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The shady underside of the world's favourite game

Publication Date : 15-06-2014


By the time you read this, the four-year wait will finally be over for tens of millions of soccer fans worldwide with the 2014 World Cup kicking off to great fanfare in Brazil.

The one-month international soccer tournament is one of the most popular sporting events in the world, with key matches such as the final attracting hundreds of millions of viewers. It rivals the Summer Olympics in terms of viewership, which is quite a feat considering that only 32 nations take part in the tournament and the world's two most populous countries (China and India) are not among them, most of the time.

The World Cup's success as an international brand is all the more evident in nations with less of a soccer culture, such as Taiwan. While the nation's sports fans regard baseball as the “national ballgame” and closely follow basketball games in the US, every four years a substantial number of them will rediscover their soccer spirit and join the global party. People sacrifice sleep to watch live broadcasts of players mostly only recently known to them playing a game they are unfamiliar with in stadiums half a world away. Come the World Cup and Taiwan's “one day fans and pundits” (who seem to acquire a passion and knowledge of soccer overnight) pop up like mushrooms, explaining the complex science of the offside rule to the uninitiated.

The success of the World Cup comes almost despite, rather than because of, the supervision of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Described by the Financial Times as “a governance disaster that is also one of the most successful multinational enterprises on earth,” FIFA is widely criticised for its cronyism and its failure to bring changes. Despite the extraordinary importance of goals in soccer games (because there are so few of them), the ruling body only introduced goal-line technology in this World Cup. The technology, which uses sensors to aid referees in deciding whether a ball crosses the goal line, came years after the tennis grand-slam tournament the Australian Open first used the “Hawk-eye” technology in challenges to line calls. It also came after numerous calls over controversial non-goals in previous world cups, including the famous mistaken ruling out of an England goal against Germany in the 2010 World Cup. FIFA later apologised to the defeated England for disallowing the goal, which would have leveled the score at 2-2.

FIFA's reluctance to embrace technology not only increases the odds of human errors, but also the possibility of unlawful interference. The New York Times recently reported that a Singaporean match-rigging syndicate manipulated professional matches and World Cup exhibition games to give themselves an edge in the US$1 trillion illegal gambling market in Asia, in part by buying off referees.

The more explosive expose, however, comes from the troves of classified documents recently leaked to the Sunday Times of London alleging a multimillion US dollar campaign that helped Qatar buy the support of vote-holding FIFA members in its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. The documents showed that FIFA's former vice president Mohammed bin Hammam held luxurious junkets and transferred millions of dollars to key voters' organisations or even their personal bank accounts. While Qatar denied the connection with bin Hammam, who was the chairman of Qatar Football Association and was banned for life from all FIFA related activities in 2012, the nation did not refute the backroom politics orchestrated by him. While FIFA also criticises the British press reports on the Qatar World Cup scandal (London lost in the 2022 bid), its president, Sepp Blatter, has admitted that it was a “mistake” to pick the super-hot Middle East nation as host.

The focus on FIFA's problematic governance and the possible rerun of the 2022 World Cup host pick, compounded by the protests that even now are raging on the streets of Brazil against the US$11 billion spent on stadiums instead of funding public projects, are presenting a substantial challenge to the image of the World Cup as a global festival. All may still be well after the tournament kicks off today, but that's no longer a guarantee.

FIFA does not hold a monopoly on cronyism and incompetent administration. Athletes, supporters and even the sports events themselves are to suffer if sports organisations continue to ride on people's passion and allow their shabby performances to go on.


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