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By not helping supporters travel to away games, UEFA is neglecting its 'lifeblood'

A CURSORY wave to the travelling fans really isn't going to cut it from the Celtic players when the final whistle goes on tomorrow's game against Shakhter Karagandy.

St Johnstone train in Grodno; the club were cheered on against Minsk by two supporters. Picture: SNS
St Johnstone train in Grodno; the club were cheered on against Minsk by two supporters. Picture: SNS

Raising their arms over their heads to applaud isn't going to be an adequate display of appreciation either. Come to think of it, calling them "travelling fans" is a bit of an understatement. Travelling fans go to Dumfries or Aberdeen or Dingwall. This lot, just 30 of them, have crossed 3000 miles and five time zones to follow their team. They're a lot closer to Kabul than they are to Kerrydale Street.

Has there ever been a Celtic match in which the players and staff outnumbered the fans? They will against Karagandy and the primary reason for that is not the distance, the cost - two travel companies were going to charge £2000 before having to abandon their packages altogether - or any lack of interest in a game with enormous financial implications for Celtic. The problem was something that has become an issue since the Champions League and Europa League qualifying rounds were restructured and contracted into a frantic few weeks. Put simply, clubs and their fans are being sent to countries with as little as six days' advance notice when there can be a five-day turnaround period to secure entry visas.

Uefa, the governing body with its pious "Respect" campaign, shows no respect whatsoever to fans by running qualifying rounds in which it can be impossible for them to follow their team. St Johnstone took 500 to Norway when they faced Rosenborg in the Europa League. The reward for victory? A trip to an outpost in Belarus with too little time to be allowed to get there. Fancy seeing your team win another away game in Europe? Tough luck: the game takes place in less than a week and Belarus takes too long to process visas. St Johnstone had no-one backing them in Grodno other than a guy from Callander and his pal who happened to live there anyway. Last season Newcastle United were drawn against Anzhi Makhachkala and fans had only a four-day window to submit applications which take five working days to process.

Celtic's game tomorrow night will be covered by the Scottish media only because the journalists in question happened to be in London for the England-Scotland game last week and could get to the Kazakh embassy on Monday and apply for visas. It's even touch-and-go for the clubs themselves to get the requisite documentation up against these deadlines and they don't always manage it. St Johnstone had to shell out £10,000 to guarantee all of their travelling party would get visas in time. It all sounds like a scam.

More alarming was what happened to the Norwegian club IL Hodd when they travelled to Kazakhstan in July. Hodd won the first leg 1-0 at home but were then told two of their best players had been denied a visa for the second leg. "People can draw their own conclusions," said coach Lars Arne Nilsen, understandably dripping with cynicism. "They know their football at the Kazakh embassy . . ."

UEFA is committed to ensuring that the needs and viewpoints of supporters are taken into account. "The supporters are the lifeblood of professional football, they are the identity of the clubs. Owners, coaches and players change but supporters always remain," said Michel Platini, the Uefa president, in 2009. If that's anything more than the usual hot air it's time for UEFA to do right by its "lifeblood".

Football is not above the law but it is in charge of itself, and it is time for Uefa to start exerting pressure on the governments to relax visa requirements for supporters visiting during the four Champions League and Europa League qualifying rounds. The Football Federation of Kazakhstan was initially a member of the Asian Football Confederation but then lobbied to become part of the European organisation instead. Uefa pumps tens of thousands of euros into Kazak clubs every year. What the governing body should be doing now is insisting that countries either waive their visa requirements or insist on a free or low-price fast-tracking process for football supporters.

It has happened before but only for the big, showpiece events. Around 42,000 Manchester United and Chelsea fans going to the 2008 Champions League final could get into Moscow without a visa as long as they were in possession of a match ticket. Restrictions were dropped for fans visiting Ukraine and Poland for the Euro 2012 finals. It's likely that European Union nationals won't need visas to attend the 2018 World Cup because Russia is expected to waive visa conditions for those in possession of match tickets.

But a fan going to one of the elite events shouldn't be treated any differently than a St Johnstone fan who wants to go to Grodno in August. If Uefa truly believes in its "football family" - whatever that means - then it's time to look after fans at that level too. It can't do much about the dates because there are too many games to squeeze in, and too many qualifying clubs to whittle down, but it can take a far harder line with governments who know their clubs are dependent on Uefa's competitions.

In the meantime, let's hope Celtic find a way of acknowledging the 30 who had the means to get their way to Astana. Of the 80,000 who reportedly made it to Seville, 99.97% of them won't be there tomorrow.

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