Thursday, 9 March 2017

UEFAlona: Fact, Fiction Or #FakeNews?

On the face of it, Barcelona's triumph over Paris Saint-German last night was astonishing.  To recover from a 4-0 European 1st leg deficit and go through in normal time in the 2nd leg required all manner of things to go right for them.

PSG were pathetic. Unai Emery's performance as coach will be one he has nightmares about for the rest of his life. His players are some of the highest-paid sportsmen in the world. When Cavani made it 3-1, that should have been that. The fact that PSG didn't score again when Barça were pushing men forward was a factor. That they conceded 3 goals in the last few minutes, when "only" conceding 2 would have put them through, was appalling.

Likewise, Barcelona had a tremendous energy about them and it's hard not to get caught up with fantastic emotion in witnessing a match and an event like that.  I'm sure countless football fans of all manner of clubs were involuntarily cheering - or at least gasping - when Sergi Roberto scored the 6th.

Football gets you like that. Watching a moment of uniqueness, the kind of scenario you're unlikely to see again in your lifetime, makes you cheer even if you didn't intend to. It apparently makes ex-Real Madrid footballers run round desks in studios in England in celebration of Barcelona's achievements. It makes grown men of no allegiance to Spanish football whoop at the sheer Barcelonaness of the occasion.

However, part-way through the second half, just after PSG had scored their precious away goal, and when the prevailing opinion was that it was now pretty much impossible for Barça to qualify, Steve McManaman, the co-commentator on BT Sport - the live broadcasters of this game in the UK - referred to the fact that Dunfermline Athletic's European record comeback record would stay intact. And McManaman lamented that Barcelona wouldn't take the record: "Would you rather be talking about Dunfermline, or would you rather talk about Barcelona?" he asked rhetorically whilst broadcasting his bias to millions.

For context, Dunfermline lost their 1962/63 Inter-Cities' Fairs Cup 2nd Round 1st Leg match in Valencia 4-0. The 2nd leg in Fife was a different story and the Pars won 6-2 (there were no goals in the last 25 minutes in that match!) but lost a play-off in Lisbon, so even that record comeback isn't a true "comeback", as they didn't qualify. Valencia won the tournament that year, beating Hibernian in the quarter-finals. It could have been a Dunfermline v Hibernian Scottish show-down!

Nevertheless, the above illustrates that Barcelona's achievement last night was something special.

And yet.

The McManaman comment got me thinking. Seeing Owen dancing round the table as a team, which was at one point his bitterest rivals, (though he has form with deadly football rivalry not really mattering to him) scored their 6th, and then watching the analysis of the game, especially the refereeing decisions, left me wondering if I had been watching the same game and the same incidents as the "pundits".

I have always decried most "punditry" as simply awful, and often worse than that. But there was a word which kept popping up on my Twitter timeline after the final whistle. #UEFAlona. I will come back to this word, but first a bit of background.

UEFAlona was coined in 2009, when Chelsea were denied what they thought were 4 legitimate penalties (one of them was nailed on, to be fair) against Barcelona in the 2nd leg of the Semi-Final of that season's Champions League. None were given, Barcelona equalised in the last minute and went through to the Final on away goals. You remember the scenes after the match at Stamford Bridge, where Didier Drogba was yelling "It's a fix" into the camera?  He may as well have said "UEFAlona".

Barça then beat Manchester United in a straightforward enough Final victory, all of which helped with the creation of the modern all-conquering Barcelona legend we've all witnessed growing in the last decade or so.

Let's not forget Barcelona had won just 1 European Champions title (in 1992) at the time of Liverpool's 5th in 2005, a mere 12 years ago. For such a huge name in world football to have been Champions of Europe once in the first 50 years of the tournament is, frankly, pretty humiliating.

But they're everyone's darlings now, aren't they?

Somehow, somewhere, Barcelona - maybe through Messi, maybe because of tiki-taka - became a team the English media both report on endlessly, even in their domestic strolls/matches, and love to win. They are constantly shown on the more prominent TV channels in the UK and they are always in the sports news, on radio, TV and in the newspapers.

As a football fan, I have little to no interest in FCB. I admire some of what they stand for as a club. I certainly don't hate them, but I don't support them either. I don't read about them - in fact, I turn the page or the channel. I'm simply not very interested in a dominant "super-club". La Liga is not sport, it's simply a rigged corporate system to enable lots of people to feel better about themselves as "their" team beats a team from a smaller town in Spain with the occasional interesting more-evenly matched game popping up every other month.

Barcelona have finished outside the top 2 in Spain just once in the last 13 seasons. That was in 2007/08, when they finished 3rd - and still qualified for the Champions League. To all intents and purposes, the Spanish league is simply not competitive to any depth. The incredibly unequal distribution of the Spanish TV money, plus the virtually guaranteed European prize money, simply perpetuates the cycle of "winningness" for the Spanish big 2, plus maybe Atlético. It may be entertainment, but it's primarily forecastable business and no longer sport.

It does, however, keep the mega-teams in Spain ticking over nicely, with mainly barely competitive matches not taxing their players' energy and fitness too much. This enables these players to operate with a freshness in the more difficult European matches: a freshness the English teams could only dream about, given the physical battle and never-say-die attitude the best English teams can expect to encounter against any Premier League underdog, week-in week-out.

And if someone wants to write an article about football in Catalunya, post independence from Spain, and how that may affect FCB and La Liga, I'd love to read that, but otherwise, I want to read stories about the rise of Kazakh club football, how Ferencváros aim to re-capture their previous glory years, the first Liechtenstein team to play in the top Swiss league and so on.

