Do UEFA Care About Football?

“We care about football”

A bold statement indeed, and one that you will often find connected to UEFA. But how much do they REALLY care about football? Many will argue that it is, in fact, money that UEFA care most about it. It wouldn’t really be a surprise, but while they chase the seemingly endless fortunes that spill out of the Champions League and elite teams around Europe, it is important that the governing body do not lose sight of the rest of us. And by that I do not just mean my native Scotland, but also any other country, league or team that may feel more than a little neglected, or victimised, by our illustrious footballing hierarchy.

The reason behind my questioning of UEFA’s motives, and for that matter their rules, originated earlier this week, Tuesday to be precise. As always, during a European week, there was a certain buzz about the radio shows, sport websites and, of course, the television stations. Arsenal were about to embark on a seemingly impossible quest to overhaul a four goal deficit against Italian giants AC Milan. Two giants of European football. 60,000 excited supporters in a magnificent arena. Some of the World’s best players going head to head. Yes, it’s the Crème de la Crème of UEFA’s menu, their most prized asset, the Champions League. Sky Sports 1 were screening the match from the Emirates and over on Sky Sports 2 there was coverage available of Benfica against Zenit St Petersburg, both with a standard 7.45pm kick off time.

Nothing strange here. Well, not until I flicked over to ITV1 that is.

I had always assumed that on a European night, where either Champions League (ESPECIALLY Champions League) or Europa Cup matches were taking place, that no other football fixtures were permitted to be screened live, unless their kick off times were adjusted to avoid a clash.

But, lo and behold, as clear as day, as bold as brass, there was an FA Cup replay, Birmingham against Chelsea, being shown live, with a 7.45pm kick off.

Upon further investigation I was even more surprised to discover that the following night there was a similar scenario taking place, as Tottenham’s FA Cup replay with Stevenage at White Hart Lane was being shown on ESPN at 7.30pm. Also that night, ITV1 were showing Barcelona against Leverkusen (7.45pm) and on Sky Sports 1 APOEL were hosting Lyon (7.45pm)

After delving into the world of Twitter to seek answers, I was kindly informed by popular ESPN commentator Derek Rae that cup matches were, in fact, permitted to be shown live during European games.

By no means did Derek claim this was gospel, but just his understanding of the matter – and I’d have no reason to argue with that line of thought.

BUT, if indeed there is no problem with cup games, then I’d like to rewind to last month, and a certain Scottish Cup replay between St Johnstone and Hearts.

The game was scheduled for Tuesday 14th February, but then Sky Sports became interested in moving the game to the Thursday and showing it live. Of course this was a very attractive prospect for the two clubs. There is no secret that Scottish football is in a sorry financial state at the moment, and this was going to give each side a welcome cash boost of £82,500.

The delight for both clubs was short-lived.

UEFA, flexing their powerful muscles, stepped in and put a stop to any possibility of Sky showing the game. The explanation in the press was that UEFA did not allow any games to clash with European matches, and on this particular night a number of Europa Cup games were taking place. None, I may add, on Sky Sports though.

St Johnstone chairman Steve Brown was clearly disappointed at the time:

Obviously when the prospect arises of a live TV cheque, it appealed to both ourselves and Hearts, so it’s disappointing to miss out.

“It has been clouded by confusion, but it looks to have been a non-starter because of the rules.”

“Of course it hurts to miss out on money when there was interest in broadcasting the match. In the current financial climate we can all do with every penny.”

The TV schedule for the evening of Thursday February 16th, the date Sky wanted to show the tie, consisted of the following:

Channel 5 – Ajax vs Man Utd (6.00pm)
ITV1 – Porto vs Man City (8.05pm)
ITV4 – Legia Warsaw vs Sporting Lisbon (6.00pm)
ESPN – Stoke vs Valencia (8.05pm)

As you can clearly see, there were undoubtedly clashes with Europa Cup games, but if this was a flat out rule of UEFA’s then how on earth were FA Cup matches allowed to be shown? Or have the FA been taking liberties and simply ignoring the rules that others follow?

Stewart Regan, chief executive of the SFA, responded to queries on the matter from both myself and BBC’s Allan Preston, but he seemed slightly confused himself.

Regan explained to us:

“Reason is quite simple. UEFA advised us we could not go head to head with CL. Not aware of UEFA/FA discussion.”
He also added that “we can only follow directives from UEFA or face sanctions as happened in Spain”.

In all fairness, if Regan was told by UEFA that we couldn’t show the game, I appreciate that he would not wish to face any sanctions. But there seems to be a case of undeniable double standards going on here.

