Ajax. It’s all about poor little Ajax. UEFA’s latest protectionist scheme is focused on favouring the underdogs.
Of course it is. They’re all heart, as ever. Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA chief, wants to give the Champions League semi-finalists, not just the winners, automatic qualification to next season’s event.
He was clearly moved by Edwin van der Sar’s speech at the European Leagues meeting in May, bemoaning that his club reached the last four of the Champions League, but would have to sell players this summer because there was no guarantee they would qualify for the group stage in 2019-20.
UEFA are attempting to suggest their protection scheme is all about favouring the underdogs
‘We would like to protect teams like Ajax this year, or Monaco and Leicester City before,’ said Ceferin.
‘Ajax played the semi-finals this year and now they will have to sell all their players, because they don’t know if they will qualify for the Champions League next year.’
Yes, but whose fault is that? Who guaranteed 19 of 32 group stage places to clubs from just five countries: England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France? Who made it such a closed shop that even winning the Dutch league, as Ajax did, no longer ensures a place in the Champions League group stage? That was UEFA. That was Ceferin’s lot.
France have produced one Champions League or European Cup winner in 64 years of competition – Marseille in 1993, a victory tainted by corruption after it emerged Valenciennes were paid to lose a league game, so Marseille would have more time to prepare for their final with Milan.
They were stripped of their league title, and banned from defending their European crown the following season. Yet this hugely underachieving league gets three guaranteed places in the final 32, and the Dutch none.
Italy receive four, having produced a single European champion since 2007. No team in Germany beside Bayern Munich have won the Champions League since 1997, yet their fourth-placed team will also make it in, unchallenged. So that’s Ajax’s problem – not that semi-finalists aren’t getting an even break.
Aleksander Ceferin’s UEFA guarantees 19 of 32 group stage places to just five countries
Let’s not pretend this is about championing upstarts, either. In the last 10 years, had semi-finalists received protected status, Real Madrid would have benefitted eight times, Bayern Munich seven and Barcelona six.
Ceferin threw Leicester into the mix because he ran out of recent semi-final surprises after two – Ajax and Monaco – but Leicester went out at the quarter-final stage in 2017 so their circumstances would remain unchanged.
Anyway, even knowing they had qualified for the Champions League did not stop them selling N’Golo Kante to Chelsea that summer. This is window dressing, no more, and potentially ruinous to a properly competitive league, as exists in England.
In each of the seasons between 2006-07 and 2008-09, the Premier League produced three of four Champions League semi-finalists.
Back then, automatic qualification would not have mattered because England had a top four and little beyond. The teams who reached the semi-final were going to finish in the Champions League qualification places anyway. Yet the Premier League now has a top six, and maybe more, looking at teams such as Wolves and Leicester.
In UEFA’s brave new world, however, that fabulous competition at the top could be rendered partly or completely redundant if any combination of qualifiers – Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea this season – made it to the Champions League semi-finals.
Ajax have always been a selling club – as shown by the sale of Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona
Ajax have always been a selling club, as Van der Sar well knows – Ajax to Juventus, £5million, 1999 – and had agreed to sell Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona in January, when they could still have won the Champions League and qualified for this season’s campaign automatically. But that’s not the point.
Whoever wins the Dutch league is worthy of a place in the Champions League group stage – and that is what needs addressing.
But it won’t happen because UEFA have enshrined the right of privileged mediocrities from Italy, Germany, England and Spain to finish fourth and still get in, guaranteed. In reality, these are the underdogs to which Ceferin is most loyal.
Playing by our own VAR rules will lead to inconsistency and confusion
With the new Premier League season a month away, VAR is still proving problematic, but not to worry – referees chief Mike Riley has a solution. We’re going to play a version of the rules: you know, like we always do.
The English game, says Riley, will be softer on handball, for instance. Many of the penalty decisions awarded in the Women’s World Cup would not be given – and neither would the call against Moussa Sissoko of Tottenham in the Champions League final.
‘There are areas of interpretation around the way the new handball has been written – what you consider to be an unnatural position of hands and arms,’ Riley explained. ‘In this country we have always said that arms are part of the game and as long as you are not trying to extend your body to block a shot, then there is more scope so that we don’t penalise.
VAR rules in England would see handballs like Moussa Sissoko’s (left) in Madrid not penalised
‘We have worked to our guidelines for the last three or four seasons and, by and large, people accept that interpretation and I don’t think it changes.’
And to many, this is fine. Some of the calls in France this summer were too harsh. Yet what do managers demand? Consistency. And here we are, building inconsistency into our game. It means the seven English teams competing in Europe will play to different rules from at home; the national teams will, too; and what of English referees in international competition? Whose rules will they favour: UEFA’s or ours?
Mark Clattenburg looked brilliant in the Champions League because he let the game flow, mocked any attempts at play-acting and favoured the leniency we enjoy in the Premier League. Yet he wasn’t always as well thought of in Europe, for precisely those reasons. He let players get away with a level of physicality that was not present in their domestic leagues. He was often the source of outrage.
The Sissoko decision did not raise an eyebrow across much of the continent while here many considered it unjust. And now we’re signing up for more moaning, more controversy – because we don’t actually want consistency if it means change.
FIFA took the blame for the VAR drama at the Women’s World Cup, but for once it wasn’t their fault. Hope Solo spoke of women footballers being used as guinea pigs, overlooking that the 2018 men’s tournament in Russia also utilised VAR.
