By Charitha Ratwatte –
The ‘chewy’ beautiful game – Brazil 2014
The world’s attention is focused on the Football World Cup tournament being played out in Brazil. Once in every four years, the media’s attention worldwide is ritually drawn to this international tournament which decides the world champions for the sport. This time however, Uruguay’s Luis ‘Chewy’ Suarez’s bite into Italian Giorgio Chiellini shoulder has distracted the public! Chewy has done this twice before and also used his hands to save a goal in the 2010 World Cup against Ghana and was sin binned! ‘Chewy’ has been suspended from football participation for four months and a nine-match international ban was imposed by FIFA.
The world’s many diverse cultures have over time devised various ways to getting an object, oval or otherwise, by one means or another, to some sort of goal or target over the opposition of another team. But one specific version, for which rules were first laid out in England in the 19th century, seems to have won the popularity battle. Fairly simple rules and no sophisticated equipment being required have allowed the game to flourish among the rich and flamboyant, poor villagers and slum dwellers worldwide.
Just two or four markers to mark the goals, something kickable which could pass for a ball and some indications of perimeters of play has allowed football to be played on streets, on playgrounds, on dried-up rice or wheat fields, in coconut plantations in between the coconut trees, on the beaches, on dried-up stream beds and on any other space which is available to enthusiasts.
International soccer is managed by an International Federation, a nongovernmental organisation based in Switzerland. Its acronym is FIFA, for Federation Internationale de Football Association. FIFA was founded in 1904 in Paris, as a rule making committee, to ensure that things like punching one’s opponent, or handing the ball, would not be accepted as a legitimate part of the game. Over time FIFA has evolved into one of the successful and also at the same time disreputable organisations in the history of sport. FIFA has 209 nations as members through their national federations. The UNO only has 193!
In 2006 FFIFA claimed that 300 million people played soccer. But playing is only one aspect, millions of people watch the game, argue over performance and results and also spend money for wages and bets. The English Premier league is broadcast on radio and television to over 212 territories reaching an estimated 643 million homes.
Half of all mankind on this planet is expected to watch the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. This makes the sports dominance of the world unique. This is all the remarkable, given that of the four countries larger than Brazil, only one, the USA, qualified to be present at the World Cup in 2014. China made in 2002 but failed to win any games or score any goals!
FIFA has been plagued by corruption scandals for some time. Under the leadership of the current head Sepp Blatter and his predecessor Joao Havelange, FIFA has been accused of financial mismanagement, taking bribes and projecting a level of sexism and homophobia that seems to come from another century. FIFA’s corruption has been an open secret for so many years that when new allegations are made, hardly any outrage is provoked. The attitude seems to be just ‘more of the same’.
For example, FIFA is supposed to police match fixing, but a recent New York Times investigation revealed that only six people of FIFA’s total staff of 350 are working on actually investigating allegations of match fixing. It is also supposed to monitor corruption in football, but it clearly falls short in its responsibility in this regard.
There have been allegations that bribes secured the 2022 World Cup for the Emirate of Qatar in 2010. How did one of the world’s least suitable football venues succeed in winning the sport’s greatest tournament? Revelations published by the Sunday Times on 1 June, this year of e-mails detailing lavish campaigning by Mohamed bin Hammam, a disgraced former FIFA Vice-President from Qatar, shocked, but did not surprise football fans. FIFA is now under pressure to re-run the bidding process. Analysts expect FIFA’s President, the wily Blatter, to resist, although he seems to be making noises to the effect that a rerun would be a possibility.
Blatter has declared that he intends to recontest FIFA’s Presidency for another four-year term, his fifth consecutive term. Commentators have stated that even Sepp Blatter with all his long-standing contacts in world football and back-room negotiating and political skills will be pushed to survive the barrage of charges of corruption facing his time in office as FIFA President.
Several members of FIFA Executive Committee, the highest decision-making body, have been forced out of office in recent years, due to allegations of corruption. Two for soliciting bribes from undercover reporters before the 2010 World Cup was awarded to South Africa. Two more, including the Qatari, Hammam, were accused of offering bribes to football officials from Caribbean countries, to vote for him, when he declared an interest to replace Blatter as President of FIFA. Hammam was later banned from football administration for life.
