If he were playing the newest edition of Football Manager, an impenetrable force, invisible to the naked eye, would have prevented Henning Berg walking onto the team coach as Legia Warsaw waited to depart for Murrayfield, to take on Celtic in the Champions League, on July 30th.
“Excuse me lads, I have an email shaded in red that apparently I must respond to,” the former Blackburn boss would have informed his players “this shouldn’t take long unless it’s something completely ridiculous – like Manchester United have just bid their entire transfer budget on one of you.” Assumedly, the coach would erupt into laughter.
Then the game would inform Berg that one of his players, Bartosz Bereszynski, was suspended from the coming match. Not only would FM14 not allow him to proceed to the next screen, it would also have a very convenient ‘SUS’ – white text on a highly visible red box – next to his name.
But as much as it often feels like I do, when it’s 3.am and I’m shouting at my laptop screen “£4million, George Boyd on loan and 10% of profit from next sale for Chris Solly is an absolute joke!”, while trying to fend off interest in my Charlton skipper from Hull City, unfortunately, we do not live within the realms of a management simulation game.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where administrative incompetence is not only a grim reality, but it, in many work-places, schools, and likely football clubs too, verges upon common practice.
At Legia Warsaw, there is by no means a culture of furtive form-filling. The Polish side, perhaps caught in a state of euphoria after thumping the favourites 4-1 in the opening leg, mistakenly overlooked the fact that one of their substitutes hadn’t officially served a three-match ban, as he was unregistered for the last two European fixtures. They assumed those games had counted and Bereszynski’s slate was now wiped clean.
It was an innocent error, all the more innocuous for the fact the 22 year-old defender only featured in the last four minutes of the second leg, with the Warsaw outfit already sitting on an exceptionally healthy 6-1 cushion. He made no impact on either match or the result whatsoever, apart from eating up some stoppage time. Surely no manager, no club, and no admin department would be so cavalier to take such an unrewarding risk as to intentionally include a suspended player when the outcome of the match – even prior to the second leg at Murrayfield – was already decided.
Yet, Bereszynski’s illegal involvement – despite no official from Europe’s governing body mentioning anything before, during or immediately after the match – was enough for UEFA to turn over the result into a 3-0 victory for the Bhoys. Coincidentally, the perfect score-line to see them through on away goals.
But if Celtic had any class, any remaining belief in what’s referred to in the cricketing world as ‘the spirit of the game’, they’d hand over their place in the next round of Champions League knock-outs to the opponents that trumped them almost fairly and squarely – with the exception of four irrelevant minutes – over the course of two legs. Or, at the very least, offer them a rematch.
You have to wonder if something untoward has gone on behind the scenes. That’s not to accuse Celtic, and UEFA is widely considered to be far less corruptible than its global cousin, FIFA. But throughout this process of disqualification and reinstation, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that Celtic are a far more attractive prospect for UEFA than Legia Warsaw.
Over the last few years, the Scottish champions have pulled off some of the most sensational results in Champions League history – their 2-1 win against Barcelona in 2012 being the most predominant example.
Even if Ronny Deila can’t repeat the previously unimaginable feats of Neil Lennon, Celtic Park remains one of the most unique venues in the European tournament, the Bhoys’ rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone arguably more poignant than Anfield, and the matches screened throughout the UK and yonder. How many people would tune in to watch Legia Warsaw get thumped by Real Madrid? A lot less than the amount who would watch Celtic attempt to give any Champions League side a run for their money, roared on by one of the continent’s most militant fan-bases.
Let’s take some other examples into account. In 2011, there was another instance involving the Scottish champions. They lost to Sion 3-1 over the course of two legs in a Champions League qualifier, but it was soon revealed the Swiss club had fielded five ineligible players. Sion were kicked out of the competition and Celtic took their place, but that is more than understandable – Football Manager analogy or not, the Super League side deserved to be punished for their own, obvious stupidity. Should the Leiga Warsaw case, proportioned to a factor of 1/5, really be held to the same standards?
And a year earlier, Debrecen fielded an ineligible player, Peter Mane, against Litex Lovech. But they were merely fined rather than having the result overturned, with UEFA explaining the Hungarian side had; “No interest in fielding this player for the last three minutes of additional time, when the score was so clearly in its favour.” Surely this situation is directly comparable to Legia Warsaw’s, the only difference being confusion over suspension rather than illegibility, something the Polish side have labelled a ‘misinterpretation of the rules’.
Not that you can particularly blame Celtic for accepting the ruling, which had its appeal case rejected last week. You wouldn’t tell UCAS they’ve marked your A-Levels too liberally, you wouldn’t tell your employer they’ve paid you an extra £20. On top of that, the Bhoys have the entirety of Scottish football breathing down their necks, discussing the importance of qualification coefficients and windfall revenues amid one of the darkest and most uncompetitive periods in Scottish top flight history.
But some things are more important, namely Celtic’s reputation. The Parkhead side have by no means gone down in the public’s estimations, but whether they beat Maribor on Wednesday, go on to advance from the group stages or even win the Champions League itself, their successes in the tournament will be forever tainted by the fact that over the course of 180 minutes, Legia Warsaw unquestionably played them off the park.
On the other hand, if the Bhoys were to break their understandable silence on UEFA’s ruling, declare it unfair and insist upon a re-match, it would be one of the most earnest, civilised and heart-felt gestures in the history of European football.
Morality has almost completely left the beautiful game, it’s just Celtic didn’t take their opportunity to rediscover it.