The problem this summer was the standard of the officials, who were not used to deploying VAR and involved it too readily. Officials from men’s leagues could have been used instead, but that decision would have attracted equally negative scrutiny. And it is hardly FIFA or VAR’s fault if Cameroon’s players do not understand offside.
The Women’s World Cup saw VAR cause controversy but that was down to poor officiating
One of VAR’s problems is that it is identifying infringements with a precision that feels close to unfair. Golf had similar trouble when television viewers started calling in with foul shots that could not be seen with the naked eye in real time. Otherwise imperceptible movements of the ball, after it had been addressed.
Ultimately, it was decided this was against the spirit of the game. Maybe the same will happen in football regarding hair’s breadth offside calls, or glances of ball to hand. Maybe there will ultimately be an equivalent of umpire’s call when the decision is so close it could not be seen with the naked eye.
Maybe one day the English interpretation of handball will be considered the sensible one, and the rest of the world will fall in step with Riley and the Professional Game Match Officials.
Until then, however, we have chosen inconsistency, grey areas, debate and, ultimately, confusion. We will play our version of the rules and wallow in the moans, gripes and cries of injustice that go with it. We shouldn’t, however, pretend it is VAR that is dysfunctional.
Eriksen goes missing too much… THAT is why he is still at Spurs
Down to earth with a bump this week, Christian Eriksen, judged not quite as good as he thought he was.
Having made it known that he was ready to leave Tottenham for Real Madrid, Juventus or similar, Eriksen was greeted by little more than tumbleweed.
Madrid considered him not as good as Eden Hazard – understandably so – and Juventus’s priorities lie elsewhere, for now at least. Eriksen is a lovely player, but there have been too many matches of significance when he has been anonymous.
Compare Hazard’s contribution to Chelsea’s Europa League final win, and Eriksen’s performance for Tottenham in the Champions League equivalent. That’s why one is training in Madrid and the other in Enfield.
Kohli has to accept that India blew it
The ICC now know the only World Cup format that is truly acceptable to India. The one which guarantees their safe passage to the final. No matter how many games they play, no matter whether they win or lose.
After defeat by New Zealand, Virat Kohli bemoaned that ’45 minutes of bad cricket’ should result in their exit from the tournament.
He said that winning the league segment should ensure a nation gets a second go, if they lose a semi-final.
Not content with an overblown preliminary round purely designed to give India and its broadcasters nine matches, he then wished to remove the knockout aspect of the knockout stage.
After elimination to New Zealand, India captain Virat Kohli bemoaned the manner of their exit
It is amazing that such a supreme athlete and competitor should stand in denial of what the best of his, indeed any, sport represents. Excellence. Always. So, of course, 45 minutes of bad cricket can prove fatal; 45 minutes of bad anything does for you in elite competition.
A bad half of football, three bad holes on the back nine of a major, a bad set of Centre Court tennis.
India were five for three against New Zealand and were struggling from that point. Tough. That’s the game. And just because there are a lot of folk watching back home, it doesn’t require change.
India’s top order blew it. They were at fault, not the format.
Pogba image not United’s fault
Whatever your thoughts on whether Paul Pogba has failed to deliver for Manchester United, or vice versa, we can surely agree on one thing: it is not United’s job to manage public opinion of the player.
Mino Raiola bemoaning United’s reluctance to defend his client against critics is the height of irony, given it is often his behaviour the public find so alienating.
Equally, as was seen on the final day of last season, the club have enough on their hands building bridges between supporters and those players who want to stay – without having to advocate for those agitating to leave.
Serena’s not defending her rights… just getting angry
Serena Williams is still clinging to the idea that her entitled meltdown at the US Open last year was a blow being struck for women’s rights.
‘This incident exemplified how thousands of women in every area of the workforce are treated every day,’ she told Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
‘We are not allowed to have emotions, we are not allowed to be passionate. It’s shameful that our society penalises women for being themselves.’
Serena Williams is convinced her US Open final outburst was a blow struck for women’s rights
Last week, Williams struck another blow for emotional, passionate women everywhere by smashing her racket four times into the Wimbledon turf during a practice session, leaving divots, and earning an £8,000 fine for what the All England Club called an unprecedented event. How misguided can they be? This was clearly another statement regarding feminism in the workplace, and not a temper tantrum caused by the session not progressing as she had hoped.
The timing of the two occurrences – the paddy and the publication – make for an enlightening juxtaposition.
Williams is among the greatest athletes in history, and her progress to Saturday’s Wimbledon final is more evidence of that, but let’s not pretend these rages are about anything other than her. It’s a nice thought, but she really isn’t doing this for you.
Andy Murray tweeted the amalgam ‘Serandy’; Serena Williams said she preferred ‘Murena’. And no one proposed ‘Andy Williams’? For heaven’s sake, who was in charge of word play at this tournament? We might come up short at tennis, but we could always do puns.
Frank Lampard says he already knows what he will do with N’Golo Kante, but won’t reveal any secrets.
‘Kante is one of the greatest midfield players in the world,’ Lampard said. ‘My job is to find the best position to get the best out of him.’ Holding central midfield it is, then. And Jorginho takes his chances.
Nothing that was said to Johanna Konta in the press conference after her Wimbledon exit was either patronising or harsh, as she claimed. Potential champions shouldn’t expect gentle treatment in the arena, or the press room. If they do, that tag is unlikely to be lost.
Nothing said to Johanna Konta in her quarter-final press conference was patronising or harsh