Controversies on the pitch tarnish "the beautiful game" - which is just how the governing body likes it
The world has changed!” proclaimed a Thai football commentator, seeming to sum up the first week of the World Cup in Brazil. He was referring to impressive performances by the likes of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Australia, Chile and Croatia. Some of the underdogs might not have seen the results go their way, but the commentator joined millions of fans in realising that the game’s usual victors no longer hold a rigid monopoly.
Make no mistake: Brazil, Germany, Holland and Argentina are still the main contenders for the globe’s most cherished sporting trophy. But the era of giants versus minnows might be coming to an end. Brazil needed a controversial penalty to see off Croatia, Ecuador lost heartbreakingly to Switzerland, and Costa Rica became the tournament’s first giant-slayer by beating Uruguay fair and square. Last but not least, who would have thought Chile would put Spain to the sword and send the reigning champions home early?
You can no longer predict the results by looking at the countries’ names, the commentator said. That is absolutely true. Globalisation has transformed “the beautiful game” into something that the underdogs can also play beautifully. Unfamiliar names are standing shoulder to shoulder with the planet’s most popular players. The insanity of club football means their “prices” and pay still vary enormously, but the same cannot be said about their ability and passion.
But, while the world has changed when it comes to playing football, has the game’s governing body changed much when it comes to the refereeing? A lot of fuss has been made about goal-line technology, which is being used for the first time in Brazil. It’s better than nothing, but we are left wondering whether Fifa should have gone much further. The controversies that litter each and every game go way beyond questions of whether the ball has crossed the goal line, but Fifa has avoided them like the plague.
With the help of a TV replay, Croatia might not have conceded that crucial penalty to Brazil. Meanwhile we have already seen several mistaken offside calls. And the tournament has barely entered its second week.
Fifa is counting on what it perceives as the football world’s short memory. If Brazil go ahead and win the Cup, few, if any, will remember that undeserved penalty in their very first match.
Bad refereeing has long been a hallmark of football, largely thanks to Fifa’s inexplicable insistence that they make the game more attractive. That’s what lies behind Fifa’s long-standing refusal to allow video replays as a refereeing aid, although its official stance is that delays caused by video scrutiny would take some of the fun out of the game. The truth is that Fifa loves controversies – it’s as simple as that. The more fans fighting over poor calls, the more football makes headlines, and the more “popular” it becomes.
The funny thing is that both Fifa’s official stance and the real reason for rejecting video replays are easily disputed. It takes just seconds to find out if a player is offside, deserves a red card or has in fact fouled an opponent in the penalty box. On the “controversies making the game more attractive” theory, that’s just Fifa’s own thinking.
No game is popular because it’s unfair. In other words, football is popular in spite of the controversies, not because of them. But what is clear to everybody else has always escaped Fifa. The governing body’s crackdown on players’ habitual cheating – which in itself stems from Fifa’s obstinacy – is therefore one of the most ironic things in the world of sport.
The football world has changed, they say. In spite of Fifa, some may add.