UEFA and Platini

Ever since Michel Platini became President of UEFA, one initiative after another has poured out of him, some impressive, some promising, some slightly bizarre.-PICS: AP

The European body and its president are to be applauded for trying to bring some kind of economic sense and justice into European football in their attempt to compel teams to spend no more than what they earn rather than be bankrolled by billionaire owners as Chelsea and now Manchester City are, writes Brian Glanville.

Ever since Michel Platini, once perhaps the finest footballer France has ever produced, became President of UEFA, the European body, you might say that he hit the ground running. One initiative after another poured out of him, some impressive, some promising, some slightly bizarre. In that category, alas, I’d put the new and surely redundant Europa League to which such a huge host of clubs, big and surprisingly small, are now committed, the UEFA Cup itself (it began in the 1950s as the Inter-Cities Cup) being consigned to the dustbin of history. On and on through the long European soccer seasons it will wind, but how hugely significant it is that Fulham, once so enthusiastically in favour, have already effectively snubbed it.

Towards the end of last season, when it was known that the South West London club was going to take part, I questioned my old friend Roy Hodgson, a manager of renown and respect, on the wisdom of taking part. He cheerfully brushed my objections aside. Yet now he has publicly stated that Fulham will in future be fielding a virtual reserve team in the competition, as indeed they did last time out in Sofia, against CSKA of Bulgaria; where they managed, surprisingly, to force a draw. There is little doubt in my mind that other senior English clubs will follow suit, just as they have behaved in the Football League Cup, at present operating under the alias of the Carling Cup (it has had more aliases than an international criminal in its time!) In other words, putting out, in the case of the major English sides, reserve teams, until it comes to the Final at Wembley which becomes a pseudo occasion, and whichever clubs have got there will contest the trophy with a full team.

Fulham alas have had every reason to repent their desire to take part in the Europa Cup. Their actual first team squad is fairly small, but they were doomed in the first two rounds to travel first to Lithuania then all the way to remote Perm, on the very farthest borders of Russia. To add insult to injury, when they played the first leg against Perm at home, Craven Cottage, a brutal foul by a Perm defender smashed the collarbone of Fulham’s chief and fastest striker Andy Johnson, and put him out of action for several games. A feeble Portuguese referee didn’t even punish this grotesque offence with a red card.

Moreover, the Europa Cup has lamentably followed the pattern of its UEFA Cup predecessor by allowing several clubs knocked out in the first stage of the so-called European Champions Cup to participate in the lesser competition. Just as was the case in the last years of the UEFA Cup. A practice which surely cheapened the prestige of the UEFA Cup as it has — though in this case prestige has hardly been achieved — of the current competition. In the recent past, UEFA Cup Finals had been contested by teams eliminated from the European Cup itself who hadn’t even begun in the lesser tournament. But by the same token, how have UEFA the cheek to call it the Champions’ Cup? Something, you feel, which could be prosecuted under Britain’s Trades Description Act for its dishonesty. For, how could it be a competition for champions, when some countries are permitted to enter as many as four different teams? And it has been known for two non-champion sides to contest the eventual Final.

At the bottom of it all, of course is greed, the desperate desire of the leading European clubs to make as much money as they can. This has led to what in my view is the ruin of the European Cup for so long a splendidly straightforward affair in which teams played each other on a home and away knock out basis, the winner being decided on the aggregate of goals. But this wasn’t good enough for the big clubs. Heaven forbid, they might even be knocked out in the opening round with all the loss of income that would involve, and with players now indulged with eye watering million pound plus contracts.

Arsenal's Croatian international Eduardo Da Silva tackles Celtic's Scott Brown during a Champions League match. In what was an embarrassing incident, Eduardo plunged when challenged by Celtic's goalkeeper. The referee gave a spot kick, from which Eduardo scored.-

So it came to group stages, mini leagues whose first and second placed teams went on to the next round. There were even, absurdly, two group stages, until it became plain even to the biggest clubs that this not only subverted the competition and its dramas, but left all too much scope for dead rubbers, meaningless matches and even, now and then, corrupted ones. So one of those stages was jettisoned but the other remains. Any surprise that attendances have been falling off?

The fatuous expansion of the European Cup meant the death of an attractive, subsidiary competition, the Cupwinners’ Cup. When it was launched, I remember going to speak at FA headquarters to that towering, in every sense, figure the late Stanley Rous, FA Secretary, due to become FIFA President and expressing my uncertainty, since only a handful of countries, England, Scotland and France to the fore, had serious Cup competitions. Stanley replied that he hoped the new competition would, in fact, stimulate national Cup tournaments and I think he was eventually proved right. Yet, it was all too good to last and the competition perished in the wake of the disastrous expansion of the European Cup itself.

UEFA and Platini, however, are to be applauded for trying to bring some kind of economic sense and justice into European football in their attempt to compel teams to spend no more than what they earn rather than be bankrolled by billionaire owners as Chelsea and now Manchester City are. While Real Madrid have just appallingly, after their spendthrift summer — £80 million for Ronaldo, £56 million for Kaka — declared a debt of £296 million. Which may in fact be a great deal bigger. It seems that they can simply borrow as much money as they like and have no need of their own Roman Abramovich.

Then there’s the embarrassing case of Arsenal’s Eduardo and the dive that never was. Playing for the Gunners in London against Celtic in the European Cup, the Croatian international plunged when challenged by Celtic’s Polish keeper. The referee gave a spot kick, from which Eduardo scored. Protests were made from Scotland to UEFA who, second guessing the referee, looked at the evidence, decided Eduardo had dived and suspended him for two games. As one who was there that night, I’ m still not sure who was right, but this, as Wales’ manager John Toshack averred, created a dangerous precedent. So Arsenal appealed and UEFA backed down. But could the consequence be that in future, refs by and large won’t award penalties, for fear of being challenged on TV evidence? Meanwhile, I cannot help thinking of an Arsenal-Portsmouth match at Highbury, years ago when the Gunners were beginning to build up their 49-match unbeaten run. They were a goal down and looked as if they’d lose. Then their French attacker, Pires blatantly dived in the penalty box, a spot kick was given and Arsenal survived; on the way to their dubious record!

That record ended at Old Trafford; when Rooney dived for a deeply suspect penalty! What goes around, comes around you could say.