Delusions of Grandeur at FIFA

Loyalty might seem to be an unarguably honorable trait, but like most examples of moral behavior, it turns out to be a relative concept. There is loyalty to good people and causes, and loyalty to bad people and causes. And it may not always be easy to work out which are the good guys, and which the bad. Actually, it's never easy, because they're changing all the time.

Loyalty, you see, can be taken too far. But at what point, I wonder, does honorable allegiance to an idea or a person turn into pig-headed pursuit of a lost cause?

What I have in mind here is the ongoing attempt by soccer's bigwigs -- I mean primarily FIFA, but UEFA have now joined the proceedings -- to convince the non-soccer world that the sport of soccer is not a business, but a sport. Further, that there is such a vast difference between the two activities, that soccer should be granted exemption from the laws that apply to businesses.

The laws in question are those of the European Union, laws that are designed to ensure fair practice in business transactions, and to outlaw -- as far as possible -- discrimination of various types.

For some time now FIFA -- led with increasing desperation by its President Sepp Blatter -- has been trying to breach these EU laws, because they allow the very thing that FIFA wants to ban, or at least to limit: the indiscriminate signing of foreign players by club teams.

OK, so these laws apply only in Europe. But that's more than enough, for Europe is the center of world soccer, it's where all the world's best players end up. In effect, if FIFA's regulations break down in Europe, then they break down everywhere else.

The heart of the matter is the EU law that permits free movement of labor. Any worker from any EU country is allowed -- has the right -- to seek employment in any other EU country. He cannot be barred from a job on the basis of his nationality. That's one of the laws that you have to obey if you want to run a business in Europe. And soccer players are classified as workers.

FIFA does not want its European clubs (which includes all of the world's richest and strongest) to be bound by this law. Reason: the law is seen as a threat to soccer's national teams -- the very teams, without which, there would be no World Cup. And the World Cup is FIFA's big event, the money-spinner that finances all the other activities.

Blatter has been insisting for years now that soccer should be exempt from the EU laws as a "special case." He has asked, is still asking, that soccer should not be viewed as a business. He has met, so far, with an icily cold response from the EU, which has said, and which continues to say, that soccer is indeed a business and it must obey the law, like everyone else.

Blatter has his plan, the famous "6+5," meaning that all clubs must field a minimum of six home nationals, and no more than five foreigners. This is something that the EU has said, quite clearly, it will not countenance. But Blatter persists. In May he got overwhelming backing for the scheme from FIFA's congress (the vote was 155-5) ... and on Friday it was again presented to the EU. And, yet again, the EU made it clear that it was a non-starter. The rejection was sugar-coated, for sure, it talked about encouraging "the teams of professional clubs in each country to develop the presence of athletes capable of qualifying for national teams, in compliance with EU law ..." But it was still a No.

The "6+5" is a reasonable solution. The problem is that it can only be made to work if soccer manages to get its exemption from EU commercial laws -- at which point "6+5" becomes totally unreasonable.

Certainly soccer as played by 95 percent of its players, as organized by 95 percent of its clubs, and so on, throughout the world, is hardly a business. A recreation, peopled by volunteers and unpaid players. But the top pro level -- the level which is directly concerned with all this maneuvering, the level that employs and pays, handsomely, the players who compose the national teams ... are we seriously expected to believe that is not a business? Does FIFA, does Blatter, really expect the worldly EU politicians, confronted with billionaire owners and millionaire players and multi-million dollar transfer deals and super-budget global marketing campaigns, to not recognize big business when it sees it?

The idea is unreal, born of a president and an organization that has lost touch with the real world. FIFA has an ostensibly sensible regulation that forbids "political interference" in the sport. In fact, it is another example of unreality, leading FIFA into head-on collisions with national governments in which FIFA seeks to dictate terms! The most recent example came last month when the Polish government removed the chief officers of the Polish soccer federation, alleging they were corrupt. FIFA, backed by UEFA, stepped in and told the Polish government it had no right to do that (in its own country, no less!) And that Poland would be suspended from international soccer unless the officers were reinstated.

A compromise was arranged, but the assumption of super-national power by FIFA and UEFA is quite breathtaking: "We cannot allow sports administrators to be replaced the following day by politicians at the whim of a government," said UEFA's William Galleried.

If FIFA wants to keep politics out of sport, it might offer the quid pro quo that FIFA will stay out of politics. And that it will stop trying to float the delusion that soccer is not a business. Anyway, is that delusion really necessary? Is there any solid proof that allowing clubs total freedom in signing foreign players has any damaging effect on national teams?

Consider two countries whose clubs are bristling with foreign players, Italy and Spain. The current world and European champions. Nothing there to suggest the free movement of players -- whatever may be its other drawbacks -- weakens national teams.

1 comment about "Delusions of Grandeur at FIFA".
  1. Gus Keri, December 1, 2008 at 11:06 a.m.

    It's "country vs. club" conflict all over again. It's the split personality of the international soccer.
    Although FIFA and UEFA competitions generate a lot of money, the majority of it goes to the sport itself by helping the country of all the world. It's kind of non-for-profit organizations. soccer in these terms is a sport.
    On the pther hand, the club soccer is a business, no doubt about it. The moguls of the world buying into the clubs for the sole purpose of making money for their own pockets. Many players will leave their own clubs, which helped shape their professions, only to make more money.
    FIFA will win this war only if they could stop the clubs from turning into such a money spinning machine and go back to the basics of playing soccer for the joyment of the masses.

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