By Paul Gardner
The demise of the FIFA Task Force Football 2014 is as sad as it was inevitable.
There is always, about these “improve-the-game” task forces, committees, study groups, whatever, that FIFA and other soccer governing bodies occasionally roll out, a makeshift air right from the start. You have to wonder, immediately, how much thought has gone into the selection of the members. Even more so you have to be suspicious that soccer politics loom large in such appointments.
You can be sure that the groups will be fairly large, so that as many nationalities -- or at least regions -- as possible are represented. The now-dead Task Force 2014 had 22 members. Fourteen of them, or 63%, were from Europe. I do not see how that overwhelming European presence can be justified -- certainly not on soccer grounds -- but it is the usual state of affairs on FIFA committees.
I can see no reason to object to any of the European members -- they included former players Frank Beckenbauer, Bobby Charlton and Fernando Hierro, former referees Massimo Busacca and Peter Mikkelsen. Indeed, it is only when one ponders the absentees that things don’t look so happy. Alongside the European phalanx -- South America numbered only three members -- ex-referee Carlos Alarcon of Paraguay, plus ex-players Pele and Cafu. And from Argentina, World Cup winners in 1978 and 1986, consistent suppliers of the world’s top players? No one.
The inequalities are disturbing, but not enough to rule out the possibility that good things could have resulted from this group, which FIFA president Sepp Blatter charged with addressing “every facet of the game,” its aim being to “improve the attractiveness of soccer.”
But the makeshift aspect evidently took over. At the very first meeting, chairman Franz Beckenbauer was a no show. The USA’s Sunil Gulati took over those duties. Pele didn’t attend any meetings during the group’s three years existence.
There is an oddity here. Pele, one of the greatest of players, has made a habit lately of making almost frivolous statements about the sport and how it should be played. While Beckenbauer, right up there with Pele as a player, had little to offer to the Task Force. In the end a suggestion of Beckenbauer’s will probably go down as the group’s parting recommendation -- and a pretty lame suggestion it was: That teams should line up at the end of a game and shake hands.
Somehow these suddenly appointed committees (this one was created in response to what was seen as a rather lack-luster 2010 World Cup) do not carry conviction, do not excite enthusiasm, neither among the media nor, it seems among their own members.
It was greatly disappointing to hear Beckenbauer kick things off by talking about goal line technology and additional referees -- both topics that had already undergone extensive study. There are other aspects of soccer that need to be looked at. In particular, considering the group’s specified aim of increasing the attractiveness of the game, there is the crucial matter of goalscoring.
To my mind that should have been the No. 1 concern. But trying to increase goalscoring -- or, to put it more practically, trying to slacken the grip that defensive play has on the sport -- is not a narrowly focused, one-issue problem, like GLT. It is a more complicated matter that involves every aspect of the game -- coaches, players, referees, the rules -- it is, in short an absolutely fundamental issue. It goes to the very core of what sort of game we want soccer to be.
Yet this is precisely the sort of almost philosophical issue that the sport seems afraid of dealing with. One possible reason why the Task Force was not taken too seriously is because its activities could be seen as merely duplicating those of another already-existing FIFA group -- the FIFA Football Committee. This has as its duty to “deal with general issues of soccer, but primarily with its structure ...” An ambiguous statement, which might mean merely administrative matters. But I think not.
The composition of the committee follows the standard FIFA formula for European dominance (its chairman is Michel Platini of France, and 8 of its 24 other members are Europeans), but over half its members are ex-players or coaches, strongly suggesting that matters on the field are the prime concern.
But even this group -- which is a standing committee (one which includes both Beckenbauer and Pele as “special advisors”) -- has failed to come up with anything particularly helpful. Platini’s pet notion of extra officials has not met with widespread acceptance and anyway would seem to be on the point of being erased by the acceptance of GLT.
But neither the dissolution of the Task Force nor the torpor of the Football Committee should spell the end of attempts to effect needed and meaningful changes in soccer. A new type of committee is needed, one that will be taken seriously, one with real authority, a smaller committee with members carefully chosen as soccer people who can think and act wisely on the future of the game. It must be a full-time committee, with competent supporting staff. I believe that such a committee should replace the anachronism known as the International Football Association Board, with its ludicrous guaranteed membership for Northern Ireland and Wales, and its leisurely twice-a-year meetings.