Champions League qualification and the inconsistencies that shame football

Posted by Farman on May 8, 2005, 07:03:43 PM

The dust has just about settled now after one of the most highly-charged and emotional nights in the history of this grand old club. Rafa Beneatles’ genius, the dogged determination of 14 players and - maybe - a Slovakian linesman combined to force a result few outside the Red half of Merseyside would have thought possible. As for the noise and passion of the fans...if ever supporters won a game, it was here.

So now on to Istanbul. Yet while players and coaching staff prepare for arguably the biggest match this club have ever played and meticulously analyse opponents Milan, and fans consult flight schedules, maps and bank accounts/loan sharks/little Billy's college fund, the matter of who qualifies for next season's competition should Liverpool win it having finished outside the top four has again reared its considerably ugly head. Now that Chelsea have been vanquished and Everton have concluded their improbable (though highly creditable) march to fourth place the issue has become less an interesting hypothesis, more a distinct possibility.

Of course, we should never loose sight of the bigger picture. I would gladly trade a victory on the 25th May for just about any set of results and consequences anywhere else. That day is what it's all about. Qualification for the Champions League does indeed bring money and prestige and makes joining the club a more exciting prospect for potential transfer targets, yet the very reason we want those things is to be able to take part in nights like in Istanbul. It’s the glory we all want - our day, quite literally, in the sun. Qualification for the competition provides us with a means to an end; winning the competition is the end in itself.

Although this year's final is therefore much the bigger issue, the fact remains that qualification remains an extremely important matter for the continued success and development of the club, on and off the pitch. So it is with some considerable justification that Liverpool fans can, and indeed should, be outraged at recent developments in the issue of who qualifies. Noises coming out of club football's chief governing bodies, UEFA and the FA, seem to indicate that against all moral, legal and logical arguments, the winners of the Champions League may not be allowed to defend their trophy. I say 'seem' to indicate quite deliberately, since the governing bodies seem more prone to outrageous contradiction than to any sort of clarity. Unlike the fans on Tuesday night, they seem to be utterly incapable of singing from the same hymn sheet, even at the very highest level.

Let’s start with UEFA. In the blue corner, we have the UEFA Chief Executive, Mr. Lars Christer Olsson, and the UEFA Communications Director, Mr. William Gaillard. The former has stated that in this situation it would ‘normally’ be the team which qualifies through their national association that should get the final qualification spot. Quite why a man in his position feels it necessary to offer his opinion when UEFA have insisted the decision is the FA’s is another matter, but what I’d like to know is what he means by ‘normally’. This implies some sort of precedent. This situation has indeed risen once before, in 2000 when Real Madrid won the Champions League and finished outside a qualification place in their domestic league. They were allowed into the competition the following year at the expense of Real Zaragoza, who would otherwise have qualified through league placing. This is what was expected and whilst most people had sympathy for Zaragoza there was no form of public outcry, or even debate, in the Spanish or international media.

Mr. William Gaillard, meanwhile, has stated that there would be ‘no damage done’ to the competition if the holders were not allowed to defend their trophy. Here we have a competition called the ‘Champions League’ which is neither a league nor, for the most part, competed for by champions. Never once in the history of the competition have the trophy winners been forbidden from defending it (except once for Marseille who were thrown out of European competition for off-the-field matters). In the competition’s heyday, before it became the commercially-driven monster it is today, the idea of a team qualifying by finishing even second would have been heartily laughed at. In UEFA’s other main club competition, the UEFA Cup, the holders automatically enter the following year’s contest as holders should they not qualify for the Champions League or UEFA cup through their domestic efforts. Surely the first name into the hat for a competition entitled the ‘Champions League’ should be that of the defending champions?

In the red corner stands the considerable frame of UEFA President Lennart Johansson. Whilst Gaillard and Olsson were adamant that it was ‘impossible’ for a country to have more than four representatives, Johansson indicated that the Champions League winners may yet be allowed back in the following year without taking away the place from the fourth-placed team because the UEFA Executive Committee, which includes Olsson, could overrule (it was also interesting to note that the President of UEFA couldn’t remember the Madrid/Zaragoza precedent when it was put to him…clearly it wasn’t even an issue at the time). Whilst this would seem to be a logical solution I would hate to be a Real Zaragoza fan reading that, a team that suffered so much from the withdrawal of their Champions League spot that they wound up getting relegated shortly afterwards. Indeed the fuss that the Spanish FA would make may be the biggest obstacle to overcome for the Executive Committee.

