FIFA: The art of defying logic and progress

Pele With Sepp Blatter

Anjali Pradhan has an in-depth take on the state of the game's governing body in regards to women's and men's football

Last month, FIFA decided to hand Christine Sinclair, captain of the Canadian womens' soccer team, her punishment for comments made during the 2012 Olympic semi-final match.

The only explanation they gave her for the four game suspension and the CHF 3500 fine was 'unsporting behaviour towards match officials'.

The alleged act was commited during a game marred with questionable calls. The US team whom they were playing, were even surprised at the turn of events. It left many a Canadians with a bitter taste in their mouths in the aftermath of the cliff hanger match where Sinclair scored all three goals owned by her team that day.

With 10 minutes left in regular time and Canada up one goal at 3-2, the referee, Christina Pedersen of Norway, missed an obvious handball of a US player intheir own penalty area. The Americans then succeeded in tying the game.

Then the real fun begins. The referee called the Canadian goalkeeper for delay of game for having held the ball too long, ten seconds instead of the permitted six. She gave an indirect free kick at the top of the penalty area for this supposed infraction.

This an extremely rare call. In other similar cases, the referee would give a verbal warning, or at worst a yellow card to the goalkeeper. The penalty kick hit Marie-Eve McNault, a Canadian player, in the arm.

With no time to react, this should have been a classic case of unintentional handball, and should not been called. No intent, no foul. Instead, Pedersen called a penalty kick. The US scored and got a lead in the game. This was to be the winning goal.

When I first I first started pondering about this particular match, I assumed that this was a show of FIFA's sexist nature. After all, European soccer officials themselves, in January 2011, came to the conclusion that soccer is, “intentionally sexist” and,“run by an old boys club” that perpetuates this attitude.

In 2004, FIFA president Sepp Blatter was even quoted saying that women players should wear tighter shorts and low cut tops to increase male viewership. And, earlier this year BBC One aired a documentary called, 'Sexism in Football' which told countless stories of women working in the industry being harrassed and taunted.

Suffice it to say that sexual discrimation in soccer is alive and well.

However, it seems the issues seen in this particular match has deeper roots. It's a general incompetence by the people running the sport which is to blame. Even when they try to help elevate women in the sport, they manage to do just this opposite.

It was clear from the Canada-US semi-final officiating that the referee lacked the experience necessary for such a high profile match. Although women should be given a fair chance at officiating, this was not the arena for one to learn. By putting Pedersen in a position where her shortcomings were displayed in front of such a large audience, it is clearly not in line with achieving the desired objective.

If they really did want to do something concrete for women players, they would allow women to protect themselves from a ball to the chest the same way that men cup. And by 'allow' I mean in actual practice not just on paper. As a player in womens' recreational leagues, I can tell you we rarely used this rule to protect ourselves because we knew that most referees would indeed call a handball.

This brings me to my next point, inconsistencies how rules are applied. The most obvious is the the previously mentioned handball definition that is largely ignored these days. Another is the goalie restrictions on penalty kicks, where the GK is not allowed to move his/her feet from the goal line before that ball is kicked. In practice this rule is often broken and not called.

How can we respect a sport where so much leeway is given to the observation of rules? And that flexibility is usually consumed by the referee's mood.

People often look down upon sports like gymnastics where subjective attributes are used to name a winner. If the above mentionned match is an example, soccer is far worse in this respect. Referees seem to have far more power than in most other sport.

The match officials should be as unobstrusive as possible and in soccer, it seems that the referee dictates the outcome of the game. In fact, on the cover of the FIFA Disciplinary Code, they show a photo of, not people kicking the ball around, as you would expect, but a referee blowing a whistle and showing a yellow card. Yes, it is the disciplinary code, but still.

Another sign that worldwide soccer is run by a totalitarian regime is the fact that FIFA can sanction a member organisation, if their government interferes with FIFA's overseeing of the game. This would make it as powerful in their domain as any supra-national organisation. To my knowledge, this has not been done in recent times. Nonetheless, they reserve the right to do so.

Yellow card for execissive celebration: Enough said. To start, how can excessive celebration be quantified? The player looked too pleased of maybe their victory dance was little too Carnavale-eque?

Second, isn't having fun sort of the ojective? In the NFL (American Football) they have cheerleaders to entertain the crowd. Imagine they restricted celebration in the North American sports? On second thought, let's not. A game is a game and is meant to be enjoyed.

Probably the most obvious proof that FIFA likes living in the dark ages is their refusal to use the instant replay technology that other sports have been enjoying for years. In 2008, FIFA president has been quoted saying, “let's leave (football) with errors” when commenting on why goal line technology was not used.

It was finally approved in July 2012 and finally fairness and accuracy have became non-optional.

As final proof of its convuluted ways, FIFA has also nominated Christina Sinclair as women's player of the year. Even though it has given her a suspension and a fine. As the scorer of a hat trick in the infamous US-Canada match, it would be hard for them to exclude her from this shortlist.

However, if they truly believed her behaviour was as abhorrent as they had claimed, it's hard to imagine how can they justify honouring her in this manner.

As the most widely played sport on the planet, soccer's governing body is the most powerful organisations of its kind. While the Olympics are only every four years, the FIFA's presence is omnipresent in the lives of those who play and follow the sport.

In fact, FIFA has more member states than the U.N. As such, it can have a positive impact on the member organisations if it chooses to. Enabling women to (finally) play wearing a hijab was one example.

Consequently, these women players have become role models in countless other Islamic countries. Thus, although soccer is on the surface but for mere leisure and entertainment, its effective and fair governance should not be taken lightly.

Inefficiencies and subjectivity is so pervasive that what's really needed is a change of regime.

New leadership who will take the sport to the next level, unencumbered from the shackles of poor management that has reigned for too long, without any accountability.

It seems that FIFA needs for soccer to thrive is nothing short of a coup. And perhaps, after the events that we saw last summer, the country to lead the way is none other than Canada.

What is the way forward for FIFA?

image: © World Economic Forum

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