Football: Leeds ordered to play third match

LEEDS UNITED are still in the European Cup. After five hours of deliberation in Zurich, Uefa last night finally announced that the League champions would replay against VfB Stuttgart, who had admitted that they played an ineligible player at Elland Road last Wednesday when they lost 4-1 but won the tie on the away goals rule. Leeds were relieved, but felt that the Germans should have been disqualified, not given hope by being allowed a second chance, especially on a neutral ground. The venue will be decided later.

Although Stuttgart officials themselves were honest enough to draw Uefa's attention to their discretion, Leeds were understandably unsympathetic towards a club that had broken a rule that had always been difficult to justify. The whole concept of the European Cup is to match league champions against each other irrespective of the countries from which their players are obtained.

If it did little else, yesterday's prolonged debate may have persuaded Uefa that the rule itself should be questioned. They may ask themselves why a team winning a national championship in one season is not allowed to play in its entirety in the following season's European Cup.

Although a cynical view would suggest that German influence over Uefa caused yesterday's debate to last for several hours, the crux of Uefa's dilemma was whether their usual penalty for transgressions - awarding the innocent club a 3-0 victory - was sufficient. Leeds were adamamant that it was not. They insisted that Stuttgart should be evicted from the competition but Uefa were equally intent on avoiding greater controversy by disqualifying the German champions.

Leeds, who were strongly represented in Zurich, were angered by Stuttgart's attempt to discredit them on Friday when they tried to suggest that Gary Speed was also ineligible to play. Leeds immediately pointed out that although Speed plays for Wales, he was fully qualified to play for them under Uefa rules. Uefa agreed that Stuttgart's accusation was spurious and fined the club Sfr10,000. However, they also said last night that both clubs have until 6 October to appeal against the decision to replay.

In the meantime, the victims of the delay and controversy are Rangers who have been drawn against the winners of the replay. They may want to avoid German opponents, who have knocked them out of European competition four times in the last 10 years, but are unlikely to welcome a tie against Leeds. That is a purely a footballing problem, but for the moment the controversy concerns Uefa's toothless authority.

Not for the first time Uefa have now shown themselves to be too timid even to uphold their own dignity. The rule concerning eligible players is clear, although, admittedly, maintaining it during the excitement of a European Cup tie requires some cool and responsible thinking. Clubs may field a maximum of three foreign born and two 'assimilated' players (those who have played for five years in the country of the club including three at under-19 level).

Controversial and absurd though it is, the rule has had to be accepted by British clubs who, because of their use of Scottish, Welsh and Irish players, were always likely to be the hardest hit. Indeed, at least one club, Liverpool, went as far as to change their purchasing policy to take into account the elegibility rule. So British clubs in particular have been scrupulously careful not to offend, and they would hardly expect to be given a second chance if they were found to have offended, even by 'accident'.

For Stuttgart to claim that they made their mistake in the heat of the moment is plausible but not forgivable. They knew that their squad contained more than the permitted number of foreign and assimilated players and must have had that in mind throughout the game. They obviously broke the rule and there was not even an element of doubt from which Uefa could let them benefit, let alone giving them a play-off. In effect Uefa have said that anyone breaking the rules by 'accident' or otherwise need not suffer the proper consequences which, surely, ought to be disqualification.

The Stuttgart coach, Christoph Daum, has all along admitted that the fault was his but blamed Uefa's complicated regulations. Strange how a club looking forward to huge profits from the European Cup could not run to giving him or another official a couple of highlighter pens to help keep tabs on eligible and ineligible players. After all, it was German officials who were among the original enthusiastic advocates of the rule.

As well as the provision for Stuttgart to appeal, there was the possibility of complaints from other clubs unhappy at two unseeded sides, Leeds and Rangers, facing each other for a place in the lucrative round-robin stage of Europe's premier club competition. Dinamo Bucharest, for example, believed that without Stuttgart in the last 16 they would have been seeded in the draw, and thus would have avoided being paired with Marseille.

(Photograph omitted)

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