But I digress. UEFAlona.

UEFAlona: the belief that referees will always assist FCB's advancement in Europe wherever possible.

There's nothing new about conspiracy theories in European football. There's basically nothing new about officials being biased and/or bribed and it's been going on since the '60s. It's also the easy cry of every football fan whose team has suffered a debatable decision in Europe - even Wenger was hinting at it the night before, as if he could explain away a 10-2 aggregate loss on a 50-50 (at best) penalty decision not going in Arsenal's favour.

Most of the claims of bias are laughable.

The problem in last night's match, however, was two-fold: firstly, that the referee didn't give any of those key decisions in favour of PSG, bar issuing a yellow card for the obvious and outrageous (first) dive of Luis Suárez, though if the referee had been part of a UEFAlona conspiracy, wouldn't he have given that as a penalty? Wouldn't he have ruled out PSG's goal for an imaginary push or such like?

So, it was not UEFAlona. It was a referee making certain calls and maybe getting caught up in the moment. I don't think it was bias. And as for the award of a penalty for the blatant Neymar dive over the body of the prostrate Meunier, was it just possibly correct? No, it wasn't, but let's give the referee the benefit of the doubt on this one, especially as it was clearly the official behind the goal who convinced the referee it was a penalty and not a goal kick.

However, and this is the second problem, why did neither BT nor ITV examine the obvious moments where the referee got the decisions wrong, where a correct decision would have almost certainly led to PSG qualifying - probably quite easily? It's almost as if the TV companies, who've paid millions for the rights, prefer the "right" result, rather than the "fair" result.

Major Issue 1: With 5 mins left and the score at 3-1, Di María's standing foot is assaulted by Mascherano's lunge (nowhere near the ball) as Di María is pulling the trigger 12 yards out. Di María was clearly impeded and missed the target. It was a clear penalty and a red card for Mascherano. Even if PSG missed the penalty, PSG would almost certainly still have qualified.

We didn't even see a replay of the incident on BT Sport's coverage during the game. During the post-match review, Lineker et al referred to it as a bad miss. So did Hoddle and Keane on ITV's highlights show. Not a hint on either channel of them wanting to examine Mascherano's challenge.

Major Issue 2: Suárez's dive for FCB's 2nd penalty. This was the worst of the lot of dubious decisions. Suárez was on a yellow card for diving earlier in the half and the referee should have expected him to try anything to get his team an advantage with such little time left. The referee awarded the penalty from an unsighted position and did it so quickly that I suspect the occasion got to him. He certainly had little chance to consult his official behind the goal, whose body language did not suggest he thought it was a penalty.

Again, BT did not properly call out Suárez for his blatant cheating, simply implying he'd been clever to win the penalty. ITV did refer to it as a blatant dive but moved swiftly on to talk about how Barcelona changed their penalty taker. Let's be clear here: no penalty should have been awarded and Suárez should have received a 2nd caution and been sent off.  PSG would have qualified.

Let's also be clear: with any use of video assistant referees and/or challenges to game-changing incidents, PSG would have qualified. They would have received a penalty at 3-1 with 5 mins left and Mascherano would have been dismissed. Also, FCB would not have been awarded their 2nd penalty and Suárez would have been dismissed.

Either way, PSG would have qualified. No question about it.

So why does this not merit much more discussion about the blatant unfairness of the game-changing decisions?

For me, it's down to the media. It's Barcelona. BT's ratings for Barça's next Champions League match will be higher with FCB involved than a match involving PSG.

So, with all the #FakeNews around at the moment, who would have thought that there is effectively #FakeNews in the media regarding sport?

But that's what it is. The absence of balance. The absence of equal treatment, of critical and independent analysis. If it was ever there in the first place, it's been missing since TV companies have been able to invest in certain clubs, either directly in financial terms, like BSkyB's investment in Manchester United a few years ago, or indirectly through the fortunes TV companies spend to secure broadcast rights, which means they have a vested interest in the more "popular" clubs continuing to win and making it through to the later and later stages of big tournaments like the Champions League.

As a public, we are being sold the fiction that having the same big clubs with the big stars all reaching the semi-finals so they can be pitched against each other is what we want. It certainly brings the ratings BT want.

But isn't sport supposed to be about fairness and equal competition?

Of course not - it's about profit, profit and more profit.

PSG will be remembered for their awful capitulation at the hands of Barcelona. It should have been nothing of the sort and it's a sad indictment of the game that such travesties of justice are allowed to take place and are not decried in the media, due to the search for profit on investment.

What a world we live in - sport isn't sport anymore, football clubs are corporations first, exorbitant fees are charged to normal folk for the privilege of watching top-level football in their own homes and the governments and sporting governing bodies of Europe do next to nothing to address this. And whilst every household with any interest in top-level football sacrifices a little luxury on the choice of whether to pay high fees for sports channels, players and agents simply go from being extremely rich to mega-rich in the name of (contrived) entertainment.

And they can't even be bothered to leave the end results to sporting chance.

Give me video replays so I know what I am watching is fair, give me more equal competition so I can't simply predict the last 16 of the Champions League in September, more equitable distribution of money across Europe (what must it be like being a fan of football and supporting your local side in Romania, Hungary, Poland?) and give me media which simply reports independently on the games, rather than clearly taking sides.

Is that too much to ask?  Clearly it is and I hold grave fears for the game itself. But even just the video replays would help get rid of the hashtag #UEFAlona.


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