Celtic's progression into the Europa League group stages came through the back door, but Swiss rule breakers Sion are not backing down. Andy Brassell reports
If received wisdom initially decreed that Celtic should be embarrassed at the means of their progression to the group stages of the Europa League, then the fuss caused ever since by Sion, the Swiss team that originally qualified through the play-off at the Glasgow club’s expense, has completely overshadowed it.
The extension of Celtic’s miserable away run in Europe by a 2-0 defeat at Atlético Madrid on September 15, the Europa League’s opening night, is almost a mere footnote. If Sion and their combative owner Christian Constantin have anything to do with it, the result may well be scrubbed from the history books altogether.
A UEFA statement on September 2, eight days after the Hoops’ comprehensive elimination in the southern Swiss canton of Valais, officially confirmed Sion’s ejection from the competition, but both legs of the play-off had been played under the shadow of sanction. The roots of the dispute stretch back to Sion’s February 2008 signing of Essam El-Hadary from Al-Ahly, who claimed the goalkeeper was still contracted to the Egyptian club and thus not free to sign with the Swiss. This claim was upheld by FIFA, resulting in a two-window transfer ban.
Sion claimed they had completed the ban earlier this year, which UEFA and FIFA disagreed with, though the tribunal cantonal (civil court) in Valais eventually ruled in Sion’s favour in early August this year. UEFA threatened sanctions for outside legal interference forbidden in its statutes.
The six players signed while the transfer ban (dated from June 2010) was effective on the club, including former Hearts man José Gonçalves and ex-Celtic triallist Pascal Feindouno, were therefore deemed ineligible. Sion fielded them against Celtic anyway and, when the Scots complained, were ejected from the competition.
It is as if Sion always wanted this confrontation and they continued as normal post-expulsion. Swiss daily Le Matin reported on Monday September 12 that Sion still planned to fly out on Wednesday to Madrid for the opening fixture, having sent scouts to Valencia on the Saturday to watch Atlético, briefly raising the bizarre prospect of three teams arriving at Estádio Vicente Calderón for the Thursday match.
The highly controversial Constantin is buoyed both by an enormous ego and historical precedent. He took over Sion in 2003, with the club swamped with financial problems that saw them relegated to the third tier. Constantin successfully argued through the tribunal cantonal for Sion’s belated reinstatement to the Challenge League (the Swiss second tier). He has since got through 22 head coaches, though his tenure has also taken in promotion back to the Super League in 2006 and three Swiss Cup wins.
The Swiss courts continue to give Constantin encouragement. On September 13, a statement on Sion’s official website reported a ruling by the tribunal cantonal de Vaud (which neighbours Valais), that “ordered” UEFA to readmit Sion and recognise the banned players as “eligible”. UEFA acknowledged receipt of the Vaud ruling but confirmed its original position – that Celtic, not Sion, would play in the Europa League.
Even after Celtic’s appearance in the first round of group games, the saga continued. On September 27 a civil court judge delayed a verdict by a further week and UEFA stated it was technically possible to reinstate Sion between the end of the group stage in December and the start of the knockout rounds in February. Sion have suggested the constitution of a five-team group, though the other clubs are treating the Swiss like a guest loudly farting at a black-tie dinner. “We trust UEFA to sort it out,” Rennes general manager Pierre Dréossi wearily told the media.
Some have suggested that if the governing body were forced into backing down, it would be the most significant ruling since the Jean-Marc Bosman case in 1995. “If a nobody like me can beat FIFA and UEFA, a club can do it,” Bosman recently said. Constantin has reportedly claimed an initial CHF 5 million (£3.6m) in damages, which would confirm his real agenda is to cause UEFA embarrassment.
Sport shouldn’t be above the law for wider-ranging issues (such as tax avoidance) but on an administrative level, the application of local – or national – law isn’t practical, when UEFA’s jurisdiction crosses so many borders. Besides, where would it stop? Clubs taking referees to court for incorrect decisions would be an obvious, and unedifying, next step. Evoking Bosman, and human rights, in this case is a red herring. Constantin is simply a chancer attempting to flex his muscles and one can only hope he doesn’t succeed.
From WSC 297 November 2011