By Paul Gardner
You never really hear much from the guys at FIFA. I don't mean President Sepp Blatter -- we hear from him all the time. But the other top guys -- like the
members of the Executive Committee -- don't they ever have anything original, or even faintly controversial to say?
Not too often. Last year, Concacaf's Chuck Blazer raised a few eyebrows
when he publicly disagreed with Blatter -- because disagreeing with Blatter is a rare occurrence. That is the way it is with FIFA Presidents these days. The tone was set by Blatter's predecessor, Joao
Havelange, who ruled with an iron fist and a withering glance, and woe betide anyone who got in the path of either of those attributes.
Blatter works rather differently. His demeanor is
less intimidating -- but every bit as powerful and coercive as Havelange's. What Blatter wants, Blatter will get. The head of FIFA these days is truly all-powerful.
A situation that is
bound to encourage sycophancy. Mirroring the President's views becomes the name of the game for those who surround Blatter -- not only the ExCo, but the paid staff members who run FIFA
operations in Zurich.
And agreeing with Blatter must be a mighty difficult undertaking, because Blatter is a man given to sudden dizzying changes of mind.
Those who keep
track of Blatter as he dashes around visiting the world's capital cities, will have noticed how his speeches -- lately they've been about who should host future World Cups -- bend in the political
breeze. When he's in London, then England should get the World Cup; when he visits Australia, why the Aussies, surely, deserve the World Cup; when it's Moscow, then Blatter has "an affinity" for their
World Cup bid. And so it goes.
But there's always been one safe bet. For years now, it has been safe to assume that one sure way to please Blatter is to affirm that video replays are the
worst possible thing that could ever happen to soccer, and that they will never, ever, be permitted to besmirch the game. Blatter had made this very clear, repeatedly, and heatedly. For instance: *
June 27, 2002: Speaking three days before the World Cup final in Yokohama, Blatter assured everyone that "As long as I am president, I will make sure that no technical
help will be introduced in refereeing ... to introduce technical items -- no. This will destroy an essential element of our game -- the emotion." *
April 27, 2004: During
a visit to Berlin, Blatter imposed a lifetime ban on video replays: "As long as I live there will be no technical help." *
Feb. 12, 2005: During a workshop for World Cup
referees in Frankfurt, Blatter again said no: "As long as I am FIFA president, there will be no video evidence." *
Dec.17, 2009: Only just over a month ago, Blatter --
sounding somewhat embattled -- announced that "Referees shall remain human, and we will not have monitors to stop the game to see if we are right or wrong. Please don't insist on this theme."
But the theme will not die down -- particularly not after the notorious Thierry Henry hand-ball incident. And now, this past weekend, Blatter has performed a most violent U-turn, one that must
have left his supporters in some bewilderment. Just listen to what he told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick
about goal-line cameras (with their replays): "I'm not absolutely against it. If
the technology is ready to adopt, then I am in agreement. If the security of the system is guaranteed then we will introduce it."
So all those cries of Never! Never! can now be erased
from the record. Sepp Blatter is now open to video replays.
Yet ... why am I not surprised at this vertiginous rethink? Firstly because, despite Blatter's outcries, he has allowed FIFA
to experiment with various technologies designed to produce a "smart ball" that would send signals to someone, somewhere, whenever it entered the goal. Secondly, because of the aforementioned tendency
of Blatter to shift his positions with great facility. And thirdly because this
position, this mulish, ostrich-like opposition (sorry about the mixed animals there) to video replays has
always been the most stupid and the least defensible of Blatter's peeves.
In March, the International Football Association Board will study the use of goal-line cameras, which would
greatly reduce the possibility of goals being wrongly awarded or denied. The cameras would also, presumably, make incidents like Henry's hand-ball infraction less likely to go unspotted.
Of course it will work. TV companies have been using such cameras for a decade or more, instantly letting the whole world see what the referee has missed. This is what makes Blatter's proviso "if
the technology is ready ..." so ridiculous. The technology has been ready for years.
It won't be perfect, there'll still be the occasional case that defies judgment. But if we wait for
perfection, we'll still be quibbling when doomsday descends upon us.