Defend Truth


Nobody fluffs the simple things like Fifa does

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

If you strip away the gauche suits, pricey haircuts and odd accents, Fifa really only has one thing to do: Organise a soccer world cup every four years. And that isn’t even such a tough ask. Fifa only has to bring three things to the table -  referees, the ball and a functional ticketing system - and they screwed up all three splendidly this year.

It’s up to the host country to deal with all the fiddly bits like stadiums, security, accommodation for hundreds of thousands of people and transport facilities.

This year’s ticket fiasco was bad enough, but didn’t really affect the game as such. Basically, Fifa insisted on selling tickets over the Internet, and when they realised that fans weren’t flocking in to buy the tickets on a website that had more faults than Johannesburg’s road maintenance system, Fifa agreed to over-the-counter sales. That didn’t help either. If you went to the ticket centres and stood in queues for hours, you were likely to go home empty-handed. The online system used at those centres kept crashing, or tickets mysteriously became unavailable, and then available again.

The opening stages of the 2010 World Cup were dominated by complaints about the new Jabulani soccer ball. Designed by Adidas in conjunction with a team of scientists at Loughborough University in England, the Jabulani was touted as the best ball ever designed, boasting “unmatched flight characteristics, making this the most stable and most accurate Adidas ball ever” thanks to so-called “Grip ’n Groove” technology. Basically, the ball is covered with small grooves that make it look like a plucked goose. The bladder is also encased in eight panels, as opposed to the normal 32 hexagonal panels.

Despite the fancy design and cheesy name, a lot of footballers hated it. Julio Cesar, Inter Milan and Brazil goalkeeper, didn’t mince his words. He described the ball as “terrible, horrible. It’s like one of those balls you buy in the supermarket.” Iker Casillas, the Real Madrid keeper and Spain’s captain, was a little more diplomatic. “It’s a little sad that in a competition as big as the World Cup to have such a poor ball. It’s not just the goalkeepers complaining, but the outfield players as well.” And even though we were tempted to believe this was perhaps a case of players not coping with a “new” ball, after seeing Japan bury Denmark with a series of stunning free kicks, Fifa admitted that there was something amiss with the Jabulani. Secretary general Jérôme Valcke finally buckled and agreed to a meeting with coaches and teams, and Adidas, after the tournament.

That’s right. Fifa is going to wait until the whole thing is over before deciding whether there may be grounds to do something about the ball.

However, the issues with the Jabulani pale in comparison to the unbelievably bad refereeing we’ve seen in this tournament so far. Never mind all the dodgy red cards and wonky offside calls, the disallowed goal in England last-16 match against Germany and the allowed goal in the Argentina versus Mexico match were possibly the most obvious balls-ups by referees in World Cup history. Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal was seen by everyone on the field, except the two officials whose job it was to make the call, and it changed the complexion of the game completely. Not to say England would have gone on to beat, but there was a sense of disbelief in England’s play after that decision.

Exactly the same thing happened in the game between Argentina and Mexico. Carlos Tevez scored from an obviously offside position (it was so blatant the people in the cheap seats could see that he was offside) and the referee allowed the goal. The worst part was the fact that the referee trotted over to his assistant, after allowing the goal, to consult on his decision. Both of them then turned and looked at the giant screens provided for the fans, and saw that they had made a mistake. Oh dear, now what? Fifa doesn’t allow referees the luxury of consulting replay to help them in decision making. Even worse, Fifa was livid that the replays had been shown in the stadium at all. The referee decided to stick with his original mistake and gave the goal. The Mexicans were devastated and conceded another goal within five minutes, and were effectively out of the tournament before the first-half whistle had been blown.

The debate about whether Fifa should introduce video technology on the goal lines to assist referees in making calls has been thrown wide open now. Fifa’s initial position was quite illuminating. One of the reasons for their rejection of video technology given by Sepp Blatter was, “The human aspect, no matter which technology is applied, at the end of the day a decision will have to be taken by a human being. This being the case, why remove the responsibility from the referee to give it to someone else? It is often the case that, even after a slow-motion replay, 10 different experts will have 10 different opinions on what the decision should have been.”

Well, that’s precisely the problem, isn’t it? Ten different opinions from 10 different experts is precisely what is happening. One referee sees a player get shoved in the back and waves play on. Another referee gives a free kick for exactly the same offence and a third not only gives a free kick, but hands out a yellow card as well. There is no consistency. Take a referee who officiates in the Barclays Premier League, dominated by tough, physical play, and compare his handling of a match to a referee who works in the Seychelles or China. They will not regard offences in the same light. Certain referees have more experience in dealing with fast and brutish games by dint of the leagues in which they ply their weekend trade. Compare the unflappable Howard Webb, accustomed to the brutishness of the Premier League, to the other referees in the World Cup. Sepp Blatter’s cherished human aspect simply does not provide consistency.

As I type this, Fifa is in the midst of a massive back-track, having admitted that the referees made some horrendous blunders. Sepp Blatter went as far as to apologise to Mexico and England for the bad officiating which contributed to their early exits from the World Cup. He said it would be “a nonsense” not to consider video technology, which is what the rule-making panel of Fifa will do at its next meeting in Wales in July. Furthermore, Jorge Larrionda and Roberto Rosetti, the referees responsible for the two quarterfinal bad calls, have been left out of the list of referees for the remaining matches. Fifa refused to comment on their very conspicuous absence. Let the reader supply a wrinkled brow and knowing smile. This is as close as we’ve ever come to Fifa admitting they were wrong.

How does Fifa manage to screw up the easiest parts of arranging and managing a World Cup so atrociously? How do they get things so wrong, especially when the solutions are right in front of their eyes? Why are they so stubborn in the face of repeated failures and worldwide derision? In many ways then, Fifa is much like South Africa’s notorious home affairs department: Slow, archaic and corrupt. The solution then is quite simple – Fifa’s just another sports administration body that needs a change of guard.


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