Football: The big E from Uefa

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The Independent Online
INDISCRIMINATE use of the elbow in football has spread to the very pinnacle of European football, the offending joint being brandished by Uefa on Thursday with far more wilful dexterity than can ever have been contemplated by certain centre-forwards of our acquaintance.

As a result, the champions of more than half the countries of Europe are to be excluded in future from the European Cup, which is already the best club competition in the world and is now to become the most elite. The news comes as a particular shock to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, none of whose teams is likely immediately to fulfil the requirements of the new seeding system Uefa are introducting in order to limit the revamped European Cup to 24 clubs, the top eight of whom will be guaranteed passage through to the final stages where the prize money will run into many millions of pounds.

It is all very sad, of course, and an affront to our traditional idea of what cup football should be - an egalitarian free-for-all in which the lowliest teams get an annual opportunity to test their worthiness against the mightiest.

However, this is largely a British concept. Giant-killing is not as successful or as popular a pastime in other countries - which could say a lot about our approach to the game - and the annals of continental football do not ring with heroic cup-fighting legends created by the likes of Norwich, Peterborough and Yeovil.

Unfortunately, the occasions when these islands have managed to export this guerrilla football have been few and largely confined to the Welsh and the Irish. Wales provided one of the most romantic when little Bangor took on the Italian Cup-holders Naples in 1962 and shocked Europe by winning the first leg 2-0 at home.

The second leg in Italy was immortalised first by Desmond Hackett's line 'See Naples and Dai' and then by Bangor forcing a replay which took place at Highbury, where the Italians won by the less than convincing margin of 2-1.

I had the privilege of accompanying Cardiff City in 1968 when they undertook one of European football's most bizarre journeys, an 8,000-mile round trip to Tashkent in Central Asia to play Moscow Torpedo, whose stadium in the Soviet capital was snow-bound. Cardiff won the tie after a replay to reach the semi-finals in which they were beaten by SV Hamburg, but only through a freak goal from the great Uwe Seeler.

These feats were registered in the European Cup Winners' Cup which, along with the Uefa Cup, will continue to provide opportunities for the odd Celtic odyssey, but the stock of British football in Europe might be much higher had it been possible for more potential giant-killers from the lower divisions to be allowed occasionally to run amok over there.

The European Cup is now totally protected from that or, indeed, from any sort of uprising from the continent's footballing peasantry. The move is not entirely without sense. The break-up of eastern Europe seems to be creating more independent countries by the month and they all want Uefa recognition. Moldova and Azerbaijan are the latest to be granted provisional membership and the number of champion clubs eligible for the Cup is already more than 48.

Apart from the congestion, there is little appetite among the more glamorous clubs for the thrills of unlimited knock-out football. Having seven shades kicked out of you in Azerbaijan, Cwmbran or anywhere where the inhabitants hunger for glory does not have much to commend it, and is best avoided.

Manchester United will not be complaining. It was their unexpected defeat by Galatasaray of Turkey which spotlighted the problem that Uefa have now acted upon. The bulk of the television revenue comes from the five main football countries and the financial blow of one or more of them not being represented in the finals is no longer to be risked.

If United proceed to retain the championship they will be seeded next season among the top eight, assured of a place in the lucrative programme of final matches where they will be joined by eight survivors from the other 16 seeded teams. The winner will receive about pounds 7m.

Should United fail to hold on to the lead they enjoy at the moment, the team who win the Premiership title will have to take their chance with the complicated seeding system. No doubt the bigger televison draw they will be, the better their chances.

Those 24 or more champions not fortunate in the seedings will be accomodated in an enlarged Uefa Cup, in which 100 will be competing. The Elbow Cup would be a more appropriate name.

UNLESS he was trying out one of the new tests the Government are planning for those claiming invalidity benefit, Jamie Joseph's stamp on the ankle of the England scrum-half Kyran Bracken at Twickenham last weekend defies all attempts at a reasoned defence.

At least the John Fashanu elbow has the mitigation that it came into collision with Gary Mabbutt's cheek-bone during a legitimate piece of action. When two or more footballers jump for a ball, arms and legs tend to fly all over the place and it is not always easy to decide whether the various bits are propelled by recklessness, maliciousness or plain awkwardness.

Even the descending boot that brutally injured Phil de Glanville was not out of context in a rugby ruck or, at least, one in which the All Blacks are concerned. But I have yet to meet a rugby expert who can tell me what particular part of the game Joseph was engaged in when he stamped on Bracken's leg.

What would annoy me as a rugby player was the automatic and predictable reaction of officials from both sides. The RFU have made no outward protest while the All Blacks will not reveal what disciplinary action has been taken. In other words, it is nothing to do with anyone else. If it's a private game they want, why do they sell tickets?

Perhaps rugby players should start looking after their own interests and form a body similar to the Professional Footballers' Association, who are taking steps themselves to get rid of the flying elbow from their game. There are many other unpleasant practices they could also tackle.

A rugby players' association similarly intent on protecting themselves from each other might produce a regard for their own well-being and the game's image that does not seem to exist anywhere else at the moment. They could also have a peep at each other's pay packets.