The UEFA Champions League Draw: Balls of Fate or Fraud?
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In most sports, a team’s regular season seeding directly determines their postseason matchups. However, the majority of soccer competitions across the world function via a different convention. The end of the group stage in soccer is followed by a knockout round draw that randomly pairs teams to determine upcoming matches. Most prominent among the tournaments employing this technique is the UEFA Champions League (UCL), Europe’s highest level club competition. This season’s edition of the group stage finished in early December, and the draw for the Round of 16 was held on Monday, December 13, but after a blunder during the draw, the integrity of this system has come into question.
The UCL Round of 16 draw is not meant to be completely random. The teams are separated into two pots based on whether they were first or second in their group, and each team is paired with another from the opposite pot. Teams are limited to a maximum of seven potential opponents, since clubs cannot be pitted against another team from their group and also cannot play against a team from their country. For instance, this year, English side Chelsea could only be drawn to play against Ajax, Bayern Munich, Lille, and Real Madrid. Despite these complications, the draw is intended to be as transparent as possible. It is broadcasted live to viewers and performed in front of representatives from each of the teams, employing techniques such as the stirring of identical balls prior to selection in order to ensure its integrity.
This year, as fans tuned in to watch the free livestream on UEFA’s website, one of the matches decided by the draw violated these rules. Spanish team Villarreal was paired with Manchester United, a team that was ineligible to face them because they had been in the same group during the group stage. UEFA Deputy General Secretary Giorgio Marchetti, who has led all draws since 2016, immediately spotted the mistake and advised UEFA Final Ambassador Andrey Arshavin to redraw the second team. Manchester United’s rival, Manchester City, was drawn against Villareal instead, and the draw continued as usual. At this point, fans were overjoyed by one match in particular: Paris Saint-Germain vs. Manchester United, which pitted the best two players of this generation, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, against each other for the first time at their new clubs.
However, fixing the mistake in the draw was not as easy as Marchetti and Arshavin thought, as ambassadors from Atlético Madrid realized that the technical error prevented them from being paired against Manchester United. The La Liga team was instead drawn against German champion Bayern Munich, and they appealed for the draw to be redone. UEFA confirmed the mistake. “Following a technical problem with the software of an external service provider that instructs the officials as to which teams are eligible to play each other, a material error occurred in the draw for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16,” the tournament said in a statement.
Ultimately, the whole draw was redone. UEFA’s mistake angered fans, who were misled about a possible showcase match between Messi and Ronaldo, and many clubs ended up with more difficult games in the redraw. Spanish contender Real Madrid was originally pitted against Portuguese team Benfica, but in the redraw was matched up with Paris Saint-Germain, a much tougher opponent. Since they had been drawn against Benfica before the blunder involving Manchester United and Villareal, they argued that their original draw should stand. However, these complaints exposed the hypocrisy among major teams, as Real Madrid President Florentino Pérez recently proposed a new European Super League, which would be exclusive to the biggest teams and would replace the UCL for the sole purpose of providing fans with more entertainment.
Soccer fans have come up with a conspiracy theory that UEFA purposefully rigs its draws, with corruption possibly based on bigger teams paying to have easier games. After all, this incident was not the first time that the draw has faced controversy, with past verbal and visual evidence suggesting some form of corruption. Previously, videos surfaced online of UEFA employees picking a ball out and then stirring it, or even picking a ball out and putting it back in, with legends like Ian Rush, Ronaldo Nazário, and Javier Zanetti all caught on video performing suspicious actions. In a shocking interview with Argentine daily newspaper La Nación, the former head of FIFA Sepp Blatter claimed that UEFA employs tactics such as the heating and cooling of balls to ensure that they obtain desired draws. Many fans have since used this theory to explain why Rush, Nazário, and Zanetti put the balls back before even opening them, though Marchetti shot back by calling this conspiracy “a joke.”
Conspiracists aren’t without reason, as UEFA does have its motives. By purposely fixing games so that bigger teams play smaller teams early on in the competition, they can ensure that the more popular teams will be in the semifinals or finals of the competition. For UEFA, this guarantee means more money, as juggernaut games in the late stages of the competition cause increased TV viewership as opposed to such games happening earlier. As seen with the creation of the European Super League last year, those in power are trying to make soccer more profitable, and fixing games seems like a rather easy solution to this problem. Moreover, pleasing the bigger teams by giving them easier fixtures could be UEFA’s way of making sure that they retain exclusive rights to continental tournaments and do not lose teams to the Super League.
In the end, this vicious cycle of whether the clubs or UEFA holds the power comes back to money, when in reality, the competition should truly be about giving each team a fair chance to win. Soccer is for the fans, and if UEFA cannot increase viewership without purposefully rigging fixtures, rebranding may be necessary.