Another remarkable UEFA rule is that any club that wins the Champions League does in fact qualify for the following season as competition winners, regardless of where they finish in their domestic league…unless that club comes from Italy, England or Spain. The reason for this is that UEFA seem terribly keen on sticking to the rule that states only four clubs from one country may enter the competition. Indeed, such an absurd rule is so sacrosanct that it must be upheld over and above their own rule which allows clubs from other countries to defend their trophy. Yet there is simply no practical reason why, in such circumstances, five teams cannot be entered. It would certainly not cause any organisational difficulties in terms of having to move another club to a qualifying match to make way, since this is what UEFA would have to do anyway if a team from an association with less than four places won the competition and finished outside a qualification spot domestically. The system is already in place.

The reason, one suspects, is related to the way the television money is distributed between nations. UEFA have a structure in place which awards nations a certain amount based on commercial market share, which is then split on a sliding scale between clubs based on their league position. Five clubs qualifying would lead to problems in the distribution of that money. Yet the FA, representing English clubs, have said they are lobbying UEFA to award an extra place should Liverpool win the competition. If the national association is happy with it, then so should UEFA be. The fundamental sporting right of allowing competition winners to defend their trophy must not be compromised by financial complications. The increasing importance of the commercial side of football has already stretched the patience of traditional ‘customers’ to breaking point without this. The tail must not be allowed to wag the dog.

A team that wins the Champions League qualify automatically for the group stage as top seeds for the following year’s competition, regardless of coefficient points ranking or whether they would otherwise have had to pre-qualify through domestic league placing. It would be interesting to ask UEFA why they have such a rule. Why should the defending champions have such privileges? The answer is of course in the question…because they are defending champions. So how can they then state that such a club cannot even enter the tournament if the association of their own country decides against them? This acknowledgement of the special place champions have should surely stretch to allowing the team back into the competition in the first place.

So on to the FA, an organisation that spent so much money building a beautiful new national stadium for the fans that the only way to pay for it is by selling the extra capacity to corporate clients. It is quite obvious that UEFA should have made clear provision in their own rules for the scenario that Liverpool could be involved with, yet under the circumstances they happen to have left the decision on which team qualifies to national associations. Rather than leave the decision so late that it looks like a choice between two specific clubs the FA should surely have made public what their decision would be under this circumstance at an earlier date, rather than waiting and keeping fingers crossed hoping that Liverpool go out of European competition.

But wait, in fact the FA have already made it clear what they would do. They made it clear on 10th March last year on their website, in an article by Jerry Newman entitled ‘The road to Europe’, subheading ‘with the season about to reach its conclusion, we clear up for you how the European places are awarded’. This article, written prior to the Champions League meeting between Chelsea and Arsenal, stated “Should Arsenal or Chelsea win the Champions League, they will automatically qualify for next season's competition but England will not gain an extra Champions League place, even if they finish outside of the top four in the Premiership. In that scenario the fourth-placed team in the Premiership will play in next season's UEFA Cup.”

So that clears that up then. That article has been in place for 14 months up to this week, at which time it was hastily removed when it was pointed out to them that this contradicted the ruling they had just made the day before in favour of the fourth-placed team. Apparently this ruling on qualification was incorrect because it was not official policy, despite the fact that it was on their own website for 14 months as a guide for this very scenario. At best, somewhere within that organisation has been extremely incompetent. At worst, there is something altogether more sinister going on. This matter must not be allowed to be brushed under the carpet. There can be no doubt that had Chelsea or Arsenal won the Champions League last year and finished fifth, they would have been allowed to defend their trophy at the expense of the fourth placed team. Interestingly, the team that finished fourth last year was, indeed, Liverpool, the same team that stands to loose out to the reverse argument now, despite the fact that there has been no rule change.

