As players, fans, the manager and – most especially – the club secretary of Legia Warsaw wake up this morning, with their club still frozen in shock, one thought may console them: it could have been a lot worse.
Legia’s administrative error in bringing on a player who was suspended, thus costing them victory at Murrayfield against Celtic and so leading to their exit from the Champions League qualifiers, is doubtless painful. However, if Bartosz Bereszynski had not played against Celtic, he would still have been suspended for the first of the final qualifying round games, meaning they could feasibly have qualified for the actual Champions League and then had their results changed.
Celtic’s Champions League return and reprieve is as bizarre as it is embarrassing. The club were well beaten by Legia and really don’t deserve to be in with a chance of making the group stages. However the rules are clear, and this really isn’t about Celtic or the Poles.
The Champions League – as we are constantly told – is a multi-million pound tournament. Entry guarantees participants huge sums of money and, as such, there is huge competition to get there. The fact is that UEFA need to have rules that are black-and-white, and not open to interpretation or challenge, for fear that they would end up in court.
The idea that Celtic should decline to take the spot is noble, but utterly wrong, as is this “request” that we should agree to some sort of play-off game. Celtic’s refusal to compete would open them up to UEFA sanctions including suspension from European competition. UEFA cannot have a pick-or-mix set of rules for fear that in future this ambiguity will lead them to legal defeats from aggrieved clubs.
In the case of this issue, the rules are clear. Legia fielded a suspended player and as a result they forfeited that game 3-0. This is exactly what the rules demand and follows the precedent set too. There have been some claims that UEFA have previously only issued fines in these circumstances, but that misunderstands different rules.
The case that has mainly been cited is that of Debrecen. In 2010 the Hungarian side played Bulgarians Litex Lovech in the Europa League. Whilst winning 4-1, Debrecen brought on a player for only a few minutes who was not registered (and thus ineligible) for that game. When the mistake came to light, Debrecen were fined rather than forfeiting the game, on the grounds that it made no material impact on the game’s outcome.
As much as it is technical difference, this is not the case with Celtic and Legia. Wrongly playing an ineligible player (someone who is otherwise free to play if registered) is not the same as playing someone who is suspended and thus excluded from the competition. The relevant rules are below:
Article 21 – Forfeit
• If a match cannot take place or cannot be played in full, the member association or club responsible forfeits the match.
• A match is declared forfeit if a player who has been suspended following a
disciplinary decision participates in the match.
• A match may be declared forfeit if a player who is ineligible under the regulations of the competition concerned participates in the match, as long as the opposing team files a protest.
• The consequences of a match being declared forfeit are as follows: a) the team forfeiting the match is deemed to have lost 3-0 (5-0 in futsal competitions), unless the actual result is less favourable to the member association or club at fault, in which case that result stands.
Bullet point 2 is the relevant section here; Legia played a suspended player, they thus forfeit the game 3-0.
Bullet point 3 is the section that relates to the Debrecen match and in any case requires Celtic to lodge a protest which apparently they did not do. It was the UEFA delegate at the game who noticed the problem and thereafter a UEFA/Legia dispute; Celtic were nothing to do with the decision, even if they ultimately became beneficiaries.
This is worth noting, and reminding people of. Celtic played no part and this, and rightly continue to play no part in it. This decision was for UEFA alone, and is perfectly in keeping with their regulations.
The problem is that because the Debrecen and Legia instances are similar – a player who shouldn’t have played did – it leads to complaints about fairness. It is rather like saying that Criminal A steals something and gets 6 months in prison whilst Criminal B steals something and only gets 3 months, which seems unjust. However closer inspection reveals that Criminal A was a burglar who entered someone’s home whilst Criminal B took something from a shop. Just because two things can be summarised the same way doesn’t mean to say they are the same thing.
Legia are now in the process of appealing the decision but, quite simply, they have no chance of success, if only for the huge knock-on consequences this would have. Reinstating Legia to the Champions League would surely result in the entire Champions League and Europe League draws having to be redone.
This is because Celtic and Legia’s position in the respective draws was not the same; for instance, Legia were not seeded in the Champions League whereas Celtic were. If Legia were to go back in it would mean they had a better draw than would otherwise have been the case, and another side (Bulgarians Ludogorets Razgrad) could demand they get a fairer draw.
So a strange if potentially hugely beneficial series of events for Celtic. But as with Legia, things could always be much worse. Whilst this certainly presents an opportunity, it may not be a positive one. After all, how many sides can say they have been knocked out of the Champions |League qualifiers twice in the same season?
Celtic were woeful in both games against Legia. Repeating those performances against FC Maribor may result in a similar outcome, though presumably without the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card this time. Celtic need to invest in players, especially with the departure of Fraser Forster freeing up funds. Even if the team is good enough to beat Maribor, they are some distance from being Champions League standard.
Happiness (and some muted embarrassment) is presumably the dominant emotion at Celtic Park today. Celtic now have to make sure that, like Legia, things aren’t about to get a lot worse.
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