Alaba, Badstuber, Gustavo, Ivanovic, Meireles, Ramirez. Six players, three from each of the teams who qualified for it, who will miss the Champions League Final because they were booked in the second legs of their respective semi-finals. There is a growing call for players who find themselves in such a position to be reinstated; to see those second leg bookings wiped off. My question is, should they be?
My first thought about this was to simply think ‘No’. These six knew the rules in advance; they probably even saw the graphics the TV companies and newspapers ran with their names and the warning ‘Will miss the final if booked’ (apparently, Ivanovic didn’t, judging by his interview with Geoff Shreeves, but consensus is that he should have done). The fact, then, that a number as high as six of them were cautioned, despite knowing this, suggests that the warning was not heeded; that players made decisions within the game that in order for their team to qualify for the final, they had to do something that would prevent themselves playing in it.
I feel sympathy for the six, don’t get me wrong, but they were guilty of actions that the referee in their game decided was deserving of a yellow card. To do that within the confines of that game is to have an effect on the game; UEFA can wipe the players slates clean if they wish, but to do that is to say that whatever happens within the semi-final is of no consequence to the final – that the two games are taking place in, effectively, different competitions.
Would Bayern München have got to the final had Alaba not been booked? Possibly so, because his booking led to Real Madrid leading, but can his yellow card for handball be erased, as if it never happened? He was punished for something that happened within the game (albeit unfortunately) , his punishment was fair, and he knew before it happened that to be booked for the second time in over the two games would mean he was absent from the final. He lasted 6 minutes.
It is a shame for all the players in question – particularly those who may not get the chance to perform on that stage again, but they are the rules, and they were the rules before kickoff. In my opinion, to clean the slate after the semi-final is to take away any power the referee wields in the semi-final. Indeed, it might encourage players to commit fouls for which they could be booked, safe in the knowledge their conduct wouldn’t be punished long-term. I suppose a potential solution to that would be to have the final as a free-standing event, and the suspension be carried over to the first games of the next season. That, of course, would have to apply to red cards, too.
Something I have heard today – and this is why I wanted to write this – is that the Champions League Final might be the biggest occasion in the players’ lives. I cannot see what bearing that has on anything except to appeal for a sympathy vote. Firstly, to over-rule a booking after a match because playing in a game in the future may be important to one player is to deny another player, who would otherwise feature in the game, the opportunity. How can anybody say that playing in a Champions League Final is any less important to Rafinha than to Alaba, and who can make that decision?
The flip side of this is the point I’ve also seen that the finals should have the best players in them. This is, I’m sorry, a nonsense. For an extreme example, Greece won Euro 2004; not by having the best players, suspended or otherwise, but by being the best team. Chelsea beat Barcelona in the week for the same reason. Nobody would argue that any of Chelsea’s players are better than Lionel Messi, but the team proved themselves stronger than the team they faced. The moment any sporting body makes any move to ensure that certain players feature in events, because of the way they perceive the importance of said events, then the events themselves will lose any importance – become exhibitions rather than competitive confrontations. Getting to the Champions League Final is hard. How could UEFA decide that, because it’s the Champions League Final, and a ‘big game’, they’d like to see, say, Raul Meireles play in it rather than, say, Soloman Kalou?
Semi Finals throw up these stories on a pretty regular basis. There was a moment during Chelsea’s second half when Didier Drogba was shown looking to his bench mouthing; never have I seen him do a more accurate impression of Gary Lineker warning Bobby Robson to keep his eye on Paul Gascoigne in the Semi Final of Italia 90. Both Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, remember, were suspended from Manchester Utd’s historic final in 1999. Alessandro Costacurta missed not only the Champions League Final (the 4-0 demolition of Barcelona) in 1994 through suspension, but only a couple of months later, Italy’s World Cup Final against Brazil. A Juventus fan I follow on Twitter has been regularly mentioning Pavel Nedved’s booking in the second leg in 2003 this week; his presence in the final may well have made a difference to the outcome, but UEFA did not change the game for him, even though it may well have been the biggest game in his career. Most famously of all – well, to me, anyway – Ian Wright missed the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in 1994 because he was booked (for a second time all tournament) in the second leg of the Semi-Final against Paris S-G after scoring in the first leg. UEFA, or FIFA, took no action in any of these cases, and nor should they now.
My final word on it is as follows. UEFA have to provide the stage, not the players. The only way I could see any redemption for the Suspended Six would be if UEFA made a pact to review the decisions in front of their disciplinary board (but this would have to be arranged before the start of the tournament), and if they were clearly wrong, according to the laws they have in place, then the yellow cards could be rescinded, and the suspension overturned just as red cards could be, on appeal.