Not many teams lose a tie 6-1 and go through on away goals, but that is exactly what Celtic achieved in the aftermath of their Champions League qualifier against Legia Warsaw. Celtic were thrashed in the first leg by a team that managed to miss two penalties and still beat them 4-1. The Scottish champions didn’t exactly restore their pride in the second leg, when a further 2-0 defeat left them facing an early exit from the competition that was meant to define their season.
The tie was dead and buried by the time the Legia Warsaw manager decided to give his three substitutes a run out in the dying minutes of the second leg. Legia were 6-1 up and cruising towards the next round when the last of those substitutes, Bartosz Bereszynski, came on in the 88th minute. Bereszynski had no impact on the scoreline, but his mere presence on the pitch has since caused Legia to be expelled from the competition.
The defender was sent off in Legia’s final Europa League match last season and was given a three-match ban, which he thought he had served by the time Legia reached Edinburgh. He had sat out of Legia’s two matches in the previous round against St Patrick’s and then he missed the first leg against Celtic.
Bereszynski was absent for three matches but because the club had not registered him for the St Patrick’s tie, the games he missed did not count towards his suspension and Uefa deemed him ineligible to play against Celtic. Legia’s 2-0 victory was scrubbed from the record books and Celtic were granted a 3-0 victory, which was enough to take them into the next round on away goals.
Legia are now out of the Champions League because a player who was sent off while playing in a different competition during a different season sat out of three matches without Uefa being informed of his intentions. Legia broke the rules, albeit accidentally, but the punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
The laws of football should serve the game, but Uefa’s punishment has belittled a competition that is supposed to be reserved for the elite of European football. A team who were so thoroughly dismantled should not be promoted over one whose secretarial staff made a clerical error.
If you raced Usain Bolt over 100m and he twisted his body around on the finishing line to see you huffing and puffing back near the starting blocks, would you deserve to win the race if Bolt placed the side of his shoe on your lane while looking back over his shoulder? Not in any sporting world that makes sense. Uefa’s laws should make the game fairer, not impose unnecessarily severe sanctions on people who have made honest and minor mistakes.
Uefa have dealt with a case like this before. Back in 2010 Debrecen were fined for fielding an ineligible player against Litex Lovech. Uefa decided against imposing a 3-0 defeat upon Debrecen as they had “no interest in fielding this player for the last three minutes of additional time, when the score was so clearly in its favour”. Did Legia have any interest in playing Bereszynski for the last four minutes of a tie they were winning by five goals? Of course not. They had no intentions of cheating; they just messed up a form.
Legia contacted Celtic over the weekend to discuss the matter, with the club’s co-owner Dariusz Mioduski laying it on thick: “I call on you to refer your best traditions of honour and honesty, that your famous club has been known for during the last 126 years. Do not destroy the beautiful legacy that you inherited from the past generations of The Bhoys. Imagine Jock Stein and Billy McNeill deprived of the chance to achieve the biggest triumph in their career by an application form filled improperly by a club employee acting in good faith. Willie Maley, the legendary manager of Celtic FC, once said that in your stadium ‘a man is judged by his football alone’. Only you can decide whether this noble credo will be replaced by an opportunistic use of legal loopholes.”
Mioduski has a way with words and a passion for rhetoric, but he also has a point: if Uefa are bound by their rulebook, perhaps Celtic should do the honourable thing and let the better team go through. Celtic were given a chance to go against their own interests and enhance their reputation, but instead they passed the buck back to Uefa, saying they were “disappointed by Legia Warsaw’s comments” and that the matter is “entirely a matter for Uefa and its processes”.
With the money and prestige involved in the Champions League, Celtic’s stance is hardly surprising, but is it right and is it sporting? Surely the whole point of the Champions League is to bring together the top teams in Europe so we can enjoy the annual event of working out which of them is the best. Uefa’s harsh punishment of Legia Warsaw and Celtic’s unsympathetic response to it have left the best team in this tie to curse their luck and wait for another year. There’s nothing sporting about that.