FIFA Loses the American Market

Remember the Hand of Henry? You do if you’re Irish. That refers to the blatant handballs committed by star Barcelona striker Thierry Henry, playing last month on the French national team in a World Cup playoff game, that enabled the winning goal to be scored and sent the French to South Africa instead of the Republic of Ireland. These fouls were evident enough to the millions watching the match on TV, but not to the crew of officials actually in charge of the game, and this result which robbed the Irish of their World Cup 2010 participation was allowed to stand.

Now down in the Southern Hemisphere, the French team isn’t doing very well and will probably fly home after only the three games of the tournament’s first round, but that is not the point. The point is rather the continued refusal by FIFA officials (i.e. from the international football organization in charge of the World Cup) to install any sort of modern technology (e.g. televised replay review) to ensure that officiating travesties like what happened to the Irish can never happen again. This only ensures, of course, that such a thing will happen again, at least one more time, and this during that organization’s signature event that draws the sustained attention of billions of spectators from all over the world – a substantial portion of whom tune in to cheer on their own nation’s team.

Sure enough, another such travesty has come along on cue, namely the denial yesterday to the United States team of a perfectly-valid third goal which would have capped a tremendous rally from a 2-0 deficit by half-time with a glorious win. Instead, the US team earned a 2-2 draw, which gave them a mere one point towards advancing further in the tournament rather than the full three to which the victory they deserved would have entitled them.

Any assertion that the Americans just didn’t deserve to win anyway, having put themselves in that 2-0 hole in the first half – even when put forward by a renowned sports journalist writing in that nation’s “newspaper of record” – is simply silly, perhaps even evidence of a tendency towards rationalization bordering on the psychotic: it was a perfectly-good goal, and neither the referee nor any other FIFA official has yet to offer any reason why it was disallowed. Little more attention is likewise due to claims that the free-kick from which the disallowed goal resulted was itself illegitimate: that is far more a matter of legitimate contention either way and, in any case, it is naturally much more important to get goal/no goal decisions right, since they’re the ones which – as here – can by themselves make a two-point difference (or even worse; see below) in a team’s tournament standing.

Perhaps the American team will be able to advance into the next round anyway. But already FIFA officials will have harvested one serious, undesired result from their blindness to the necessity of bringing in modern technology: loss of the American market. As with each of the other World Cup tournaments involving the American team, the inevitable articles have proliferated about why North American has continually been relatively immune to the appeal of “soccer” as a mass spectator sport. Nothing ever really happens on the field, supposedly; the referee keeps how much time is really left a secret; Americans like sports where they can use their hands; and so on. As of yesterday an additional and rather more serious objection to the sport can be added: that’s the game where they can’t get the decisions right, where there is absolutely nothing to prevent a team from being blatantly robbed of a dramatic come-from-behind victory. It just amounts to a bunch of athletes running around on a field involved in a crap-shoot, something completely subject to chance or a referee’s particular whim – the hell with it! And thus do prospects of enlisting the enormous population/income/marketing potential of that part of the globe in support of this “world game” become remoter than ever.

Who’s Next To Be Robbed?

Note also that at this point the World Cup tournament is still in its early stages. Another such miscarriage of football-justice can hardly be ruled out, and in exactly a week the playoff stage will start where in each game the loser goes immediately home, making the effects of any such refereeing mistake all the more irretrievable. So which will be the next country – after Ireland, after the USA (if they turn out not to qualify through the group stage) – to watch its footballing hopes and dreams betrayed as its national team unjustly loses a game under controversial circumstances? And just how much consternation among national fans and vituperation against FIFA officials does there have to be before the latter finally see the light and start making use of available 21st-century technology which can (wholly, or at least in part) make this sort of agonizing controversy a thing of the past?

There is also another, more insidious angle to what happened at last evening’s USA vs. Slovenia football match. The official in charge was Koman Coulibaly of Mali, supposedly a veteran international referee with particular experience at the biennial African Cup of Nations tournament, but clearly only present in the ranks of officials available to run games at this World Cup due to a sort of affirmative action-type policy which prefers summoning single referees from a wide range of all the world’s football leagues to tapping multiple officials from the top leagues (e.g. England, France, Spain) where the football is at its most serious. In any case, one would have to expect that referees’ pay at the “less serious” leagues – where one has to include those based in Africa – lags significantly behind. Consider this in connection with speculation that arose prior to the World Cup over the possible “fixing” of games to further the interests of powerful (often Asian-based) gambling syndicates – and the possible motives behind Coulibaly’s otherwise inexplicable (and so far unexplained) decision to deny the US team that winning goal become quite ugly indeed.

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