Thursday 27 October 2016

It's Barcelona all right, but not as we know them - did anyone tell the punters?

James McDermott

Published 30/07/2016 | 02:30

Barcelona's Lionel Messi Picture: Reuters
Barcelona's Lionel Messi Picture: Reuters

The cartoon character Homer Simpson was once thrown out of an all-you-can-eat restaurant for eating too much. The ensuing lawsuit begins with his lawyer, Lionel Hutz, declaring: "This is the most blatant case of false advertising since my suit against the movie The NeverEnding Story." Football fans attending the Aviva today may be tempted to book a consultation with Mr Hutz.

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It has been revealed that Barcelona have omitted 17 first-team players from the squad that travelled to Dublin to play Celtic, with 12 of their 25-man squad being drawn from their youth ranks. This means that the Irish public, who have paid up to €80 a ticket in the expectation of seeing superstars such as Andrés Iniesta, Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué will instead be watching Gerard Gumbau, Sergi Samper and Carles Alena, players whom even the most obsessive soccer fan would struggle to identify.

To add insult to injury, Celtic are likely to field an equally weakened team, since the Aviva fixture is sandwiched between the two legs of their crucial Champions League qualifier against Astana FC.

This raises an important question - at what point does a sporting event cease to be the event for which the public believed they had bought a ticket?

If I purchased a ticket for a Bruce Springsteen concert and he was too exhausted to travel or had another commitment elsewhere, then the gig would either be postponed to another date or a refund would be offered to disappointed patrons.

So why do different rules apply to soccer fans? Why is it assumed that having paid up to €80 to see the Barcelona first team we will be satisfied with any random assortment of unknown players who pull on the scarlet and blue stripes?

In buying a ticket for a match, a consumer enters a contract with the promoter of the event that must be honoured in full. At the Dublin launch of the International Champions Cup, the promoter (Relevant Sports) made a number of statements that could reasonably be interpreted to indicate that both sides would field full-strength teams, saying: "I don't think we can do better than Celtic and Barcelona. I think this will be something that they will have their entire team here for."

They did disclose that Neymar would be at home competing in the Olympics. We were told his team-mates, who are equally important and famous, would be here and "both teams should really have full-strength squads".

Such assurances are likely to be viewed by a court as express terms of any contract and as having been made to induce consumers to purchase the high-priced tickets.

Leaving aside these positive statements, the failure to disclose the fact that the majority of the first team would not be present could be viewed by the courts as a misrepresentation by silence.

Such an argument was successfully invoked against the Spice Girls in an English case when they posed as a five-piece band in promotional material for motor scooters - without disclosing to the company that Ginger Spice intended to depart the group. The scooter company won damages for misrepresentation on the basis that there had not been full disclosure about the line-up of the band. Consumer legislation also requires that goods or services sold on the basis of a description must conform to that description.

Anyone who knew their football could tell you that Barcelona were never likely to field anything like their strongest side in Dublin. Virtually all of the Barcelona squad competed in either the European Championships (from June 10 to July 10) or the Copa America (from June 3 to June 26) and were then entitled to a minimum of three to four weeks of holidays - meaning that they were never going to return for training before the start of August.

Had Spain not been knocked out of the Euros sooner than expected then Barcelona might have had to complete their team for the Aviva by including the coach driver in the line-up.

As a life-long football fan, I have total respect for Barcelona, whose football over the past decade has been extraordinary. Yet it is hard to believe that their commitment to their Irish fixture stretches much beyond collecting the lucrative match fee.

As pre-season football tournaments become more profitable for both clubs and promoters, there is a risk that the rights of consumers are being stretched to breaking point. The cancellation of the Manchester Derby in China this week has highlighted how little these games mean to the clubs. They are packaged as 'tournaments' to try to entice fans from their hard-earned money. Despite my interest in football I was entirely unaware that, in 2015, Real Madrid won the International Champions Cup in both Australia and China, but Paris St Germain also won it in America. Quite how any cup competition can be 'won' by two (or possibly three) teams in the same year is beyond me. Equally opaque is how the tournament can include 'champions' such as Liverpool - who have not actually won the league since 1990.

However, frustrated supporters would do well to cast their minds back to 1993 - when Alex Ferguson sparked questions in the House of Commons from a furious MP who angrily accused the Manchester United boss of defrauding customers for fielding a side of unknown youngsters in a cup tie at Port Vale. Those anonymous kids he complained about included David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, who went on to become some of the most decorated players in football history.

Fans in the Aviva can only hope for something similar today to make it worthwhile.

Irish Independent

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