The decision by UEFA has been absolutely devastating to football fans in Poland. I myself am not a Legia Warszawa fan, but I support Polish teams in European competitions and in this case I felt like a Legia fan. I’ve never been in the situation where I’ve seen my team win a match 6-1 over two legs, and then still lose the match. This is exactly what happened in this case.
It’s funny but before the first leg against Celtic, I wrote a piece at www.polandsoccerblog.com, entitled ‘Five reasons Legia won’t advance in to the Champions League play-off round.’ I believed all five of these reasons to be sporting ones. I simply didn’t believe Legia had the ability to defeat the Scottish champions.
Season after season I’d watched different Polish champions be defeated by stronger opposition, and I expected it to happen again. To my surprise, Legia defeated Celtic 4-1 in the first leg. In the second leg I thought it would be more difficult. I was even fearful that 4-1 might not be enough. I could see Celtic managing a 3-0 win [the irony], yet Legia won again, 2-0, and there was no doubt who the better side was over the two games.
Then, like the beginning of a nightmare, the day before the Champions League play-off round draw, reports of an investigation in to Legia’s win emerged, and threats of a forfeit. Why? As we now know, they fielded an ineligible player. Well not quite. If only he’d been ineligible, they might not have been booted out. It turns out he was suspended. He went on in the 86th minute, with the aggregate score at 6-1, and played about five or six minutes in all. Even though his entrance on to the field made no different to the end result, it was more than enough to get Legia kicked out.
At first glance, before having a look at the rules, it seemed horrendous. ‘You have to be kidding me,’ was my first thought. Kicking them out for fielding a suspended player in the 86th minute of the 2nd leg when the result was accomplished? It seemed much too harsh. Then people began to point out the rules. If a team field a suspended player then they lose by forfeit. He served his three match ban though? Well that’s what Legia thought. Despite not playing in either of the matches against St Patrick’s and the first leg against Celtic, his suspension was not served. It was an error made by Legia. Rules are rules though, right? That’s what Celtic fans are saying.
The truth is, it’s time we all start being honest with each other. Celtic fans, and perhaps other Scots [not including Rangers fans]will defend their team and point out the rulebook every time you question them about their side’s advancement. Legia fans and other Poles [not including Polonia Warszawa fans]will be on Legia’s side, saying Legia should go through if sporting spirit is upheld.
Personally, I’m all about the sporting side of the game. It’s the third day after this decision and I am still unable to swallow this bitter pill. What makes it worse is that it’s the Champions League, something Polish people have craved for many years. It’s been 18 years since a Polish side last played in the Champions League, and to get knocked out in the qualifiers like this, after playing so well, is a national sporting tragedy.
I’m angry about it, and I blame everybody! Legia, UEFA and Celtic. In fairness, Celtic is the side I blame the least. Yes I’m angry that Celtic has benefited from this mistake, because they did not deserve it. I’d rather Legia had been kicked out and Celtic had still been dropped to the EL. I know that sounds mean and nasty, but I won’t be able to watch Celtic in the Champions League [if they qualify], knowing that Legia beat them 6-1 on aggregate and yet, here they are, Celtic, in the Champions League, with the riches of Champions League money potentially to go with it.
Celtic have since maintained that they had nothing to do with this investigation and it was UEFA who incited it. I believe that, but I am also aware that they have the power to give up their place to a more deserving Legia team. Again, reasons are given for why they can’t, with the club being a PLC stated as the most important reason.
This is where my anger at UEFA begins, and it’s much greater than my anger towards Celtic. UEFA have a shoddy rule. We have had two similar situations over the last few years, with two very different results, because of a technicality. Debrecen defeated Levski Sofia in the Champions League qualifiers a few years ago. In the last few minutes of the second leg, Debrecen brought on an ineligible player. Levski Sofia protested this after the match, but UEFA decided that it was an honest error by Debrecen and the player’s entrance made no difference to the result, so Debrecen were fined. Here we had the exact same situation, except the player was suspended rather than ineligible. For this reason, it was unacceptable and Legia were gone. As I said, a technicality.
Another thing that angers me about UEFA is their delegate’s quickness to bring attention to this human mistake. No mention was given to Bereszynski being on the bench before the match and no warning was given by UEFA that he must still serve his suspension. It was almost as if UEFA were waiting to catch Legia out. ‘Let’s see if they play him, if they do, we have a reason to get rid of them.’
When FC Sion were kicked out a few years back [again, to Celtic’s advantage], they had five ineligible players in their team. Not only that, they were warned by UEFA not to play any of them, before the match. I repeat, why did UEFA not say anything to Legia? They could have done. I’m sure they knew about it, otherwise the delegate wouldn’t have reported it so quickly after it happened.
I’m giving Celtic the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think that they were looking for anything after their defeat. I think they were devastated by the loss and thinking about what needs to be done in future. I can’t say for sure, but I think if UEFA had fined Legia for this breach, Celtic would not have been too bothered. I might be wrong. They might have kicked up a storm after looking at the rules, but I think they would have thought ‘eh, we were well beaten anyway, so appealing for the result to be overturned would be gutless on our part.’
Instead, UEFA decided to give the play-off place to Celtic, and now they’d be required to give up their position, and effectively reject a gift and the potential reward of tens of millions of Euros. Again I go back to these shareholders. They wouldn’t allow it. I suppose it’s possible that if UEFA had only fined Legia, the Celtic shareholders would have looked at the rulebook and demanded Celtic appeal and ask for Legia to be eliminated anyway. It’s all speculation though.
All I know is, I can’t get over this. Most Polish fans and neutral fans feel this decision is outrageous. Some Celtic fans have even admitted they are very fortunate to have been given this gift. Some Celtic fans are rubbing it in and being pretencious, that I feel is a shame, because Polish fans often supported Celtic in the past, due to the Poles in their squad. I won’t be watching the Champions League this year and I won’t be watching the Europa League. I honestly believe that UEFA were so quick to execute their harsh rules because it was ‘only’ Legia. They didn’t take any other facts in to account and I feel situations like this should always be dealt with individually, without a blanket rule that covers everything.
In this individual case, the facts were as follows – the score was 6-1, the substitution had no bearing on the game, Legia thought the player had served his ban and there was no attempt from Legia’s side to deceive or cheat anyone. These should all count. I know rules are rules, but I think the main reason for them is to prevent cheating, not punish honest mistakes.
Legia still have a chance with CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport]. They’re best bet is to prove UEFA didn’t follow their own rules while eliminating them. Either way, I think Legia and Celtic will now have a very negative relationship after this incident.