By Paul Gardner
I continue to be astonished -- and I do not astonish easily -- at the extraordinary claims that FIFA makes as to the extent of its authority.
Here is an international organization devoted to the organization and control of soccer, worldwide. Certainly, then, a form of global government. It has its own constitution -- the FIFA statutes -- along with a formidable array of rules and regulations that its members are expected to obey. The members, as in the case of the United Nations, are sovereign nations.
Should a nation choose not to obey the regulations, then FIFA calls into action its own legal system, which can visit monetary fines on the miscreants, or -- the ultimate punishment -- suspend a nation’s membership.
Nothing particularly unusual in any of that. FIFA is, after all, a voluntary organization. No country is forced to join it. Well, not really. The troubles start right there. True, a country can choose not to belong to FIFA -- but if it does make that choice, it is in effect separating itself from the rest of the soccer world. The consequences are dire -- the most obvious one is that the country will not be allowed to play international games, and its national team will be banned from participating in the World Cup.
And that, to any soccer-playing nation -- which means most of the countries in the world -- is almost a fate worse than death. FIFA can impose such a draconian punishment because FIFA is a monopoly. Where you have monopoly control of a highly desirable commodity, it is really unrealistic, certainly ingenuous, to talk of access to that commodity being on a voluntary basis. FIFA exercises virtually dictatorial powers over worldwide soccer. Either you join soccer, or you can forget about your country ever being of any consequence in the sport.
That is the situation at the administrative level, which makes it sound very formal and impersonal. But there is real punishment to be suffered at the personal level, for banishment from the international game greatly reduces the chances of a nation’s players gaining international recognition, and therefore of making better money. It may also thoroughly squelch any hopes a country’s referees may have of advancing to the top levels in that field -- the top level being an appointment to referee during the World Cup.
It is of referees that I speak now. Three of them: Joel Antonio Aguilar, William Torres and Francisco Zumba. They are all from El Salvador and have been selected -- by FIFA -- to officiate as a trio in next month’s World Cup in South Africa. El Salvador’s team did not qualify for the tournament, so the choice of the referees is quite an honor for the country -- the more so because Aguilar, 30 years old, will be the youngest referee in tournament, while the 27-year-old Zumba, chosen as an assistant referee, will be the youngest of all the officials.
Sadly, as a direct result of FIFA’s gluttony for power, the El Salvadoran trio may miss out on their golden opportunity. A dispute has arisen within El Salvador between the Salvadoran government and Salvadoran soccer authorities which, at the moment, consist of a FIFA-appointed “normalization committee.” I’ll spare you the details of the dispute, they are not relevant to the main point here. Which is that the government is refusing to recognize the soccer authorities.
That is a mighty no-no to FIFA, which has stringent rules barring any sort of “government interference” in the running of the sport. So we arrive at a situation where FIFA is in direct opposition to the democratically elected government of El Salvador.
FIFA has announced that the matter must be settled by June 8. By “settled” it means, of course, that the government must back down. However you may care to view matters, there is no escaping the fact that FIFA has issued an ultimatum to the Salvadoran government.
FIFA cannot dismiss the Salvadoran government -- though one suspects it would rather like to -- so it will wreak punishment on the soccer authorities, the very organization it is claiming to support. If the dispute is not resolved (i.e. if the government has ceded) by June 8, then El Salvador will be suspended from FIFA membership. Which will mean that Senores Aguilar, Torres and Zumba will not be eligible to referee at the World Cup. That level of personal tragedy is apparently quite acceptable to FIFA as it pursues its power-play of ranking itself more powerful than a sovereign government.
The merits of the case, as I say, are irrelevant here. It matters not where the truth lies between the squabbling parties. What boggles the mind here is FIFA’s total lack of respect for the Salvadoran government. Even more disturbing, is the suggestion that FIFA will adopt this bullying attitude only when it is a small country that is causing problems.