On a busy day at UEFA headquarters, some old powers prepared for new adventures in the Champions League, formerly elite clubs confronted their reduced status in the Europa League, and one ambitious – but spendthrift – newcomer was frozen out by football’s new harsh financial reality.
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The draw for the Champions League playoff round brought 20 clubs tantalizingly close to the riches that await half of them in the lucrative spotlight of the group stage which begins play next month.
English club Tottenham and Italy’s Sampdoria had their best days in the old European Cup 49 and 19 seasons ago, respectively.
Tottenham will like its chances of advancing after being paired with low-ranked Swiss side Young Boys.
Sampdoria, the beaten finalist in 1992, has a tougher task against Germany’s Werder Bremen.
Ninety minutes later, a parade of former European champions and Champions League regulars found themselves drawn against unfamiliar opponents for the right to reach the group stage of the second-tier Europa League.
Liverpool, meet Trabzonspor of Turkey; Borussia Dortmund, good luck finding Qarabag of Azerbaijan on a map; PSV Eindhoven, welcome to Russia’s Sibir Novosibirsk.
Meanwhile, Mallorca of Spain would simply love to be traveling to Belarus to play unheralded Dnepr Mogilev this month.
However, that honor likely goes to Villarreal which took its Spanish rival’s berth in the draw – with an asterisk – while Mallorca officials consider whether to appeal their exclusion by UEFA as a punishment for excessive spending.
Mallorca overreached last season when buying and paying players who were supposed to secure the fourth-place finish that would have earned the club entry to the Champions League playoff round.
Instead, Mallorca finished fifth, went into administration with reported debts of ?60 million ($79 million) and was consequently barred from the Europa League.
Even a financial rescue package last month part-funded by local tennis hero Rafael Nadal did not change UEFA’s mind.
Welcome to the tough-love world of financial fair play, promoted by UEFA after its president Michel Platini felt he had to stop clubs spending recklessly in pursuit of success. Platini set out to both level the playing field, and to protect clubs from collapsing under the weight of debt if banks or wealthy owners pulled their support.
Platini’s top official said Friday that UEFA’s stance on Mallorca proved the campaign was working, and that an independent team of financial experts was doing exactly the job it was created for.
"If you have rules you don’t just hang them there in a nice frame, but to do your job and to act," UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino said. "This is only fair toward everyone who has complied with the rules.
"(Mallorca) qualified exactly in a way which is not fair and that we don’t accept."
For now, the Champions League playoff round sides which passed UEFA’s financial tests are traveling with hope and future riches in sight. Reaching the group stage guarantees basic prize money of €7 million ($9.2 million).
"We’ll be favorites, obviously, but we have to give them the utmost respect," Tottenham coach Harry Redknapp said of a Young Boys side which eliminated Turkey’s Fenerbahce in the third qualifying round with an upset 1-0 win in Istanbul.
"We are the underdog. It’s an English team and they are big names," said Young Boys sporting director Alain Baumann, whose team will play the first-leg match on its artificial surface at the Stade de Suisse in Bern.
Like Young Boys, which will have a full month more of league football under its belt than Spurs, Zenit St. Petersburg hopes to make match sharpness count against Auxerre of France.
The Russian league leader is midway through its season, and eliminated Romanian champion Unirea this week, while French opponent Auxerre only begins competitive action this weekend.
In other ties, Sevilla – which edged Mallorca for that Spanish league fourth place – will face Champions League first-timer Braga of Portugal; Ajax of the Netherlands will travel first to Ukraine’s Dynamo Kiev; and a Czech-Slovak duel pits Sparta Prague against Zilina.
First-leg matches are played Aug. 17-18, and return games Aug. 24-25. The groups will be drawn Aug. 26 in Monaco.
The 35 Europa League playoffs are played Aug. 19 and Aug. 26, with winners advancing to the Aug. 27 group-stage draw in Monaco.
It may be that by the time the elite of European football gather for the draws in the casino capital of Europe later this month, Mallorca will be ruing gambling with its financial future.