By Paul Gardner
Images of the recent World Cup final linger on in my mind. Andres Iniesta's goal, of course, now made more lustrous by knowledge we could not have at the time, that this was the winning goal.
But beyond that ... what else is there that remains from that game, that climactic game, that should have been one of soccer’s great festive occasions.
Little that was worthy, I fear. My memories come unbidden, I am not looking for anything in particular ... but the memories are of violent play, of rough tackling, of reckless challenges, and, of course, of an embattled referee, Howard Webb, doing his best to cope with the havoc.
This was supposed to be a showcase game. Surely, we should be able to rely on the World Cup final displaying our sport at its best? Or if not that, then even more certainly, we have the right to expect that this very special occasion will not turn into an exhibition of the sport at its worst.
Sadly, we got the worst. Thanks to the Dutch, who chose to besmirch this gala occasion with ... well, it’s not necessary for me to describe the way they played, I’ll let you listen to the greatest of Dutch soccer players, Johan Cruyff: "Sadly, they played very dirty ... This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style ...”
There is a wonderful, almost choking, incoherence to that exasperated cri de coeuras Cruyff barely controls his disgust at what he had seen.
That was spoken in the heat of the immediate post-game period. Maybe Cruyff would be less hard on his compatriots now, but I hope not. His first reaction was surely the right one. The way the Dutch played was a disgrace.
What the Dutch got away with was, in soccer terms, pretty close to murder. The murder of the sport. There can be no excuses. Their approach comes over as entirely premeditated. The fouling started in the first minute of the game, it cannot be mitigated as a response to anything that the Spanish were doing.
But the Spanish were inevitably drawn into the fray, and we got what must surely go down as the nastiest World Cup final ever. Just three days earlier FIFA President Sepp Blatter had commented on what he saw as commendable fair play at the tournament: “There have been fewer yellow and red cards, the players have been respectful to their opponents.”
Then, having sat through a final that was the very negation of fair play, Blatter dodged the issue and simply refused to face the facts: “I will not make any comment but we always say football is school of life because it is based on discipline and respect. It’s a combat game but in the spirit of fair play. You have to learn to win and you have to learn to lose, and should not forget the basis which is discipline and respect.”
That is sheer persiflage, it tells us nothing, but that is hardly surprising, for Blatter, when asked directly about the violence, refused to comment, and gave his reasoning: “Even though I have seen all the irregularities as a spectator, I cannot answer this question as president of FIFA. I could answer it as a fan of football but I am here as president.”
An extraordinary statement, one that confirms that Blatter now sees his role as that of a superior being, no longer able to take a realistic look at the sport, no longer able to see it as the fans see it. This is a huge mistake. On occasions such as this, when the sport has been led woefully astray, who else but the FIFA president should speak out, loudly and clearly, against the transgression? What kind of a president is it who watches for two hours as his sport is dragged through the mire and then says that it is precisely his position as president that prevents him from condemning it?
A diplomatic one, for sure, and that is further evidence that Blatter has promoted himself to the role of a World Leader who cannot soil his hands with mundane difficulties.
This blindness is bad enough, but things get worse, because FIFA has now announced that it has punished the two finalists by imposing fines.
The Dutch have been fined 15,000 Euros ($14,400), the Spanish 10,000 Euros ($9,600). And the Dutch actually get off lighter than Spain -- they’ve been fined $1,600 per card, while the Spanish are coughing up $1,900. Not that anyone will even notice, because these fines are, of course, pathetic, obscenely pathetic. To set them in perspective, all you need to know is that the Spanish soccer federation has promised bonuses, reported to be $734,000 to each player.
This attempt to put a moral matter right by monetary means is distasteful in the extreme, the final squalid touch to a thoroughly sordid episode. The Dutch deserve a much more severe punishment than a mere $14,400 slap on the wrist. They have tarnished the sport, made a mockery of what ought to be one of its most noble occasions.
But the president of FIFA cannot comment on it, cannot take any action ... because he is the president. Some president.