On Friday, UEFA announced the punishments for the abandonment of the Italy-Serbia European Championship Qualifier. As expected, Serbia did not get off lightly. The Football Association of Serbia (FSS) were fined €120,000, ordered to play a home qualifier behind closed doors, with a second game behind closed doors suspended for two years, as well as having their supporters banned from travelling to the rest of their qualifiers. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) were also fined the smaller amount of €100,000, and also ordered to play a game behind closed doors, suspended for two years. While the FSS were punished because their supporters were the cause of the trouble in Genoa on the night of the game, the FIGC were punished for failing to stop the Serbian fans entering the Luigi Ferraris stadium with flares and fireworks, and for the security operation failing to stop the pitch invasion that gave Scottish referee Craig Thomson no option but to initially delay the kick-off, and ultimately abandon the match.
On the face of it, both punishments seem appropriate. While it is difficult for a Football Association to prevent tickets ending up in the wrong hands, they are responsible for their fans behaviour, and the fine, and the loss of revenue from a game being played behind closed doors will certainly provide the FSS with the motivation to do all they can to review their procedures, and the banning of Serbian fans for what could be five qualification games will certainly prevent a repeat over the next two years, and may give fans groups the opportunity to see if they can self-police (admittedly on a national scale, this is easier said than done). Of course England fans have not always been the most charming of travellers over the years, and the actions of the minority of fans in Dublin in 1995 were just as shameful as the handful of fans who caused the trouble in Genoa, but over time, the trouble than comes with England away has reduced significantly in recent years (the last newsworthy trouble happening in Portugal during Euro 2004, over 250 miles from where England were playing), suggesting that it’s not just the FA that can reduce trouble caused by travelling fans.
However, there was one other punishment handed down to Serbia, that came as expected, yet should have raised eyebrows. Italy were awarded a 3-0 win. The win takes the Italians above Slovenia to the top of Group C – but was the award a fair one? No. After all, only six minutes were played, and Italy did nothing to merit a win in that time, let alone one by three goals. No-one can doubt that the award of a 3-0 defeat to Serbia is fair. After all, they had caused the abandonment, and that such a result against the offending team should serve as a deterrent towards fans intent on disrupting games – although that this is neither the first, nor likely to be the last game abandoned under UEFA’s jurisdiction – be it at national or club level – that is something that can be argued. However, the award of a 3-0 victory to Italy (who according to UEFA were also responsible to the degree that they also received a six figure fine and the threat of a behind closed doors game), penalises the other teams in the group – namely Slovenia, Estonia, Northern Ireland and the Faroe Islands (none of whom can appeal the decision, only Italy and Serbia can).
On paper, Italy would normally be expected to win this group, but having just seen an ageing team eliminated in the first round of the World Cup, and with a lack of young talents coming through, this is a transitional time for the Italian national side. Italy’s squad for the Serbia game featured the uncapped Sergio Floccari of Lazio (28 years old), Parma’s Antonio Mirante Daniele Gastaldello of Sampdoria, and Cesare Bovo of Palermo (all 27) and 25 year old Andrea Lazzari of Cagliari, with the youngest player in the squad being 23 year old Leonardo Bonucci. The average age of the squad was over 27 years old, but with an average of 17 caps, this is not an experienced team at international level. There is a real possibility that they may miss a major tournament for the first time since the eight team Euro ’92, and the award of three points over the second seeds of the group will make qualification a lot easier.
The biggest losers in all this, however, are Northern Ireland. Just two points behind second place Slovenia, with a game in hand, they would fancy themselves as the main challengers for the group. As well as that, their fans are also denied the chance to visit Belgrade, as they are the away team for the game that Serbia must play behind closed doors, which will also bring with it a loss of revenue for the Northern Irish FA (IFA). This is all déjà vu for Nigel Worthington’s men, as they were one of the victims the last time UEFA awarded a nation a 3-0 victory because of an abandoned game. During the Euro 2008 qualifiers, Sweden were drawing 3-3 in Denmark, and had just been awarded a last minute penalty, when a Danish fan ran onto the pitch and attacked Austrian referee Hubert Fandel. At the time of the award, Northern Ireland led their group, ultimately finishing six points behind the Swedes.
Finally, there could be ramifications from this result until 2016, as the new UEFA coefficients used for seeding qualifying for the European Championships are based on the previous three tournaments. Thanks to a slightly complicated calculation, each match played generates a score for each side, is weighted (if during a playoff or a tournament finals), and then averaged over the previous three qualification and final stages. An awarded 3-0 win in the qualifiers is worth 41503 points (and raised Italy’s coefficient from 33330 to 34047) and may be the difference between Italy being seeded at the Euro 2012 finals, or amongst the first seeds for the Euro 2016 qualifiers at the expense of another nation, meaning that another, as yet unknown country may be another innocent victim of a situation that Italy have been held partly responsible for.
The idea of awarding 3-0 victories, especially in a League situation with a handful of teams, is a disproportionate penalty, because it punishes teams who weren’t involved, and as we have seen from this case, even rewards those sides who have been punished for the incident in other ways. Maybe a fairer situation would be, in these cases, to replay the game (behind closed doors of course), and provide a ‘natural’ result for one side, but then penalise the major offender by three goals. So, if for example Italy and Serbia would eventually draw 1-1 in the replayed game, the table would reflect a 1-1 draw for Italy as normal, but the result would be recorded as a 1-4 loss for Serbia. That way, the team whose fans cause the abandoned are punished as they would be at present, the opponents wouldn’t be rewarded just for being in the right place at the right time, and the the teams not involved in the game do not suffer as a consequence. After all, €100,000 seems a small price to pay for a 3-0 victory in a crucial European Championship qualifier.