At the end of last week, the draw was made for the quarter finals of the Champions League. Theoretically, this should be a pretty straightforward affair. There’s no seeding, and anyone can get drawn against anyone else, so all they have to do is draw out the eight names out, and tell the world who is playing who. Simple, no? I mean, I could do that with eight ping pong balls and a black marker pen. Well, the rumour has been doing the rounds that things might not have been quite that simple after all – in fact, the rumour that has been doing the rounds is that the draw for the Champions League quarter-finals was rigged, and that it was leaked on the morning that the “live” draw was made.
The story has unfolded here, with a message timed at 10.28 on Friday morning, advising readers of the ICLiverpool website of the correct draw, and that bookmakers were refusing to take bets on this correct draw outcome. It has been confirmed since then that the message was posted prior to the draw being made, and that it would have been more or less impossible to fix the forum so that it had made it look as if it had been posted before twelve when it hadn’t without the assistance of the administrators concerned, and also that the Google cache for the page confirms that the messages were put up at the time that they were. The involvement of bookmakers in it all adds an extra layer to proceedings. Why were they refusing to take relatively small bets on something with very long odds an hour before the draw was made. Did someone in betting circles know something, or was the pattern of people that knew about it so great that the alarm bells started ringing at William Hill and Ladbrokes?
UEFA have, of course, issued a firm denial that there was any funny business going on. A conspiracy theorist would say, “Well, they would, wouldn’t they?”. In fact, their rebuffal of it was it little bit too dismissive for my liking – saying “well, they must have just got lucky with their guess” isn’t quite enough, is it? The actual likelihood of guessing the correct draw for the Champions League is over 100/1 against. It wouldn’t just be a lucky guess – it would be a brilliantly lucky guess. It’s very easy to get sucked into the conspiracy and to start thinking that there is something to it all. Then we start getting into the realms of how they could have rigged a live draw. Some have been muttering about half of the balls being hot and the other half being cold, and about there has been talk of dark plots involving the Premier League and briefcases full of money. I have say… it’s almost certainly nonsense.
The key questions to answer here are the following: Why would it benefit UEFA to rig the draw for the Champions League, and how was this demonstrated by the matches that were pulled out? The answer to the first part of the question is “it wouldn’t”. All-English semi-finals and/or an all-English final would most likely be the worst thing possible for UEFA. It would limit the serious interest in the latter stages of their show-piece tournament to one country (and not even the most lucrative one), and would almost certainly have a dramatic effect on the TV audience over the whole of Europe. The answer to the second part of the question is also, “it wasn’t”, by the way. Look again at the draw, and try to tell me how the draw made benefits anyone. The all-English match isn’t a match which would create enormous interest in the way that, say, Chelsea vs Arsenal or Manchester United vs Liverpool would. Chelsea, the least attractive of the English teams left in the competition, have got the easiest draw of all of the English clubs. Also, whilst all four have avoided Barcelona, UEFA are looking at possible embarrassment with Manchester United having drawn AS Roma for a second year in a row. The possibility of significant crowd trouble marring United’s match in Rome could cause a major headache for the authorities. Would UEFA want this? Why?
Like almost all conspiracy theories, I’m reasonably convinced that there isn’t much to this – the explanation that “someone got lucky with their guess” is, surprisingly, the most likely explanation of all. Ultimately, what the conspiracy theorists haven’t been able to adequately explain is this: in a competition as stupefyingly predictable as the Champions League, why would anyone want to try and rig the draw, and couldn’t they have made a better job of it than they did?