After Blatter fought off Hammam’s challenge and was re-elected President of FIFA, he denied that FIFA was in crisis and promised reform. He appointed an independent governance committee by a respected Swiss Jurist Mark Pieth, to advise FIFA on reforms to cleanse it of corruption charges. Though Blatter did not accept all the proposals of the Pieth Committee, he agreed to an Ethics Committee to be chaired by Pieth and the appointment of an American lawyer, Michael Garcia to inquire into allegations of vote rigging an bribery, in FIFA processes including allegations on the choice of Russia to host football’s World Cup in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
Russia and Qatar
The selection of Russia for the 2018 World Cup and Qatar for the 2022 World Cup has been widely criticised. Reports have alleged that some FIFA inside sources have stated that Russian bribes, cash and gifts, given to FIFA Executive Committee members were enough to secure the 2018 location for Russia, weeks before the formal selection and announcement was made.
Blatter was widely criticised for speaking to FIFA’s Executive Committee on the ‘evils of media’ shortly before they voted for the location of the 2018 tournament. This was a reference to exposes in the London Sunday Times and BBC’s Panorama program. However, two FIFA Executive Committee members were banned from all football-related activity in November 2010 for allegedly offering to sell their votes to undercover newspaper reporters.
There are allegations that Qatar beat the United States for the 2022 finals by paying bribes to delegates for Cameroon and Cote d’Ivore amounting to $ 1.5 million. Blatter has not ruled out reopening the 2022 vote if corruption could be proved.
On Sepp Blatter’s re-election to FIFA’s top position of President in 2011, after an investigation by FIFA, Bin Hammam and Warner were suspended from all FIFA activities. Warner reacted to his suspension by questioning Blatter’s conduct and stating that FIFA Secretary General, Jerome Valcke, had told him via e-mail that ‘Qatar had bought the 2002 World Cup finals’. Valcke subsequently tried to explain that what he had meant was not bribery per se, but that Qatar has ‘used its financial muscle to lobby for support’.
Bin Hammam also wrote to FIFA complaining about the unfair treatment by the FIFA Ethics Committee and the FIFA administration in suspending him. There are further allegations that the Vice President of the Bahamas Football Association was given $ 40,000 in cash and the President of the Surinamese Football Association alleged that he was given $ 40,000 for ‘development projects’ as an incentive to vote for Bin Hammam against Blatter.
Allegations of match fixing
In fact, while the current World Cup competition is being played out in Brazil, allegations of match fixing have emerged, against the controlling body of Ghana’s football, the Ghana Football Association. The allegation is that the President of that Association had agreed to Ghana’s national team, presently playing in Brazil, to play in friendly matches after the World Cup is over, which others were willing to fix the result.
A syndicate which would control the bets placed on these matches is alleged to be the prime mover of the scam. An undercover investigation by the British TV station Channel 4 and the newspaper the Daily Telegraph has resulted in these allegations surfacing. The undercover investigation identified two people – one a licensed agent of FIFA and the other a Ghana football club official. The allegations do not touch the Ghana’s national teams World Cup matches. The President of the Ghana Football Association has denied the allegations and has requested the police to investigate the allegations.
The future of world football, analysts feel, lies in the hands of three nations, which are not presently big players of the game. One is the USA; though present at Brazil, Team USA is not big league, but football is certainly a force to be reckoned with internally in the USA. Increasingly young Americans, both men and women, are playing football or soccer as it is called, in order that it will not be confused with American football. In fact the American women’s national team is rated higher internationally than the men’s national team.
Although it will take a long time for soccer in the US to challenge the predominant role of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, in American society, soccer is on a growth trend. Local teams that once had to play in American football stadiums today have dedicated soccer grounds. Average attendance at soccer matches is increasing. The controlling body – Major League Soccer (MLS) – has around 21 member clubs.
America’s demographic trends work in favour of soccer. The increasing Hispanic segment of the population loves the game. At present they only make 16.9% of the population, but between the years 2000 and 2010 the number of Hispanics in the USA grew by 43%. The current US national team is ranked 14th in the world. The USA vs. Portugal match in Brazil was watched by 24.7 million. FIFA says that more tickets were allocated for the 2014 finals to the US than any other country except the host Brazil. Americans have bought more tickets than the next three highest ticket buying countries-Argentina, Germany and England. The USA is clearly headed for footballs big league, in the future.
The second nation which is destined to play a big role in international football in the future is India. True, the dominance of cricket is currently overwhelming. Football cannot, just yet, match cricket’s role in the Bollywood film ‘Lagaan,’ in which a team of Indian villagers take on and defeat a team of British Raj civil servants in a cricket match to win relief from oppressive taxes imposed by the colonial government! But football’s history in India goes back a long time.
