Fair Play: A European Adventure

Man City: taking advantage of UEFA's stupidity.

Man City: taking advantage of UEFA's stupidity.

Man City overcame AaB Aalborg on penalties yesterday after slumping to a 2-0 defeat in the second leg. The club-formerly-known as a yo-yo club and now derided for being the World’s Richest Club came very close to being Eliminated from the UEFA Cup, and indeed any travelling fans must have thought they’d blown it when Evans conceded a late penalty. But it is a wonder they are there at all, when you think about it.

Manchester City were, according to the final Premier League table, the 9th best team in English football last season. The ‘big four’ took the four Champions League places, Everton and Villa finished 5th and 6th respectively, qualifying for the UEFA Cup, and Portsmouth won the FA Cup (and finished 8th) to secure their passage in European competition. Blackburn Rovers, who finished 7th in the Premier League last season, didn’t qualify for the UEFA Cup.

So Manchester City, England’s 9th best team, got to play European football, while Blackburn Rovers, England’s 7th best team, did not. Seems strange to me. Very strange. City qualified via their finishing top of UEFA’s ‘Fair Play League’, a ranking system that determines who have been the fairest teams in all of Europe. I have to say though, I question the logic of granting three UEFA Cup spots to the top three ‘fairest’ teams in Europe.

Upon my understanding, the idea of European football, is to pit the best teams from each country against one another. It is competition for an elite of teams. The Champions League, anomoly that it is, isn’t necessarily for the Champions, seeing as England get four clubs into it, but they work out a system whereby the best teams in Europe are supposedly included. All very good so far.

The UEFA Cup, the second tier of European domestic competition, is for the teams who finish just behind a countries’ Champions and so are ineligible for the Champions League. Still though it is a competition whose concept is surely to pit the best available teams from European countries against one another. Seems odd to me then, that these three spots can be granted to whichever team happens to have been the nicest on the pitch.

It seems flawed to me, and I’ll explain why. Say you were the manager of a team promoted to the Premier League. You know that you stand no realistic chance of pushing for European places and probably face a season-long relegation battle, and, let’s be honest, there’s a high chance that next season, you’ll be back to the less glamorous Championship. But say you know that, if you discipline your players well, instruct them to be fair, to ensure they don’t pick up many bookings, don’t act rashly on the pitch – you could play in the UEFA Cup.

So when the next season’s UEFA Cup kicked off, you would have some of Europe’s top sides, the likes of AC Milan, Werder Bremen and Sevilla lining up alongside an English Championship team. Of course, they would almost certainly be knocked out in the first qualifying round, but that’s not the point. It denies the opportunity for a team who is actually worthy of that competition to compete, a team who has actually earned it. A team like Blackburn Rovers.

If I was a Rovers fan I’d be sick to my stomach right now. Not only were they denied a UEFA Cup spot in favour of Man City, but then their tremendous manager went and left them to take charge of that exact same club. Now I’m not close personal friend of Mark Hughes’, but I would be willing to hedge a considerable bet that if Rovers had qualified for Europe (and thus City had not), he would still be manager of Blackburn. And quite probably, Blackburn may have retained the services of David Bentley and a few other players who departed, and would still have a happily firing Roque Santa Cruz playing for them. In short, they probably wouldn’t be battling relegation.

I have segwayed a little, this article isn’t about Rovers, though they deserve much pity. This article is about the calamity that is European competition. Because Man City, who qualified for the UEFA Cup by the skin of their teeth, by virtue of being a bit sheepish in the tackle probably (bar Richard Dunne), are the last remaining English team in the UEFA Cup. Of course, we can’t blame them for that, fair play to them, they’ve taken their chance, but it seems ridiculous to me, that England’s 9th best team last season, are playing European football while the 5th-8th ranked teams watch from home.

Of course, one may claim that the others blew it, and perhaps they did. Villa threw their chance at the competition away and so deserve no pity. Pompey had a bit of a go at it but given their calamitous season will perhaps be relieved to have only the league to focus on. Everton though, deserve some pity. England’s 5th best tea last season, fell at the first hurdle after drawing Standard Liege, one of the stronger teams in the competition, while they watched the other English clubs enjoy fairly cruisy ties in the first qualification round.

Where is the justice there? Why did England’s 5th best team draw Belgium’s best, while Man City met AC Omonia at the same stage. Who are AC Omonia you may well ask, well they are a Cypriot club who didn’t even win their league in qualifying for this season’s UEFA Cup (I can’t even find out where they did finish, which tells you enough I suppose)? It is idiotic, and the terrible thing is, I’m sure similar stories can be told from the German and Danish leagues (where the other two beneficiaries of UEFA’s ludicrous Fair Play qualifying bonus hailed from).

Because, it is not simply that Man City qualified at Blackburn’s expense. They qualified at the expense of every team in Europe who finished one place outside their League’s UEFA Cup places. As did Hertha Berlin and FC Nordsjælland. I just think it is ridiculous that these clubs should be allowed the opportunity to compete in one of Europe’s elite domestic competitions when they simply haven’t earned the right to. Winning the Fair Play League does not give a side the credentials to play European football.

I’m not saying that playing fairly is not a good thing, and it should certainly be encouraged and rewarded, but not like this. It undermines the integrity of the competition, it works against the very concept of such a competition that utilises such methods of qualification. I don’t know what changes the ‘re-branding’ of the UEFA Cup to the Europa League will bring, but I seriously hope UEFA have got their act together and scrapped this little bit of lunacy.

Now this is turning into a bit of a rant, so I’ll finish, but I hope I’ve got my point across. There is simply no justice in rewarding mediocre teams with European football simply because they played fair. Yes, if a team qualifies for Europe as a result of having been completely unfair then you could perhaps be justified in reconsidering their taking part (though unless they’ve broken rules you’re on shaky ground for sure). But I think that this current model of allowing ‘fair teams’ entry into the competition is flawed, because as my example showed earlier, you could end up with any old rabble in the competition instead of good, quality, competent teams who will maintain the standard of football to the appropriate level.

So good luck to Man City. They’ve made the most of their opportunity, and fair play to them. But in a way, UEFA got lucky. They could have had Derby for Christ’s sake, and that would have been an embarrassment for English football (no offence Derby, but you were an embarrassment to yourselves in the Premier League, so the UEFA Cup would have been just ridiculous). Of course, this rant is written with the intention of spreading awareness and in the hope that something might change. But let’s face it, this is UEFA we’re talking about. Nothing’s going to change, especially not for the better.

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