Perhaps the most infuriating and commonly-held misconception about this whole matter is that awarding Liverpool a place over Everton in this scenario would mean changing the rules. Fans and pundits, including some very high-profile writers who I used to have a lot of respect for and who should know better, have been making statements along the lines of ‘at the start we all knew fourth place meant Champions League and you can’t change the rules now’. If people haven’t bothered to check the rules as they stand, then that, frankly, is their problem, not Liverpool football clubs’. The rules in fact state no more than that in this scenario it is up to the FA to make a decision as to which team qualifies. Where there is no fixed rule as to which team that is, perhaps they should uphold the finest traditions of English Law and look to precedent…and the aforementioned Madrid/Zaragoza outcome. Amazingly, they appear to believe that a team that finishes fourth in the league has more right to qualify for a competition than the actual winners of the competition itself.

If the FA want the most chance of success and English coefficient ranking points (critical for maintaining that fourth Champions League spot for England in the first place over France and Germany, who have just three each…and, ironically, the very thing that would stop Liverpool qualifying next year should they win it) then they must have chosen in favour of the Champions League winners. This argument has nothing to do with any partisan view of which team has the better players, rather it is to do with the fact that as potential holders, Liverpool would qualify automatically for the group stages, and this would not be at the expense of the first or second-placed Premiership team, who would also qualify. This guarantees a further six games for an English club to acquire points for English clubs as a whole. Everton now have to come through a qualifying round which they may go on to loose. Consequently, under that scenario they would fail to reach a stage that Liverpool would automatically qualify for.

But of course the decision-makers at the FA don’t always do what is best for the FA; they have their own vested interests. The Chairmen of Bolton Wanderers and Arsenal have been involved with the discussions and decision on this matter. The Chairman of Bolton would naturally have been inclined to argue in favour of fourth place qualifying, at a time when his own hard-up club was in with a chance of making fourth themselves. As for the Chairman of Arsenal, he would know that his own club’s share of the English Champions League pot of television money would be increased if the fourth-placed team failed to qualify for the group stages, something that could not happen if Liverpool went in as defending champions. The FA may well have reached the same decision anyway, but one has to question an organisation which continues to have such an archaic structure that conflicts of interest like this are allowed to happen at all.

Perhaps we should consider one of the other arguments put forward by those who back fourth place over European Champions (it’s best to leave out the tired ramblings of old man and former Everton manager Howard Kendall, whose argument seemed to be that it should go to Everton because they were quite good 20 years ago). It has been said, correctly, that the winners of the World Cup no longer qualify automatically. This decision was in fact made by FIFA, the third in the unholy trinity of archaic organisations running our game, and was a kop-out in itself. By declaring that future winners would have to qualify for tournaments they avoided upsetting a specific national association (since future winners are not known) and resolved the problem of being one World Cup place short of satisfying all the continental confederation’s demands for minimum numbers. Indeed, that problem itself only arose originally because of another kop-out decision by FIFA, which was to award the hosting of the 2002 World Cup to two nations.

In any case, the argument behind it was that World Cup winning nations (at least European ones) as well as European Championship winners would have to go two years without playing competitive matches before the finals tournament, which is too long. The problem with the qualifying group for the Champions League (i.e. the Premiership) is that it interferes directly with the Champions League itself. This season, Liverpool have won just two Premiership games following Champions League matches, when they have had to rest some of their best players, including against Everton. A club that has no European matches to play has a distinct advantage over one that does. This does not apply to international tournament matches.

Ultimately, Liverpool may or may not win the Champions League. But what this whole sad episode has done is to highlight yet again the hypocrisy and incompetence of those that run the game, even with a matter that should be quite straightforward. It looks like Liverpool will go to Istanbul without a clear idea of whether they qualify for next year’s competition by winning it or not. Our club, sensibly, is staying quiet on the matter for now, but if the scenario comes to pass then the governing bodies are going to have a very big problem on their hands.

In football, on the pitch and on the terraces, it always seems to take problems to actually arise before a solution is sought by the fatcats in power. Towards the end of this month I and thousands of other Reds will be crossing the continent into Asia, voice, banner and fez at the ready, hoping the governing bodies end up with egg on their faces again. But this will be for no other reason than that it would mean Liverpool Football Club are European Champions for the fifth time. And that is really what it’s all about.

© Farman 2005

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