The Champion’s League Draw: Ian Rush’s Unscrewable Balls

by | Aug 27, 2016

So. Why was Ian Rush given so much to do when he couldn’t get his balls open?” It was surely the question on everyone’s lips after the Uefa Champions League (UCL) group stages draw in Monaco. The draw was less interminable than some past events and would have been less interminable still but for Rush’s problems screwing open the balls containing the group letters…and if the 2017 UCL Final ambassador wasn’t in action for the entire draw while stars such as Thierry Henry and Clarence Seedorf were in for one pot and off the stage again (the final is in what more than one media outlet lazily called the North Wales-born Rush’s “native Cardiff”).

It was like Rush’s 1987 epiphany when, after joining Juventus, he discovered that being in Italy was like “living in a foreign country.” Time and again, Rush had to hand over a ball to a Uefa official, who opened it comfortably enough to add to Ian’s embarrassment. He might have told Rush “you did the hard work.” But that wouldn’t have been true fourteen times. UCL draws have much to answer for. Not least the shove up football administration’s greasy pole they gave Gianni Infantino when he conducted them while Uefa General Secretary. It is easy to believe that he won the Fifa presidency at least partly because he was “that bald guy from the Champions League draws.”

UCL draws are more complex than most 32-team, four-pot, eight-group affairs, thanks to issues around TV coverage, stadium clashes, winter weather and “country protection.” The latter kept teams from the same national associations apart, no Arsenal v Spurs just yet. But in 2014, Uefa’s Executive Committee voted in some extra “country protection,” keeping Russian and Ukrainian teams apart. No politics in sport, eh? The desire to make an “entertaining evening” of it made you almost hanker for the days when FA Cup draws would be item seven on an FA Committee meeting agenda and Radio 2 (the sports station of my youth) would only begin broadcasting once item six was dealt with. Or the draws for the All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling championships. They involve fewer teams but are TV and radio events. Yet they are done and dusted within ten minutes, as everyone involved, including former players drafted in to make the draw, perform their roles without any superfluous peripheries.

Still, only the award ceremonies which followed the draw took much longer than necessary. The women’s Uefa player of the year was Ada Hegerberg of Olympique Lyonnais and Norway, who beat the absent Amandine Henry of Portland Timbers and France (having just left Olympique Lyonnais) and Germany’s Dzenifer Marozsan (who has just joined Olympique Lyonnais) to the award, despite the German’s decisive contribution to the Olympic final last weekend.  Olympique Lyonnais are quite good, in case you were wondering.

The men’s award was always going to Cristiano Bloody Ronaldo. It was particularly harsh to give Atletico Madrid and France’s Antoine Greizmann a front row seat to the presentation to the Real Madrid and Portugal star whose teams beat Greizmann’s in two finals. “Second again, Antoine, sorry. Hope you don’t mind being here while we remind you nine more times.” We also discovered that Gareth Bale ties his hair back even when he doesn’t have to. If he’s learnt one thing from CBR, it’s the art of the preening prick. Uefa vice-president (and current presidential candidate) Angel Villa Llona wasted no time in announcing the winner. And I mean NO time. Straight up on the stage. Blurt out winners’ name. Straight off again. Given that he’s had recent problems with Fifa’s Ethics Committee (I know, what football chief hasn’t?)  he probably fancied not being seen at all.

The draw itself was introduced by a standard over-rehearsed double act. Mind you, draw debutant Anne-Laure Bonnet, an experienced French TV football and sports presenter, could have done with over-rehearsing her solo bits even more, although suggesting that Ruud Van Nistelrooy played for Manchester City wasn’t as excruciating as her immediate cry of “what’d I say, why did I say?” In fact, she seemed more adept at taking a selfie with the player of the year nominees, which might be an apt comment on modern society. Co-presenter Pedro Pinto, Uefa’s media and communications chief, was smooth-as-you-like (especially when you recall that Peter Schmeichel…yes…was the male co-presenter last year). But he was outshone by Uefa’s Competitions Director Giorgio Marchetti. If John Motson was sat at home watching, even he might have suggested “oooh, lay off a bit on the stats, eh?” “How many stats do you have left?” asked Pinto as the final eight teams were being drawn. But Pinto’s tone was more admiration than exasperation.

