Hot Balls!

Don’t give me generals who are brilliant, give me generals who are lucky – Napoleon Bonaparte

The question you’ve got to ask yourself, punk, is ‘am I feeling lucky?’ – Dirty Harry

The more I practice, the luckier I get – Gary Player

The ‘L’ word was out in force again recently, as the Reds drew an eiderdown-soft draw in the 3rd qualifying round of the Champions League. Of course, the truth is that luck had nothing to do with it. Even a cursory glance through the draw would reveal that the odds were heavily stacked in Liverpool’s favour, not just because of the seeding but because we’re so manifestly superior to the rot playing in his stage of the contest. There were a few snakes lurking in the long grass i.e. Fenerbahce and Ajax, but there were so few of them that drawing a dud would have reflected an absence of luck.

Then there’s the other way of looking at it, and acknowledging that Uefa cheated. I’ve never believed that Fifa and Uefa draws are fixed, but now I’m not so sure. The hypothesis put forward by the conspiracy theorists is that the crucial balls in the pot are heated up prior to the draw and et viola! instant England v. Scotland to stir up some ancient passions.

I’ve always felt there were a few problems with this piece of X-Files fantasy. While the odd plum tie in a major tournament may lead to knowing nods from all concerned, the vast majority of pairings are too mundane for words. How many times have England and Poland drawn each other in the qualifiers for the World Cup and European Championships? Off the top of my head I can remember them meeting in 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1998, not to mention the notorious clash in 1974. You’d think that if the powers-that-be were rigging these things, they would keep that lot apart. One more England-Poland meeting is likely too see the Pope consigned to the flames of Hell for all eternity – legend has it that he was heard to use some choice language when Poland hit the crossbar in the last minute of a qualifier against England for the 1990 World Cup. But that’s another story.

Another hole in the Y-fronts of the rigged draws plot is the sheer problems in getting gormless celebrities in on the act. Can anyone really see Sepp Blatter explaining to Sophia Loren that she has to pick the balls that are warmer from pot B because they are desperate to see Italy play Yugoslavia and treat us all to a racist pageant from the Rome branch of the Arkan Fan Club? The possibility of said celebrities acquiescing to this delicate piece of fraud is practically nil, all of them being dyed-in-the-wool football fans. Even Ms. Loren. And could the celeb actually distinguish between a ball that has been warmed and one that has not? Perhaps Graham’s Norton and Le Saux might be able to identify balls just be feeling them, but the rest of us aren’t tuned to such minutiae.

No, I always believed that the truth was disappointingly simple. Coincidences like England always drawing Poland happen quite regularly. Otherwise we wouldn’t have coincidences. Fifa and Uefa hoodwink the public in a much more cynical way. They claim that the seeding is based on some arcane formula, a formula so complex that it would give Einstein a migraine. No one bothers checking the veracity of this formula, which allows the authorities to bung teams they don’t like in dodgy places. How else can you explain Ireland, who have finished second in their group in each of the last five qualifying competitions (and they finished first in the one before that), being seeded third in next year’s World Cup qualifiers? Uefa don’t need anything as unreliable as a hyperdexetrous film star to give them the result they want. They simply hide behind impenetrable mathematical equations.

But but but. Uefa may have overplayed their hand this time. Consumed by greed and an overwhelming need to keep Europe’s top clubs onside, they may have been a bit too obvious in their desire to get Liverpool into this year’s Champions League. Remembering the calamity last season when Inter screwed up against the modest opposition of Helsingborg, Liverpool were provided with the whipping boys of the qualifiers. Meanwhile, their hatred for Scotland manifests itself in Celtic drawing Ajax while Rangers pick up the elephant turd of a draw that is Fenerbahce. It would just be our luck for Blond/Hebrew XI were to nobble us. That would teach those bureaucrats in Switzerland, wouldn’t it?