Cheating and violence win top games -- does FIFA even care?

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 expect FIFA 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) still make 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 allowed to 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.
20 comments about "Cheating and violence win top games -- does FIFA even care?".
  1. Kevin Kelly, July 26, 2014 at 2:12 p.m.

    Now you think Neuer jumped into Higuains back? It's like you're watching a different video than everyone else. Higuain was always going to get to the ball later and simply had to stop. They were both running at full speed when they collided nobody was standing still.

  2. Jogo Bonito, July 26, 2014 at 2:25 p.m.

    Neurer, who I believe is the best goalkeeper in the world, clearly came too far off his line. He may even have handled the ball. I feel that he clearly fouled Higuain and got away with it. I think GKs should be somewhat protected inside the six-yard goal area, but when they venture out further the benefit of the doubt should turn towards the attacking team. Goalkeepers already have a HUGE advantage that they can use their hands. They do need any help from referees. With the Europa Cup penalties, Beto made a couple of great saves, but he clearly cheated way more than should be allowed. I know all GKs "cheat" a little on PKs, but Beto moved off his line defiantly early and both saves should not have counted. Gutless refereeing in both of these examples I'd say.

  3. John M Cote, July 26, 2014 at 2:29 p.m.

    Neuer got away with a clear foul. Congratulations to Germany for a great World Cup competition, but Neuer should have been sent off.

  4. Richard Broad, July 26, 2014 at 3:10 p.m.

    It's called GOALKEEPING (not cheating).

  5. Wayne Root, July 26, 2014 at 3:11 p.m.

    FIFA is a grand gathering of crooks. Expect no more moral behavior than what a crook can deal out.

  6. R2 Dad, July 26, 2014 at 3:15 p.m.

    Just watched the Europa shootout and don't see what is SO egregious from the keeper. I saw one instance where the keeper came out with two stutter steps and there should have been a retake. Having those extra ARs around the goal might not help in shootout situations where there are too many chefs. Certainly the Neuer Higuain impact had a lot more to it re laws of the game, refereeing standards, potential player injury. Correct about FIFA transparency, and the lack thereof. FIFA wouldn't even know where to start when making their decisions Transparent. The only way FIFA will really change is if the top 20 clubs band together and refuse to release their players for international duty until actual changes are made. The FAs can't/won't do anything.

  7. Allan Lindh, July 26, 2014 at 4:43 p.m.

    For once Mr. Gardner understates the issue -- FIFA is much worse than he portrays. Too corrupt, too incompetent to be repaired. Only one solution, Michel Platini and UEFA break away from FIFA, and invite the rest of the world to join them in the World Football Association. Schedule an alternate Earth Cup in 2018, and see who joins them. My guess is that North America and Australia join immediately, and when Argentina finally joins, the dam will break, and almost everyone will join. Football needs a fresh start, the current structure is rotten at the core.

  8. Lou vulovich, July 26, 2014 at 8:04 p.m.

    It was not as bad as Harold Schumacher's tackle
    1982 tackle, but it was clearly a yellow card and PK.
    The real question for me is how are the quarter
    Finals, semi finals and finals scheduled. Argentina played semi final one day after Germany's semi final. If that is not tipping the scale nothing is.
    Certainly the refereeing gets worse all the
    time( Neymar) tackle. FIFA promotes goon soccer
    and the biggest culprit is EPL all call for Luis Suarez head for biting but when players deliberately injure another player seriously often
    there is nothing more then one or two game suspension.

  9. Kent James, July 26, 2014 at 10:49 p.m.

    PG is right about the uselessness of FIFA, and maybe Allan's solution would work (though I thought I heard that Platini had some corruption issues?). But the examples he used to demonstrate FIFA's uselessness are not good ones; first, I did not see the Europa Cup final, so I won't contest that the keeper came off the line, but the problem there is not that the keeper came off the line, it is that THE FINAL WAS DECIDED BY PENALTY KICKS. Penalty kicks are worse than a flip of the coin, because the winner is usually determined when someone makes a mistake (combined with a lucky guess on the part of the keeper), so you have a travesty in which a player, who might have played a great game for two hours at the highest level "loses" the game for his team because the keeper guessed right, and stopped the shot he was supposed to score. That's just wrong. WIth regards to the Neuer v Higuain collision, at the very least, PG must recognize that this was not an obvious mistake, but rather a controversial call (with many people firmly holding opposite sides). Although I wanted Argentina to win, I think the ref got it mostly right (it should have been no foul). Essentially you have two players going at top speed whose paths cross, but Neuer got there first and got the ball (he did NOT go through Higuain to get it). I initially thought what Jogo mentioned; that Neuer handled the ball outside the box, but while the angles on TV were not ideal, I think Neuer touched the ball inside the box (but it was very close). But again, for PG's point, imagine what would have happened had the ref ejected Neuer, awarded a penalty, and Argentina won. Given the controversial nature of the play, I guarantee half the world (many of whom speak German) would eviscerate FIFA for fixing the world cup final. Unless a ref is sure, it is better not to make the call; and given that even with instant replay and six angles and all the time in the world, opinions are still split, it is understandable (and appropriate) that the ref did not give a red card and a PK.

  10. Gus Keri, July 26, 2014 at 10:56 p.m.

    Not again! This topic has been covered extensively here before. is it a foul or not? Was Higuain standing or moving? Should Neuer have been sent off? Why bring up the subject again, Paul? Are you trying to get more hits than in the previous post?

  11. beautiful game, July 26, 2014 at 11:24 p.m.

