UEFA made a complete mess of the Champions League draw, but incompetence isn’t the same as corruption, no matter what Florentino Perez might think.
As regular readers of British news will already be fully aware, while it is possible to be both corrupt and incompetent at the same time, it is exceptionally difficult to do so and keep it a secret for very long. This is what was most striking about the almost immediate shouts of ‘RIGGED!’ from people with pictures of footballers in their Twitter avatars as soon as the first draw for the round of 16 in this year’s UEFA Champions League was concluded.
Ultimately, if UEFA were trying to rig the draw for the next round of the competition, it seems unlikely that they’d have attempted to do it in such a ham-fisted manner. In a mildly amusing but also completely baffling series of events, Manchester United were wrongly pulled out to face Villarreal and then excluded from the possibility of meeting Atlético Madrid, while video evidence also showed that Liverpool had been incorrectly placed in the bowl to face Atlético when the teams were ineligible to meet having been in the same group.
Confused yet? You’re probably right to be. In most people’s heads, the idea of a draw for a major football tournament seems fairly straightforward. Everybody’s name goes into a hat, and two by two the remaining competitors are drawn to play each other until there are no teams left to draw. But football can’t do it in quite such a simple way. Having got through the group stages of the competition, teams are separated further, into group winners and runners-up, and then further, so that teams cannot play the team who’d finished as runners-up in their own group or teams from the same country. A lot of teams have most of the teams that they could in theory have drawn removed from the equation before a ball is even pulled out of a UEFA-branded goldfish bowl.
The first iteration of the draw pitted Manchester United vs PSG, which elicited fury from those whose reflex was to assume that UEFA had rigged the draw to squeeze a little more juice out of the (largely imaginary, except in the eyes of the players’ fans) rivalry between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Never mind the inconvenient question of why UEFA would, if they were going to rig this draw, do it so brazenly and stupidly that literally everybody watching would know more or less immediately. Never mind that this was very clearly an honest mistake that took a while to get set straight because UEFA is a bureaucratic nightmare of an organisation which couldn’t tell you which way the wind is blowing without having to set up a three-man independent committee first.
So it was that, three hours after the original draw was made, everybody had to traipse back out for a second go, with UEFA deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti offering an apology to the watching audience, blaming a computer software malfunction for the snafu:
“As many of you will have noticed there were some errors made in the original draw caused by a malfunction of the software which went through an outside provider to tell us which teams are eligible to be drawn against each other. After the draw the external independent auditor couldn’t guarantee the problem with the IT did not exist from the start and as a result the full draw needs to be redone.”
Second time around there were no administrative errors or software glitches, but only one match remained the same. Chelsea, who’d been nudged down to second place in their group by dint of conceding a stoppage-time equaliser in their last group match against Zenit St Petersburg, were drawn to play Lille for a second time, but otherwise this time everything else was a little different. Manchester United would now play Atletico Madrid, Liverpool would now play Inter, and Manchester City would now play Sporting.
All of which brings us back to Florentino Perez. Real Madrid had been drawn to play Benfica in the first draw, and we may presume that they were happy enough with this draw because they got their complaint in before anything was re-drawn on the slightly spurious grounds that their tie had already been pulled out before anything started to go wrong. Real already have court cases with UEFA pending over Real’s continuing insistence that the European Super League will definitely happen if Real Madrid demand it, regardless of what anybody else wants, so what happened next was probably the highlight of the entire draw.
Man United escape PSG but it’s Bayern who are the big winners from Champions League redraw
We can only imagine the levels of steam that must have blown from Perez’s ears when the second draw pitted Real Madrid against PSG. At least Kylian Mbappé will get to play at the Bernebeu once this season. Meanwhile on El Chiringuito, the Spanish football magazine show in which no comment is too bizarre so long as it favours Real Madrid, journalist Jose Luis Sanchez exclaimed, “It’s outrageous. It’s outrageous. You can’t cover up an error with an even bigger error”. Not for the first time on that show, the word ‘error’ seems have been mistaken for ‘not giving Real Madrid exactly what they demand, as usual’.
Of course, the reason why the draw is more convoluted than it needs to be is only tangentially related to football. In a pan-continental competition like the the Champions League, there’s little that broadcasters want less than two teams from the same country playing each other. Add to that the idea that teams that have played each other in the group stages shouldn’t be meeting again straight away in the knockout stages and the fact that England and Spain alone account for seven of the 16 qualifiers, and it becomes easy to see how these draws can end up looking like out-takes from The Da Vinci Code. In these partisan and conspiratorial times, everybody’s looking for a truth that fits their narrative, but what we witnessed in Switzerland was no conspiracy. This mess was just good, old-fashioned incompetence.