Marchetti had a stat for every eventuality, ready to recall the 1974 final as soon as Atletico Madrid were placed in Bayern Munich’s group. “It reminds us of a final of the 70s,” he said, although he was probably the only person in Monaco who was so reminded. “A final which had to be replayed because we didn’t have the rule of the penalties.” He even remembered that the Champions’ League was once the Champions’ Cup…and said so. As I say, a star. When Sevilla landed in Juventus’s group, he noted that the two teams would meet for the second consecutive year, “if I’m not wrong” Even that early in the draw, everyone watching trusted that he wasn’t.

Mind you, one Sevilla representative was caught on camera looking puzzled when their name came out. And Juve’s delegation looked more concerned when Sevilla were drawn in their group. Were rats being smelled? Or did Sevilla just want a stronger side than Juventus, to help seal third place in their group and get a shot at a fourth Europa League win in-a-row? Some aspects of the draw were inevitable and the evening could have been even less interminable still if they were accepted from the start. Pep Guardiola was destined to return to Barca or Bayern with Manchester City. And as soon as Barca were the first name drawn they could have taken Celtic out of Pot Four and put them in their group, instead of waiting for Celtic to be the last name drawn. The two teams have now been paired six times in European competition since 2003/04. Hence the joke: “Celtic fan walks into a bar in Barcelona…the barman asks: “the usual?”

Celtic face a daunting prospect. Barca beat them 6-1 in Camp Nou in 2013. And Manchester City and Borussia Moenchengladbach piled on the goals in, and breezed through, the play-off round from which Celtic advanced in panic mode. (“Helltic” tweeted one friend, as Celtic wilted against Hapoel Be’er Sheva in Israel). Still, for Celtic, group stage qualification is job done. Anything else at all, even one point at €500,000 a pop, will be considered a bonus. For new boss Brendan Rodgers, only starting to build “his” Celtic team, that could be just as well.

Leicester City might feel daunted too after their indifferent EPL start. But if they rescale last year’s heights, Porto, Bruges and Copenhagen could be a journey to the last 16, which would assuage any regret at not drawing a slightly more glam name from Pot Two – their place in Pot One (“the wonderful surprise” they were called once or twice too often) denying them a crack at the stellar names. Arsenal have every chance of making the last 16 for the 94,000th consecutive time, despite Basel’s recent tendency to put EPL noses out-of-joint. And Spurs (a “very prestigious team” said a not-entirely-convinced Pinto) are not out of top two contention in a group in which CSKA Moscow are the Pot One team. The show, meanwhile, ran to something approaching time, with the draw itself completed exactly in synch with British Eurosport 1’s schedule. This was because, Rush apart, the string of former players unscrewing their balls all seemed fit enough to be playing in the UCL rather than drawing it.

Clarence Seedorf was as relaxed as he was during his BBC punditry stints, which served the purpose rather better here. Sky Sports’ Thierry Henry hid any bitterness he may have felt at being a star of BT Sport’s UCL coverage. And Roberto Carlos was quite simply cool as f**k. He was the only participant not to speak English. But the rehearsed banter from the other ball unscrewers sounded jauntier in Carlos’s tongue (someone will hopefully confirm that the Brazilian was speaking Portuguese). And he took a “casual” approach to the business of the evening. Hands-in-pockets as he walked to his spot, he read out the team names as he pleased, rather than attempting any accents foreign to him (Van Nistelrooy was commended on his stab at “Sporting Clube de Portugal). At one stage, he even took a ball out of Pot Four and blatantly put it back again before drawing Ludogorets out. Marchetti was stood staring as Carlos wittered on about Clarence Seedorf in Portuguese while taking out each ball and the draw carried on as if nothing had happened…and of course, nothing had. Oh no.

For all the timeousness of the evening, it was still just as well that the Europa League draw didn’t follow, especially as Bonnet’s confidence had nearly collapsed by the time of the award ceremonies. And thankfully, there’ll be no more of this stuff until the knockout stage draws after Christmas. The whole thing really should just be item seven on a Uefa Executive Committee meeting agenda…on the radio. Especially if that means we don’t have to watch Ian Rush fiddling unsuccessfully with his balls.

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