UEFA's disciplinary body on Friday ruled that Maccabi Haifa had forfeited their place in the third qualifying round of the Champions League after fielding an ineligible player.
A statement issued at the organization's headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland said that Haifa's Walid Badir played while under suspension in Wednesday's 4-0 home win over Finnish side Haka Valkeakoski, which gave them a 5-0 aggregate win in the second qualifying round tie.
UEFA awarded the second leg match 3-0 to Haka, making the result a 3-1 aggregate win for them, which will see them host Liverpool in the first leg of the third qualifying round on Wednesday. Badir also received another one-match ban as punishemnt for playing.
Haifa immediately said that they will appeal against their disqualification.
"We will exercise our right to appeal," club spokeswoman Nira Alon said on Friday.
Alon said that Haifa club owner Yaacov Shahar and other officials would attend the appeal which will be heard at UEFA headquarters tomorrow at 2 P.M. The appeal will center on fact that Badir had been named in the side due to a misunderstanding, Alon said.
She explained that although Badir received a three-match ban after being sent off in the first leg of a UEFA Cup tie against Vitesse Arnhem of the Netherlands last September, subsequent communications to the club and to the IFA appeared to suggest that the ban was only for two games.
"We realized that he was automatically suspended from the return leg against Vitesse, and then at the beginning of the current season, we received notification from the Israel Football Association that Badir was banned only for two matches. He subsequently sat out the first leg against Haka," she explained.
Alon said that a faxed letter from UEFA directly to the club on the morning of the return leg against the Finns stated that for the 2001-2002 season Badir was banned for two matches.
Haifa wrongly took this to mean that Badir's total suspension was only for two matches, which he had already served, and therefore he played on Wednesday.
"It was an innocent mistake," she said.
If the appeal fails, Haifa are set to lose at least $2 million in income from gate receipts and TV rights, as their European season will be over.
Shahar said that he was less worried about the financial loss than about the reputation of his club and of Israeli soccer.
"I have invested big sums in the club. This will not break me, but our reputation will be severely damaged," he said in a radio interview.
Alon said that Shahar would speak publicly only after the appeal was heard, and that heads would probably roll.
The disqualification is a devastating blow to thousands of local soccer fans who were looking forward to seeing Liverpool play a competitive match in their country for the first time.
As many as 40,000 spectators were expected for the match, which was moved from Haifa to the National Stadium in Ramat Gan.
The text of UEFA's decision on Friday to expel Maccabi Haifa reads as follows:
"UEFA's Control and Disciplinary body have decided the Israeli champions Maccabi Haifa have forfeited their Champions League second qualifying round second-leg match to their Finnish opponents FC Haka for fielding an ineligible player, and have therefore been eliminated from this season's UEFA Champions League."
The Control and Disciplinary body that because Badir played, they have forfeited their place in the tournament.
Badir was sent off in last season's UEFA Cup clash against Vitesse Arnhem for assaulting an opponent, and Haifa had thought that he received a two-match ban - which he served - based on information from the Israel Football Association.
UEFA confirmed, however, that the player should have served a three-match ban and not a two-match suspension and ruled that Haifa displayed "culpable negligence" and should have sought its advice about the length of suspension.
Haifa players mum
The whole of the the Maccabi Haifa team had an extremely difficult weekend, with players, and management officials among the walking wounded. Few, however, were prepared to say anything publicly so as to avoid harming the club's slim chances at tomorrow's appeal hearing.
The team's manager, Hanan Shpagat, is set to announce his resignation tomorrow. He has been in charge for three years.
Alon denied yesterday that Shpagat had already resigned. David "Lulu" Yaron, the head of the administrative department since the mid-1980s, is also set to quit.
The club's training session on Friday was held in almost complete silence; the players looked stunned. "This is the foul-up of the century, we are stunned. We worked so hard in training and we gave everything - nobody can fault us. We beat Haka convincingly. Nobody could have expected more than that from us," said captain Arik Benado.
IFA heads may roll
Senior officials at the IFA may also be forced to leave their posts immediately after the appeal decision.
Sources at the IFA admitted that there would be no choice but to point the finger at individuals, and after a new management team is chosen next week, there will be a revamp of positions within the body.
FC Haka boss Keith Armstrong could not believe his ears when hearing of the prospect of his club hosting Liverpool.
"My chairman has probably had an orgasm at this news!" he exclaimed. "It will mean about half-a-year's income to a club like ours. Our ground only holds 4,000, so the game will be played at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki," he said.
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