This is a story about sport, but it is more importantly a story about paperwork.
Paperwork is what separates most of us from the good life. If we had the inclination and the training, we could master the fine print that other, more successful people have hired professionals to do for them.
For instance, I was at the bank on Monday. They began shoving paper over a desk at me. I pretended to pore over it, but my brain started to hurt and I gave up. I signed everything they gave me.
I’m probably bankrupt now, but since that information will arrive via a summons or an arrest warrant – which is to say, on paper – I’m in no danger of reading it and will never know. So everything’s copasetic.
Reassuringly, no one is any good at this. Every day, huge businesses are filing Form 2-B when they should’ve attached it to a 3-C, and things are going completely sideways.
Another, for instance – Legia Warsaw. This is a medium-sized Polish soccer team, rich in history and little else. They are good-ish at soccer and bad-ish at paperwork. Presumably, they have lawyers and accountants and all manner of dedicated, paperwork-proficient professionals on retainer, and they’ve still been ruined by the meaningless details.
Two weeks ago, Legia played Celtic in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. Legia was, to put it mildly, the better side. Over a home-and-away, it defeated Celtic 6-1 on aggregate. It was now one preliminary round away from qualifying for the competition proper, which would have earned it an estimated minimum payout equal to half its annual budget.
Hooray for them and the dignity of competition. But wait, let’s sift through a binder full of pointless crap so that we can be sure this was all on the up and up. It wasn’t.
Legia’s Bartosz Bereszynski had been suspended for three games at the end of last season. The club sat him for two games against Irish club St. Patrick’s and for the first encounter against Celtic. Even by my shaky bookkeeping, that equals three games. He was brought on as an 86th-minute substitute in the second leg against Celtic – meaning he played a total of just over four minutes, and had absolutely no bearing on the result.
Sadly, Legia had neglected to remove Bereszynski’s name from the team sheet during those absent games. Technically (the worst word in the English language aside from “should,” and the linguistic starting gun that rings out just before every bureaucratic rogering in history), he hadn’t served his suspension. Legia forfeited the second game against Celtic for fielding an ineligible player. As in all cases of forfeit, the match was officially marked a 3-0 loss.
The aggregate score was now 4-4. Celtic advanced on the away-goals rule.
Just in case you’d worried that this couldn’t get more comical, UEFA decided to ban Bereszynski for an additional game.
This is, of course, an outrage and a decision that runs entirely contrary to the spirit of the game. It is – and I say this as darkly as possible – a triumph of the lawyers.
In a better world, Celtic sticks its hand up and says, “We can’t profit from injustice. We refuse to play in the next round,” and it becomes the thin basis of a Disney movie (with America and Russia subbing out Scotland and Poland).
That’s not what Celtic did. The Scottish side may not be much good at soccer, but it has mastered realpolitik. While making sure to seem abashed by the whole episode, it is moving on to face Maribor of Slovenia next week, ahead of a big payday.
Determined to now ride this farce right off the ski hill and into traffic, Legia appealed UEFA’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A small aside that continues to astound me: This is a real thing, rather than what it sounds like – the leaping-off point for a Monty Python skit featuring judges in powdered wigs and swimsuits.
In an effort to be as Orwellian as possible, the CAS on Monday denied Legia’s request for a fast-track appeal, but promised to consider the case “within the next weeks.” That would be well past the point when all the Champions League places have already been determined.
Short of a legion of desk-bound geeks descending on the team’s practice ground and beginning to stab people with their pens, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriately perverse outcome. It reminds us that an acre of distance will always remain between the intent of the rules and their outcomes. It’s more proof that sports really is a lot like life. If so, it won’t be much consolation in the Polish capital.
When I picture Legia in my mind this afternoon, it is as a sad man filling his jacket pocket with stones ahead of walking into the Vistula river. It does renew one’s faith in the determinism of fate. The Wall came down 25 years ago, but the bureaucrats and line editors are still crushing dreams in Poland. And elsewhere.