IT’S fairly common practice in local athletic club 5k and 10k races to hand out spot prizes. So while the first few to finish will win something, as you’d expect, there will also be a random draw to give a prize to one or two of the runners further back as well.
I think it’s a nice idea, because it gives those runners who don’t have a hope in hell of winning the race at least a chance of going home with something. And I feel the same about European football’s equivalent of the spot prize draw: The UEFA Fair Play Ranking, aka the Fair Play League. Although, actually, it does seem as though the Fair Play prizes go to the same places rather a lot.
You can sometimes tell the time of year by a news story (or, if you’re more practical, you might wish to use a calendar). If there’s a grit shortage, it must be January. If there’s a large group of pretty, smiley teenage girls waving exam results on the front page of the Daily Telegraph, it must be August. If someone’s launching a Facebook campaign to stop some Simon Cowell act getting to No.1, it must be November.
And if a mid-to-lower-table Premier League team is suddenly revealed to be in with a shout of a surprise European qualification through the Fair Play Rankings, then it must be April. Last year, it was Burnley who were in with a chance of making it (they didn’t). This year, it’s Fulham’s turn.
It turns out that England are battling it out (or perhaps behaving it out) with Norway at the top of the Fair Play Rankings. And given that the top three nations come the end of their domestic seasons get a Europa League place, there’s every chance that one will come to an English club. And Fulham’s lofty position in the domestic Fair Play tables means that place would be likely to go to them. That England and Norway are at the top should come as little surprise to those who follow these things closely.
The Fair Play Rankings are now in their 17th year. In 14 of the previous 16 years, the leading nation has been England, Norway or Sweden. The first of two exceptions was in 1999, when Scotland struck a blow for fairness north of the border (and then presumably apologised for doing so), thus thrusting Kilmarnock on to the European stage. They were so friendly that their first-round meeting with Kaiserslautern saw fans of both sides form a lasting bond. To this day, they still attend each other’s matches.
The second exception came in 2001, when Belarus came through for a shock Fair Play triumph, allowing the magnificently-named Shakhtyor Soligorsk (I’m sure they supported the Arctic Monkeys on their US tour last year) the chance to be beaten over two legs by CSKA Sofia. (Soligorsk’s name, though, was surely topped by the Slovakian side Matador Puchov, who claimed one of the other two Fair Play spots that year.)
Qualification for Europe via the Fair Play Rankings has changed a little since they were introduced in 1995. Initially, the best-behaved nation got one place, while the other two were allocated via the spot prize random draw method, and could theoretically go to any country passing the Fair Play threshold. (That threshold was, and is, eight – which may come as a huge disappointment to all the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy fans who hoped it might be 42.)
These days, there is no random draw, and the places go to the top three nations in the Fair Play Rankings. This has simplified the qualification process, but UEFA have compensated for this by making the Europa League itself far more complicated.
But still, I think it’s nice that a club can qualify for European competition purely by being upstanding, decent individuals. It takes me back to my days in junior football when, after we’d been tonked 6-0 by a team of overgrown man-boys, our captain would shout: “Three cheers for Doddington Dynamoes!” And we would shout: “Hip hip! Hooray!” three times. And then their captain and his players would do the same.
Admittedly, we only ever did it with just enough enthusiasm to ensure we didn’t get bollocked by our manager, but I think, on some level, it taught us the value of sportsmanship. Or respect, even.
The Premier League have their Fair Play pre-match handshake, which I suppose is a similar kind of thing. But that’s before the game, and I guess it all gets forgotten once the game is under way and the referee gives a debatable throw-in against you.
Perhaps we need to bring the “three cheers” ritual in at the end of Premier League games too, just to remind those players of the importance of respect. Or perhaps not. After all, UEFA has ranked England’s top flight as one of the fairest leagues in Europe. And the team at the top of the domestic Fair Play table are Chelsea. Strange as it may seem, I can’t help but feel that Ashley Cole may have had a part to play in this.