By Paul Gardner
One's patience with FIFA begins to run out. By which I mean, of course, my patience.
I, along with most of the soccer world, have been watching FIFA’s contortions for over a decade now, as it attempts to convince the world that it is an organization of pristine honesty and unassailable incorruptibility.
I fear those efforts have not been totally successful. A certain amount of cynicism -- quite a large amount, actually -- always seems to hover over any conversation about FIFA these days. Almost as though people now expectFIFA to harbor plenty of soccer honchos who are simply on the make.
Realistically -- we’ve been hearing about the house-cleaning at FIFA for quite a while now -- certainly for more than decade -- for so long, in fact, that the shining new word that was supposed to herald a new era, has by now been almost forgotten. A reminder: That word was “transparency.”
We do, though, hear plenty about FIFA President Sepp Blatter sending messages to the Pope, we see plenty of pictures of Blatter with heads of state, we read of Blatter’s FIFA feeling that, in Nigeria, its own regulations should command more respect than the decisions of Nigeria’s democratically elected government.
What can be said, somewhat optimistically, about all that, is that the problems of financial skulduggery and influence peddling and vote-buying are being openly discussed. Special committees -- they are apparently independent bodies -- have been appointed to investigate. Maybe even to punish the guilty, if they can be identified. There is even the possibility, we are led to believe, that FIFA might be ready to backtrack and rethink any decisions that can be proved to have been the result of corrupted judgments.
For sure, there’s plenty there to fray one’s patience with FIFA. Even so, none of that is what really has me at my wit’s end when considering FIFA. Because none of malfeasances and misfeasances mentioned above, important and even crucial as they are, has anything to do -- directly -- with sport of soccer as played on the field.
The brutal truth is that FIFA has virtually abdicated all responsibility for safeguarding the integrity of the sport itself. There is simply nothing in FIFA’s structure that has the duty of ensuring that the sport, while moving with the times, does not lose the essential values that give it its character, its personality, its uniqueness.
Not a committee, not an expert panel, not an advisory board, not even a single person. Nothing. The notion that the International Football Association Board is the “guardian of the game” is a feeble fiction, and a damaging one, at that. The IFAB is a turgid, lopsidedly British body that meets twice a year. Twice a year! for the world’s most widely played sport. And at only one of those meetings can the IFAB introduce rule changes.
The IFAB is a hopeless anachronism. It was set up in England in 1883, designed to produce an agreed set of rules that could be used internationally -- which meant by England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Incredibly, those four “countries” (of which only one, England, can even come close to any claim of world importance in the sport) stillmake up 50% of the IFAB’s voting members.
This is the body that FIFA hails as “the eternal guardian of the laws.” It sounds pompous, and it is -- but it is also the truth. The IFAB is concerned only with the rules. It protects the rules, not the game.
The two aims, though closely related, are not the same thing. Focusing on the rules alone produces a narrow-minded, miserly view of the sport that puts words and their definition ahead of the sport itself. Often ahead of common sense. We end up with strict interpretations of the rules that are likely to permit actions that should clearly be punished, while penalizing other actions that should be overlooked.
These distortions of the game happen all the time. But it is nobody’s “job” to draw attention to them, to conduct enquiries, to make recommendations -- or even to take action. We have had, this year, two glaring examples of serious on-the-field problems in the sport. Problems relating to the way that the game is currently being played.
Both incidents occurred at the very highest level. In May, we saw Sevilla win -- being allowedto win -- the Europa League as the direct result of blatant cheating by its goalkeeper in the shootout.
Yet no one reacted. Even Benfica, the victims, kept quiet. And Felix Brych, the German referee who had presided over this travesty, was soon on his way to Brazil to officiate in the World Cup. So FIFA, and the IFAB, and UEFA all found it acceptable that one of the sport’s major trophies should be awarded to a team that indulged in massive cheating.
Just two weeks ago came a second clattering example of the way the sport fails to apply its own principles. This one came at the very top -- during the Germany-Argentina World Cup final. Referee Nicola Rizzoli’s 56th minute call of the clash between German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and Argentine Gonzalo Higuain has to be the worst I’ve ever seen at the top level.
Neuer, at full speed, leaping into the back of Higuain, and smashing his knee into Higuain’s head -- and that ends up, by Rizzoli’s reckoning, as a free kick to Germany?
This time, who knows what would have happened had the more obviously correct call been made: Red card to Neuer, penalty to Argentina.
But the wider point is that, in both incidents, the sport -- which means those FIFA/IFAB biggies -- is perfectly willing to accept the tainted result. No complaints, no inquests, no unfrocking of referees -- something that was certainly warranted in both these incidents.
There has to be something deeply wrong with a sport that will allow its top games to be decided by open cheating, a sport that refuses to recognize that its own referees made vital errors.
Worse, a sport that is content to blunder along while paying virtually no attention to negative developments that have a pernicious influence on the sport. Without ever having any serious discussion about the direction the sport should be taking.
Yes, my patience is running out. Now I begin to despair as I see a sport that happily permits cheating and violence to play key roles in its most important games.