A very special 4 minutes

In a public relations coup which would make our own FFA envious, UEFA recently forced Legia Warsaw out of the Champions League after they fielded an ineligible player in their third round qualifying tie with Celtic.

I guess that’s what sports associations do – although the reason for Bartosz Bereszynski to be ineligible was a little odd – but it does look a trifle silly when you hear that he played the last 4 minutes of the 180 in a two-leg tie, entering with Legia leading 2-0 on the night and 6-1 on aggregate. You have to wonder if Legia would have lost the tie in those last 4 minutes had they instead fielded a lesser-skilled eligible player, or a player from their reserves, the physio, a half-drunk fan, no-one at all, or withdrawn another few players for good measure.

A solid head clash is the first step towards generating player eligibility rules.

A solid head clash is the first step towards generating player eligibility rules.

UEFA’s penalty was to turn the 2-0 victory into a 3-0 loss, making the aggregate 4-4 and handing the tie to Celtic on the away goals rule, as if somehow it would be unproblematic had the two matches been played in reverse order, giving Legia the away-goal edge. (Why 3-0? I really don’t know. As a junior in 1985 I played in a team which was awarded a 3-0 win in a match against a team comprising completely of unregistered, ineligible players. We won 4-0, but apparently 3 is the magic number.)

By making – or implementing – their rules in such a cut-and-dried manner, UEFA makes a sturdy social media rod for their own backs. Acting as they have, UEFA appear incredibly pedantic – you can hardly avoid the conclusion that they have presided over Legia winning at football and losing at form-filling. If they ignore it and let the result stand, they stand accused of arbitrary winner-picking and undermine the integrity of player eligibility rules, which – I’m guessing, without doing even five seconds of research – are doubtlessly well thought through and full of excruciating minutiae.

Legia manager Henning Berg quantifies Bartosz Bereszynski's contribution to the win over Celtic.

Legia manager Henning Berg quantifies Bartosz Bereszynski’s contribution to the win over Celtic.

As long as humans are carrying out administration, mistakes will occur. Without consequences, no-one will put in any effort at all, but dropping out of the Champions League is a heavy tax to collect on human error. UEFA could give the appearance of humanity and still let football justice prevail if they take the middle path: instead of applying the magic 3-0 every time, how about acknowledging that each set of circumstances is subtly different?

You could start with something like, a team automatically forfeits if:

  • They score to take the lead or equalise in a match / tie with an ineligible player on the field
  • The final score, minus any scoring which occurred whilst the ineligible player was on the field, does not still leave the offending team ahead
  • The player takes part in extra time / penalties

If they get over that hurdle, the table below can then generate a judgement based on how long an ineligible player is on the field (based on a sensible scheme for accurately managing game length), and the original result is on the field. And it’s just a suggestion – I’m sure a bit of discussion would establish a reasonable set of figures. This one is built on the principles that:

  • Any team fielding an ineligible player must, at a minimum, replay the match. This, along with putting other requirements on the team – like paying fees for officials and / or making them play on their opponent’s home ground, as well as once again being without the ineligible player – is a way of collecting the human error tax
  • Sometimes a player who is on the ground for a short period of time simply doesn’t contribute very much
  • A team shouldn’t be disadvantaged by another team’s maladministration – but their performance should be relevant, too

 table

There are no doubt pitfalls to this approach too – soften the rules too much and exploitable loopholes will appear. But there would be nothing to stop UEFA using the approach above as a starting point, with the authority to make an arbitrary judgement against repeat offenders, or if they discover that something sinister, rather than careless, is going on. But, based on UEFA’s experience in creating their own player eligibility rules, it shouldn’t be a steep challenge at all for them to generate a list of requirements to add to the above – enough to cover a range of subtle skulduggery, whilst leaving an out when a player’s presence on the field is clearly irrelevant to the outcome, and producing a formula for the outcome that UEFA and most fair-minded people are happy to support and thus minimising arbitrary decision-making and controversy.

Legia manager Henning Berg discusses UEFA's flexibility in dealing with ineligible players.

Legia manager Henning Berg discusses UEFA’s flexibility in dealing with ineligible players.

Meanwhile, Celtic failed to get into the lucrative final stages of the Champions League after being defeated by Maribor. They have instead landed in the second-tier Europa League, where (no doubt in a disappointment to promoters) they’ve been drawn in a different group to Legia.

Given the emphasis UEFA clearly wants given to administration, my sincere hope if they do meet again in the later rounds is that the tie be settled with an essay-writing contest. After all, we do already have a pretty good idea who’s better at football.

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