Turning to the Guardian’s sports blog this morning, it is disheartening to see that 39.4% of people replying to a poll asking the question of “Are Chelsea the victims of a UEFA conspiracy?” in the affirmative. The bare fact of the matter is that sending off a Barcelona player and leaving it until the ninetieth minute before Barcelona have their first shot on goal of the match (which would, more likely, require the compliance of the Chelsea defence rather than UEFA officials or the referee of that particular match) might not be the most efficient way of rigging a major football match and, if UEFA wished to conspire against Chelsea, they could have found a far more watertight way of doing it than the one that they used, so here’s an alternative “conspiracy theory” over what was going on at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night.
Chelsea weren’t part of G14, the umbrella body of European football’s elite, in body, but they were in spirit. They were certainly quick to get involved in the European Club Association, the organisation which came to replace it within UEFA, and their Chief Executive is on the board of the ECA. The unwritten subtext of the very existence of G14 was to wrest the control of European football from UEFA to the biggest clubs. They were certainly explicit in backing Charleroi in their court case against FIFA over compensation for an injury to their Moroccan player Abdelmajid Oulmers during an international match. The dissolution of G14 in January 2008 after agreement was reached over compensation was sudden and a surprise, but it was facile and premature to assume that G14 had lost interest in “the long game” of taking control of European football and reorganising it along lines that suit the elite to an even greater extent than the current set-up already does.
Under Michel Platini, UEFA has become more prepared to fight for the redistribution of the wealth generated by the game. They awarded the 2012 European Championships to Poland and Ukraine, and Platini has spoken openly of a desire to cut the number of clubs in the Champions League from the “bigger” countries in order to give more places to clubs from less affluent countries. As such, they and the ECA make strange bedfellows, so it’s worth asking the question of why G14 decided to assimilate rather than continue to oppose. The exact reasons remain pure speculation. Perhaps they decided that it was better to fight the hierarchy from within. Perhaps the issue of “the battle for hearts and minds” became important. It’s certainly true to say that the ceding of power from the authorities to the clubs would require a degree of public support, and ECA’s incorporation into UEFA at the very least gave the impression that the clubs sought unity and that they were willing to compromise and “work together towards a brighter future”.
All the time, though, the continuing existence of UEFA serves as a constant reminder to the biggest clubs that the ultimate control over television contracts and tournament sponsorship lies with Platini rather than with them. It certainly benefits the biggest clubs to blame UEFA when things don’t go their way. In the case of the Barcelona match, surprisingly little mention has been made of either that the referee might just have had a bad day at the office or, and this is a case that can be made with judicious thumbing of the rule books (though I’m not going to do it here), that many of the decisions that he made that have been called as atrocious actually were, under the current definitions of the laws of the game, correct. Televisions pundits and journalists regularly demonstrate an appalling lack of knowledge of the current laws of the game (offside decisions discussed on the television, for example, regularly misinterpret “clear daylight” or “interfering with play”). Quite aside from notions of media ownership and the benefit to the media of revised European club competitions, the idea that the media benefits from jumping into bed with clubs to criticise referees (and, by extension, the authorities) to cover a lack of knowledge of the laws of the game isn’t as far fetched as one might initially think it is.
So, blaming poor refereeing decisions (that might not actually be as poor as one might initially think – consider this from the USSF’s interpretation of the handball law – “The fact that a player may benefit from the ball contacting the hand does not transform the otherwise accidental event into an infringement”) helps to cover up a great deal. Why, though, has the absurd notion that there’s a UEFA conspiracy against Chelsea been allowed so much credence? Well, it suits Chelsea to deflect blame for not winning a tie that they should have sewn up with a 1-0 lead and a one man advantage. It’s not our fault, is the subtext of it all, it’s UEFA’s. One can argue until the cows come home about each of the incidents that may or may not have been handball, but if “Chelsea are the victims of a UEFA conspiracy”, then these arguments are irrelevant. Apart from a series of (arguably) poor refereeing decisions and a (largely baseless) viewpoint that UEFA would “prefer” a Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona, there seems very little to base hang the conspiracy theory on.
This, however, misses the point of a conspiracy theory. My conspiracy theory, outlined above, has very little fact behind it, but so does the one that diametrically opposes it. The idea that there is a wider conspiracy to ultimately undermine the role of UEFA by suggesting that they are corrupt and incompetent has no more solid fact behind it than the idea that UEFA fixed the Champions League semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona, but plenty of people seem to believe that there was collusion between the referee and UEFA in spite of the evidence before their very eyes. If the “dummy website” stories that are doing the rounds were real, why would UEFA publish it – even a dummy version – with all the details that they “wanted” to happen already published on it? Finding facts to fit a pre-determined opinion in this way is the hallmark of a conspiracy theory. Usually, though, the most obvious explanation is the one that is true, and the last minute shot from outside the penalty area that knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League is the smoking gun that the conspiracy theorists simply cannot argue with.