FIFA doctor's views deserve more attention

By Paul Gardner

I feel pretty sure that I have never met a rights protection expert, and that I would not recognize one anyway. But I could be wrong. FIFA seems very eager to tell me, and everyone involved in soccer, just how important these guys (and presumably gals) are.

So it could be that, quite unaware of the fact, I bumped into any number of RPEs at the last World Cup, in Germany. Seems they were everywhere -- "pounding the streets of the host country" to quote the official FIFA World. There'll be an army of them too in South Africa, it seems, doing more street pounding, all in the fight against ambush marketing.

I'm bored already with this stuff, but FIFA says I shouldn't be because without its Rights Protection Program (RPP) all sorts of cowboy operators would be selling replica and knockoff stuff, cutting into the profits of genuine FIFA sponsors therefore making sponsors harder to find and therefore possibly reducing FIFA's income and its ability to finance its many tournaments and social programs.

Which is all no doubt true. I'm still bored by the whole thing. But FIFA insists on circulating stories about it -- and I can only assume the audience they're aimed at is the sponsors themselves, an assurance to them that FIFA is out there actively protecting their rights.

I mean who else would want to read this stuff? Just last week a story appeared on the FIFA website -- this time involving FIFA's Legal Affairs Division which, we're told, is working closely with New Scotland Yard (no mention of Sherlock Holmes, though) in its battle against the sale of counterfeit tickets. If you struggle through the article, what comes through loud and clear at the end of it is that you should only buy your tickets directly from FIFA-approved tour operators.

No one knows if security is going to be a problem in South Africa, but things should be OK on the rights protection front. At the recent Confederations Cup, considered a dry-run for the World Cup, FIFA World informs us that "Working together with legal advisers, volunteer patrollers, host city representatives and South African police officers, the RPP venue managers maintained a constant presence around the stadiums and Commercial Restriction Zones (eh?) ..."

Great success is recorded, with the police being "able to snatch bag-loads of counterfeit goods." Also thwarted was an attempt by a "South African beer brand" that was handing out its own T-shirts to fans, and this is considered extremely serious, because "it attempts to turn large numbers of fans into human billboards" inside the stadium. That is prevented by the RPP police confiscating the shirts, which gets people annoyed, and gets FIFA a bad name.

Then there's FIFA's Commercial Legal Department ... but enough of this. Just be satisfied that the sponsors, the ones who ask you to pay through the nose for anything from a key ring to a package tour, are being protected.

Around the same time that FIFA's rights protection story went up on its website, another FIFA-oriented article appeared. A rather different sort of article.

This one was from a news agency, not from FIFA, and actually had to do with the game itself. It contained what I rate as one of the most important statements about soccer made for years. It came from the head of FIFA's medical department, Dr. Michel D'Hooghe. This was not about protecting commercial rights, but about protecting players.

"We see more violent fouls over the whole world," said D'Hooghe, "Some of the fouls send shivers down your spine."

D'Hooghe's message was meant for his bosses at FIFA, for players ... and for coaches: "... I question the role of some of the coaches. In what frame of mind do they send their players on to the field?"

Plus a pointed criticism of game officials: "The referees have the key. They are the only ones who can impose an immediate sanction. They do not do it often enough and there is a lack of uniformity."

This is a message that should have come, years ago, from FIFA itself, or from its referees committee, or from IFAB -- or even from the coaches. But all of those groups have abdicated their responsibility to the game, none of them has spoken out. So we have to wait as the injuries mount and get more serious, until it's the head of the medical department who feels obliged to demand a halt to the carnage.

Well, better from Dr. D'Hooghe than from no one, and better late than never. Readers of this column will know that I have for some time now been inveighing against FIFA's obsession with diving when it should be trying to stamp out thuggery. I have now been joined by none other than FIFA President Sepp Blatter who -- prompted no doubt by D'Hooghe's remarks -- said earlier this week that diving is "not so terrible that we should intervene after a match. The disciplinary committee should not intervene on that. They should intervene on violent play."

We shall see how far Blatter -- a well-known band-wagon hopper -- takes his new-found enthusiasm. However that turns out, there's surely something amiss with FIFA's Image Protection Department (assuming it has one) when it generates basically boring stories about its intellectual property rights, while its president refers to a crucial sporting matter like violent play almost as an aside.


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