    Kevin K., So u think Higuain was watching Neuer and should have stopped. U are either blind, delusional, or something a bit more serious. Neuer acted in a violent manner period.

  12. G O, July 26, 2014 at 11:30 p.m.

    Let's use a very easy penalties decider situation to illustrate the emptiness of FIFA Fair Play in practice. FIFA emphasizes it indeed in theory, but not in actuality. The penalties between the Dutch and the Ticos of Costa Rica. The newly subbed in GK Tim Krul of Newcastle's behavior with nearly all of the Costa Ricans is completely unacceptable. I do not believe that the cameras showed one time where the match official stepped in to stop, warn, and card (he should have been instantly yellowed on the first infraction) That was glaring unsportsmanlike conduct.

  13. G O, July 28, 2014 at 11:44 a.m.

    I am always amazed that a good discussion here has a shelf life of just about not even 48-72 hours after posting/publication to this webpage. In this case, all comments made within 24 hrs. and nothing since. Amazing. To the point of the article: Actually FIFA, UEFA and all of them need to be hammered over and over for the folly and hypocrisy of "Fair Play" patches mandatory on the team jersey's shoulder - yet what we get in easy to see match situations is anything but. The foul on Neymar for example by the Chilean. Should have been a red card send off. Not because the foul is against Neymar, but for the brutality of it, the location of his body struck with intent/force, and it was/is "from behind." Expulsion not because it resulted in a player needing to quit the game in injury, simply because in that split second moment that was a tackle that had nothing to do with "Fair Play," sportsmanship, and this ubiquitously overused (with zero meaning) "Respect" which is also found on FIFA and UEFA patches and pages of official literature. The modern game is a farce. Any team can with purpose, with forethought, methodically foul and abuse the Laws of the Game to gain advantage for 90 minutes, week in, week out - with very little ever done of consequence to eradicate what kills the modern game. How many quickly taken freekicks in the final third of the field did we see at this last World Cup? Never possible because an opposing player or several linger forever right near the ball. Match official does nothing.... People lament that Brazil no longer plays the Joga Bonita, that we no longer ever see a Zico, Socrates, Junior, Paulo Roberto Falcao, a Denilson, a Ronaldinho, a Bebeto. How about a Jorge Campos or Rene Hiquita? Not possible. After all: Who can play the Beautiful Game anymore?

  14. RAMON ZAPATA, July 28, 2014 at 1:37 p.m.

    Thing happen during a game, during extra time, during penalty kicks...if Benfica didn't protest it's because soccer fans ubderstand this and there's nothing worse than a referee whistling all the time. In the very core of soccer there is always the strength a team must have to overcome referee calls which we understand are prone to mistake...that's why there is no respect for referee calls against your team if you're in the stands,we have to pressure him to make those mistakes or to refrain from making some calls...the tactic of teams like Argentina of protesting all calls just makes everybody else shrug....we just like the game to go on....and if you think that was a foul of Neuer you were just being another lost Argentinian fan...

  15. ROBERT BOND, July 28, 2014 at 2:40 p.m.

    always made a point of not getting in the path of bigger folks who had about playing the World Cup in a nation of lying murderers? Because it will make them better people? Like the '36 olympics reformed Hitler?

  16. beautiful game, July 28, 2014 at 5:20 p.m.

    Robert Bond, kudos; and WC 2018 in Russi$.

  17. John Parkyn, July 28, 2014 at 6:19 p.m.

    The Beautiful Game?

    The World Cup is over, and, yes, there were innumerable displays of skill and athleticism; there were some wonderful matches, some great goals, some surprises, and some glimpses of sportsmanship, but the blight remains. It may even be getting worse.

    Whether it’s obstructing, grabbing, charging, pushing, pulling, punching, tripping, kicking, stomping, scratching, elbowing, being deceitful, pleading innocence and berating officials when clearly guilty, the so-called “beautiful game” is sullied.

    Of course the players themselves are to blame, but so too are coaches, referees and FIFA, soccer’s governing body. FIFA may not encourage brutality and dishonesty, but it tolerates brutality and dishonesty. Its direction to referees appears to be: Keep the game going no matter what; fair play be damned.

    If FIFA really wanted to, it could clean up the game. It could insist that referees enforce the rules and expel players who wish to harm others or bring the game into disrepute.

    So what if a team is down to seven or eight players; those involved would soon learn to toe the line.

    Offenders should not get away with their foul deeds. Just as goal-line technology was inevitable, so too is video replay. Bring it on, and let punishment be immediate. And no, I’m not suggesting video replay of niggling offences.

    By tolerating the intolerable, FIFA and its referee agents are complicit in the deterioration of the world's most popular sport … A sport that could be beautiful.

    I acknowledge that FIFA meted out punishment after the Suarez biting incident, but this time, with the gaze of the world focused on it, the governing body could not turn a blind eye.

  18. John Parkyn, July 30, 2014 at 8:45 p.m.

    Surely there is a relationship between the degradation of fair play at the top level and physical assault of referees this lower level:

    Until such time as FIFA really lays the law down, refs are endangered.

  19. John Parkyn, August 3, 2014 at 7:33 p.m.

    Criticism of FIFA from Gary Lineker:

  20. Andrzej Kowalski, August 13, 2014 at 6:42 p.m.

    Referees are always on side of big influential federations,because if referee is against big federation than the big federation can block future refering assignments for such a referee,or it may reword a referee if referee does what they want. I would like to know how German federation reworded referee that in WC 2002 US-Germany did not see when German player Prinz stopped ball with palm of his hand on goal line.

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