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Friday, April 11, 2003
Sir Alex embarrassed himself and Man United
MADRID -- If Sir Alex Ferguson had sat down and asked himself how he could embarrass himself and Manchester United, he could not have done better -- or perhaps one should say worse -- than his performance earlier this week as he accused UEFA of fixing the draw for the Champions League quarterfinals which saw it play Real Madrid on Tuesday.
As a publicity stunt it was on a par with that of Gerald Ratner, chairman of a competitively priced British jewelry chain who said at a dinner: "I don't know why people buy our stuff. It's c***."
Ratner, whose views were probably correct but ill-advised to put it mildly, was ousted as the company's sales tumbled.
Ferguson is bullet-proof at Old Trafford even though UEFA will fine him for his outburst when its disciplinary and control body meets on May 1. The punishment is unlikely to affect Ferguson unduly either emotionally or financially but his credibility rating has tumbled, with even his staunchest supporters unable to justify his allegations.
When asked about Ferguson's complaints, Peter Kenyon, United's chief executive, said: "I think that the 10 days with games against Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Arsenal . . . such is the tension it's all part of the build-up."
A pretty lousy excuse but in fairness to Kenyon, what else could he say? He could hardly chastise Ferguson in public despite his manager's attack of foot-in-the-mouth disease.
A UEFA statement said: "According to UEFA disciplinary regulations member associations as well as their players and officials should conduct themselves according to the principle of loyalty, integrity and sportsmanship.
"A breach of these principles is incurred by anyone whose conduct brings the sport of football, and UEFA in particular, into disrepute.
"With his remarks Sir Alex cast doubt upon the integrity of the draw for the quarterfinals."
Ferguson was quoted as saying: "It was a nice draw for the Italians and the Spaniards. I think they picked it themselves.
"The three Italian teams avoided each other and so did the Spanish. How do you think that worked out? I can tell you. UEFA don't want us in the final, that's for sure.
"I don't know why they have given the final to Old Trafford because they don't want us to get there."
In fact, if UEFA had fixed the draw -- which it hadn't -- it would have ensured Spanish and Italian clubs were paired to reduce the possibility of two teams from the same country reaching the final.
While the television contracts and advertising revenues are secured before the final, in the ideal world UEFA would want sides from different countries meeting in its showpiece final to ensure a wider interest. However, such a theory obviously escaped Ferguson.
The draw was conducted not in private behind closed doors, but in front of an audience of representatives from the Champions League quarterfinalists and shown live on television around the world.
There have been constant, unsubstantiated whispered allegations that draws are rigged with claims that there are "hot" and "cold" balls in the various pots so the person responsible knows which to pick out or avoid.
Such theories are as insensitive as they are inaccurate and UEFA was upset by Ferguson's remarks, particularly as it doubted the honesty of the president of the Austrian Football Federation who conducted the draw.
It would also require a skilled sleight of hand artist to conduct a "fixed" draw without it being obvious and with respect to the UEFA officials responsible, they are hardly magicians.
Those who accuse UEFA of a "bent" draw come up with no credible theory other than the "hot" or "cold" balls or a bland "I knew it would happen" with no further explanation -- hardly the most convincing of arguments.
United could have been drawn against Real Madrid, Ajax or Inter Milan -- a 3-1 chance of any of the second-stage group runners-up. It turned out to be Real but it could have been Ajax or Inter Milan. End of story.
So why did Ferguson say what he did? The United manager does not make flippant, off-the-cuff remarks. When he makes such a statement it is calculated and there is an agenda, this time it was to get his retaliation in first.
"Last time we played here [in 1999] there were verbal attacks [by Real players] on David Beckham and Ryan Giggs," he said. "I was not going to let that happen this time."
Paranoia? Master of the mind games? A manager under pressure aware that anyone in charge of one of the biggest clubs in Europe should have won the Champions League, or at least reached the final, more than once?
Whatever . . . Ferguson's own-goals continued when he said the only reason Roberto Carlos, sent off for Brazil against Portugal for bumping into the referee, was playing last Tuesday was "because of the power of Real Madrid."
It is difficult to think how Ferguson could have got his pre-game tactics more off target.
He had also questioned whether Swedish referee Anders Frisk would be strong enough and warned that the official should beware of Real players diving "as they do in the Spanish and Italian leagues." (Never in the Premiership, of course, because the Brits would never do that sort of thing, oh no sir, only Johnny Foreigner).
In fact Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose goal in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium gives United a ray of hope for the second leg, was the only "actor" Frisk has cause to rebuke. Frisk also turned down two good penalty claims for the home side and after the match a local journalist, with heavy sarcasm, asked Ferguson: "What did you think of the two penalties and do you think they are an example of the power of Real Madrid?" Touche.
Real's 3-1 win, was a master class of football, its passion, pace, passing and precision a joy to watch and Ferguson, who hailed two-goal Raul as "the best player in the world," conceded United could have been punished more heavily.
Ferguson is likely to be less confrontational before the return leg.
Fix? The only thing that needs fixing at the moment is United's confidence because Ferguson knows, his players know and everyone who saw a wonderful display by Real Madrid knows -- the men from Manchester looked very much second best to the dream team which should complete the job at the Theatre of Dreams -- as Old Trafford is known -- in two weeks.
Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.