Many people have advised it’s just a case that the FA Cup and teams such as Chelsea hold more prestige and a bigger financial clout than the likes of Hearts and St Johnstone. This is true, of course. But how does that fit in with UEFA’s current campaign of ‘Financial Fair Play’? In addition to this, I struggle to understand how a BIGGER game would be allowed to clash with UEFA competition.

Their motivation behind blocking other live matches was to keep all eyes on their tournaments was it not? To ensure all interest, all hype, and all VIEWERS, were glued to matches that shoved UEFA’s brand in our faces?

Why bother preventing a Scottish Cup replay from being shown live? Surely this would draw a meagre crowd and would take very little away from the clashes involving the likes of Manchester United.

It doesn’t sit right with me at all that UEFA would go to the effort of blocking this match, denying much needed finance to these relatively small clubs, but permit teams like Chelsea and Spurs to rake yet more money in.

In a further twist, as I write this piece Stewart Regan has since tweeted further about the sitation, stating that: “UEFA have confirmed that the FA did not seek approval and showed the matches despite UEFA guidelines.”

Suddenly the onus is on UEFA to now take action against the FA for a breach of their guidelines, if indeed Regan is correct.

After trawling through a number of lengthy, and complex, UEFA documentation I have yet to find anything that specifically prohibits the live screening of games that clash with European matches. But their power over what is broadcast, and at what time, is evident on a number of occasions, so I have no doubt that they can make decisions one way or another on these matters.

If UEFA do, as they claim, care about football then surely extremely harsh action must be taken here? Scottish clubs, and I’m sure many others, are taking a financial hit just to abide by UEFA’s guidelines whilst the far richer English clubs have basically ignored them, making further profit from doing so.

Some have pointed out that these are merely guidelines, not laws or rules as such. But if this is the case, how can UEFA go around preventing other matches from taking place? If it is indeed down to who holds the most financial power then that stinks to high heaven, especially considering UEFA’s current drive for financial fair play.

To make a mockery of the situation even further, next week there is yet another example of English football directly clashing with UEFA’s premier tournament. And guess what, it’s a LEAGUE match.

On Tuesday Sky Sports 2 will be screening Bayern Munich vs Basel in the Champions League, Sky Sports 4 will be screening Intern Milan vs Marseille and on Sky Sports 1 there is live coverage of Liverpool vs Everton in the English Premier League.

Sorry, say what?

Yes. That’s right. A league match, live during Champions League hours.

Now maybe Sky or the Premier League, or both, have come to an agreement with UEFA over this match.

But if this is the case, how is that a level playing field? And if no agreement is in place, and this is another example of ignoring UEFA rules, then surely something drastic HAS to be done.

Now this isn’t just for fans of Hearts or St Johnstone. I’m sure Celtic supporters will recall how unhappy many of them were last season when UEFA forced them to travel to Inverness on a week night for a 6pm kick off. This was put in place to avoid a clash with Champions League matches.

My aim here is just to pose the question first of all, and hopefully find some answers. There seems to be far too many inconsistencies with the whole thing, and although £165,000 is a relatively small amount in football terms, for struggling Scottish clubs it is still a significant figure to lose out on.

Do our own governing bodies need to show a bit more backbone and resistance to UEFA?

Are UEFA more interested in money than a level playing field?

By no means do I agree with UEFA being able to dictate that no matches can be shown during their own competitions, but if they have these guidelines in place and attempt to enforce them then surely punishment has to be taken when they are ignored?

Someone has let these Scottish sides down here, whether that is UEFA or the SFA I’m not entirely sure. If UEFA tell the SFA that they categorically can’t show a match then part of me understands their position in accepting the decision of their governing body.

But if no action is to be taken against the FA or Premier League, and these ‘guidelines’ are as loose as some claim, then it is time for other associations, such as our own, to stand up and be counted as well.

If you have anything to add, or further information on any of this please feel free to get in touch with me on Twitter – @lauriedunsire.

I’d also like to encourage debate on this using the hashtag #doUEFAcare.

At a time where the governing body of European football is keen to enforce ‘financial fair play’ upon each and every one of its members, I feel it is important that we also address the actions of UEFA themselves.

If they really DO care about football, then I dearly hope that a level playing field, financially and otherwise, is something they’d like to implement across all footballing nations.

LINKS:

Hearts and St Johnstone miss out on TV money – http://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/scotsol/homepage/sport/spl/4120835/Cup-pair-miss-out-on-TV-cash.html

Celtic forced to play at 6pm away to Inverness – http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/football/spl/celtic/2011/04/16/gavin-berry-86908-23064970/

L Dunsire

Hearts supporter and film enthusiast from Musselburgh. Follow me on Twitter @lauriedunsire