Hey FIFA, How Low Can You Go? 

On the sinking integrity of soccer's international governing body and why the World Cup will be regarded with suspicion

BOSTON — No matter how offensive you regard the actions of French striker Thierry Henry on the field last week, FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, is deserving of far more scorn and condemnation.

More than just complicit in the spurious goal — created by Henry’s juggling act — that gave the match and a spot in the 2010 World Cup to France over Ireland, FIFA is guilty of grievous neglect of its responsibilities as steward of the world’s most beloved game.

The “Hand of Henry” affair gave lie to FIFA’s ballyhooed “Fair Play” campaign, the one it displays so prominently in posters and banners at every match. At the core of that credo is this noble sentiment: “Winning is without value if victory has been achieved unfairly or dishonestly.”

As it turns out, never mind. FIFA will offer nothing beyond lip service in defense of fair play, throwing up its hands and insisting it is helpless to remedy referee error. Of course, FIFA has an elastic bag of rules when it comes to changing procedures that could bolster its own revenues.

France was only playing Ireland in the first place because FIFA made a late change in procedures for the European playoffs. Ignoring precedent and its earlier stated plans, FIFA seeded the draw, in an effort to boost the glamour teams like France, the ones that attract more viewers and generate more revenues, toward South Africa 2010.

As it turned out, a cheat of a goal deciding a World Cup berth and provoking an international uproar proved to be only the second worst news of the week for FIFA. Two days later, European law enforcement authorities announced the arrest of 17 members of a gambling cartel that had conspired to fix games in nine European countries. Included among 200 games that may have been tainted were some in Europe’s two most prestigious club competitions, the Champions and Europa leagues. News of match fixing should hardly come as a shock to fans—and certainly not to the soccer establishment. In recent years, the sport has endured a number of such scandals, major and minor, around the world. Just three years ago, a German referee was sentenced to 29 months in prison for his service to a Croatian gambling syndicate. S

occer is a particularly inviting target for gambling cartels because it is a low-scoring affair in which one official commands unbridled power. A single officiating error—a mistaken award or denial of a penalty kick, the banishment of a player with a red-card for an offense that only warranted a cautionary yellow or, as we witnessed, a critical non-call on a hand ball—can decide a game.

There is nothing to suggest that the Swedish ref in the France-Ireland game was guilty of anything beyond willful incompetence. Still, the explanations made on his behalf are all too familiar. A single ref can’t always be in perfect position and the linesmen’s views from the sidelines are often obscured. All can be legitimate excuses for the official, but not for FIFA. While there is no foolproof defense against either corruption or incompetence, other major sports have incorporated technology to help protect them by resolving its thorniest disputes. They appear to believe that getting the call correct is of paramount interest. FIFA prefers, instead, to honor its archaic practices.

When Diego Maradona scored his famed “Hand of God” goal to lead Argentina over England in the 1986 World Cup, there was undoubtedly some mystique in the moment. Back then roguishness still held some charms for us. Besides, there were few good options. Technology hadn’t yet advanced to the point where it could reveal—and rapidly—that it was the hand of Maradona, not God that had knocked the ball in the net.

Only now is FIFA getting around to experimenting with extra officials stationed behind the goals. While more eyes on the ball would undoubtedly help, it’s a solution that is both too little and too late.

Fans viewing at home often know the correct call within moments. It seems fatuous to ignore that reality on the field. “Technology” may not summon up the same kind of fuzzy, feel-good sentiments as “tradition.” But it does offer something else: a last line of defense against injustice and, more critically, corruption. If you require a soccer metaphor, consider it integrity’s goalkeeper.

But even if you will, FIFA, with its best ostrich imitation, won’t. As a result, the 2010 World Cup will inevitably be viewed through the prism of suspicion. If gamblers can tamper with the Champions League, why would the World Cup be out of their reach? And cynicism aside, there remains no defense against official incompetence. And absolutely zero incentive for players to honor rules when they suspect they can profit from breaking them.

Four years ago, Italy’s victory over France in the World Cup final was tarnished by an ugly incident in which French captain, Zinedine Zidane, was ejected for a violent head butt against an Italian defender, who had insulted his Algerian ancestry and made a crude, sexual reference to his sister.

It sets the bar pretty low for 2010. But given FIFA’s indifferent defense of the integrity of the game, the World Cup looms as the ultimate limbo dance—and we may not have seen yet how low they can go.

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