Monday, 14 April 2008

Sans Interdit

I found myself Saturday evening trying to explain to a stranger the complexities of qualification into European competition for clubs plying their trade in the English pyramid. The fact that the rather attractive brunette I was talking to had no interest whatsoever in football (I think she was a Tottenham fan) made the conversation somewhat perplexing. I couldn't even tell you how we arrived at that topic but she seemed genuinely interested. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

It can be a confusing subject. How does one explain that the major European competition, the UEFA Champions League, is open to club sides who are not necessarily league champions? That an English team can finish as low as fourth in the Premiership yet still qualify for a competition so inappropriately named. Or that the winners of our two major English cup competitions (the FA Cup and the League Cup, which is currently called the Carling Cup) gain entry to the UEFA Cup? At the same time trying not to confuse matters by dropping in the trivially useless fact that the UEFA Cup used to be called the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and the winners of our cup competitions used to qualify for a completely different competition called the European Cup Winners’ Cup. But that doesn't exist anymore. And should one also mention that teams can also qualify for the UEFA Cup through league position? Add to that the scenario that either of our cup winners may have already qualified for the Champions League and therefore a different team is offered entry into the UEFA Cup in their place. Not forgetting that there are also back-door routes into the UEFA Cup through the Intertoto Cup and the Fair Play League.

So many ifs and buts and permutations and possibilities. As clear as mud. It was a surprise that my party companion was still awake.

But I did have the sense to spare the girl any additional pain. One thing I did not go anywhere near was an attempt to explain the situation that Cardiff City, who have reached this season’s FA Cup Final, find themselves in. Should the Welsh club go on to win the FA Cup on May 17th, they would not be allowed to play in Europe next season. Their UEFA Cup entry would be taken by Portsmouth, their opponents at Wembley. I avoided this can of worms not only because I sensed that a state of comatose was rapidly taking control of the young lady, but mainly because I still struggle to get my head around this issue myself.

In simple terms, the issue is something like this. Winners of the English FA Cup usually qualify for Europe but under current rules Cardiff City would not be allowed to as they are classed as a Welsh club. Even though Cardiff City play in the English pyramid, as a Welsh club they are not affiliated to the English Football Association (FA). As far as the FA are concerned, Cardiff City and other Welsh clubs play in England as “guest” teams. England’s representatives in European club competitions can only be FA affiliated English clubs.

In essence, Welsh clubs can only qualify for Europe through Welsh national competitions. To complicate matters UEFA rules stopped Cardiff City – as well as Swansea City, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport County - from using Welsh competitions to reach Europe when they continued in the English League rather than join the League of Wales (now the Welsh Premier League) when it was first established.

The way things stand Cardiff City can never qualify for Europe. No entry. Or should I say Sans Interdit.

UEFA may well now offer Cardiff City a lifeline; Michel Platini has gone on record as saying that UEFA would contemplate offering the club a “wildcard” entry into next season’s UEFA Cup should they beat Portsmouth next month. This would seem to offer a solution to keep all parties happy, but the Football Association of Wales (FAW) have balked at that particular suggestion. The FAW have long term plans to strengthen their own competitions, something that would only happen if they could persuade the big Welsh clubs – such as Cardiff City – to play in them. Enticement to join the Welsh fold would be the carrot of European qualification offered through the Welsh Premier League. UEFA’s wildcard proposal would undermine these long term FAW plans.

So this is an issue I'm sure we've not heard the last of. I sympathise with Cardiff City’s plight and on the one hand I hope that common sense prevails, but on the other hand not if it serves to undermine the FAW’s not unreasonable attempts to build a strong Welsh league. As for an amicable solution, there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel.

In the meantime, the party brunette has suggested we meet for a Starbucks next week. She wants to hear my views on the offside rule. Of course I declined the offer. I’m a happily married man. And there’s nothing trickier than trying to explain first phase football over a Café Mocha.

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