appeal.

Even the Celtic manager, another Norwegian, Ronny Deila, admitted that he was embarrassed to be going through this way.

"It's very strange, I have to say," he said. "I feel very sorry for Legia, and my friends from Norway there. Legia played well against us, they put in good performances. But this is nothing to do with Celtic. It is about Uefa."

It is bigger than that. It stinks.

The possibility of reaching the group stage of the Champions League makes a potential difference of more than US$30 million (S$37 million) income to each club.

Over and above the money is the principle, and the fair and consistent application of principles.

This is not the first time that Celtic has been beaten on the field and reinstated on administration issues. The previous time, however, concerned the Swiss club FC Sion, which was thrown out three years ago after fielding five players it had signed while under a Fifa transfer ban imposed after Sion had previously signed an ineligible Egyptian goalkeeper.

Celtic profited in that case from a flagrant abuse of the rules.

It stands to profit now from an administrative oversight, a human error.

"We knew the player was suspended, and he didn't play in those two games against St Patrick's or the first game against Celtic," said Berg. "He played in our league games between those matches, he's been registered with us for all this time, and we've not tried to hide anything.

"I think it goes against every intention of fair play and fair competition."

Two points to add. When Michel Platini - a player's player - took over as Uefa president he vowed to make this a fairer organisation for players.

Is this for the good of the players?

Second, if the official who spotted the administrative error was so beady-eyed after the game was won and lost, why did no Uefa delegate spot that Bereszynski's name was on the official team sheet handed in to the office an hour before the game - and that he then sat fully kitted out on the bench until coming on in the final two minutes?

A word then from a fair and observant Uefa match official could have spared the almighty injustice of a game won fair and square, and lost on a minor technicality.

stsports@sph.com.sg

This article was published on Aug 10 in The Straits Times.


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