In 1911 a local club in Calcutta, Mohun Bagan, beat a team from the British Army’s East Yorkshire Regiment in the final of the All India tournament. This was an iconic moment of India’s campaign to rid itself of British imperialism. The controlling body in India – the All India Football Federation – was founded in 1937. The Indian national team won the Asian Games gold medal for football in 1951 and 1962. In the 1956 Olympic Games the Indian team just missed the Bronze medal, by coming fourth; the best-ever finish by an Asian country.
Though cricket and tournaments like the Indian Premier League (IPL) dominate Indian sport, there is a generational shift taking place in India, which seems to favour football. In fact an IPL type clone for football in India is being floated called the Indian Super League (ISL). Its promoters claim that ‘cricket was the game of the fathers; football is the game of the sons’. In fact the IPL was set up for cricket due to worries that five-day Cricket Test matches were turning off young people, who are in an ‘instant noodle’ and ‘instant gratification’ mode.
The ISL is supported by the huge Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries and IMG, the global sports management firm. The IPL will kick off in September this year and has attracted investors like present cricket’s IPL investor, owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders – multimillionaire actor Shah Rukh Khan. India’s cricketing icon Sachin Tendulkar has also taken a stake in one of the ISL football teams. A great deal has to be done for football infrastructure in India. It is a positive sign that FIFA has chosen India as the location for the 2017 under 17 World Cup tournament. As host, the Indian team will participate.
The All India Football Federation has inaugurated four football academies to develop young talent in various parts of the country. In India’s case, however, one unfortunate analogy India shares with FIFA and football is the allegations of corruption in Indian Cricket and the IPL. Allegations of match fixing are rampant in the media, with the Indian Police and the Judiciary holding investigations.
The Board of Control of Cricket in India, one of the most powerful national cricket associations, is mired in controversy, with politicians and cricket bureaucrats often hauled up before the Indian Supreme Court. In fact the Supreme Court recently removed the IPL management team and asked respected former Indian international cricketer Sunil Gavaskar to run the 2014 tournament! So whether India’s emergence as a football power house will have any positive effect on FIFA’s corruption is, to say the least, questionable!
China is the third potential country which will have an effect on international football in the future. The Middle Kingdom, with its 3,000-year history, claims to have invented football. In fact there existed a somewhat formalised way of kicking a ball around the fields of the Empire around 2,000 years ago. But although Mao Zedong was the goal keeper in his school football team, under the Communist Party of China, society was isolated from the international ramifications of the sport.
Even after the ‘Chinese Spring’ of Deng Xiaoping, also a football fan, who famously declared that ‘to get rich is beautiful,’ football was still stifled; even gatherings of 10 or more people needed official approval of the Communist party.
At present China is not a big player in football. But the Chinese people within China and the Chinese diaspora are great watchers of the game and even more, bet on the result. In fact some of the biggest match fixing and gambling and betting cartels worldwide operate out of Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.
At the time of writing, a dispute between two China’s biggest internet companies has paralysed online betting on Brazil 2014. In 2010 it is estimated that over 300 million people in China watched the World Cup matches. Big European clubs like, Spain’s Barcelona and Britain’s Manchester United make pre-season tours to promote their franchise in China.
Presently professional football in China is largely based on foreign stars that are hired by Chinese clubs for the season’s tournaments. Big Chinese business houses have begun investing money in clubs. For example the Evergrande Real Estate Group sponsors the Guangzhou Evergrande club. The club has won China’s Super League football tournament three years in a row. In 2013 Guangzhou Evergrande won the Asian Champion’s League, the first Chinese club to do so. The club is getting more sponsors. This year Alibaba, China’s leading internet company, has said that it will buy 50% of the club.
Analysts point out that to gain more in football terms China needs to spends less money on foreign coaches and players for its big name corporate-sponsored clubs and invest more in improving China’s emerging young players. Evergrande has already moved in this direction. A humongous football academy has been built by the company in the southern Chinese city of Guangdong, with 2,300 students and 50 football pitches. It is China’s largest such institution and of a world class standard. At the opening of the school, Evergrande’s billionaire Chairman Xu Jiayin said: “Our long-term strategy is to use teenagers to turn Evergrande into a team of only domestic players in eight to 10 years, making them stars in China, Asia and the world’.
What the long term effect the emergence of the USA, India and China will have on international football administration is presently a matter of conjecture. As of now, the precedent set by India’s cricket maladministration and China’s betting shenanigans are not encouraging. But it may result in opening up of a process dominated by a corrupt cartel from among European, African, South American and Caribbean National Associations, which hopefully will result in more transparency.
Until then, Brazil 2014 is currently the focus of football fans. One hopes and wishes that a trouble-free tournament, free of allegations of corruption and more ‘biting,’ will decide who stands on the peak of the ‘beautiful game’.