I appeared on a CBC TV news program in Canada Monday night and was asked to defend the theatrics of soccer. The diving and the cheating that are so woven into the fabric of soccer and are most evident to the public when the World Cup takes center stage every four years. To be fair, the diving and cheating is indefensible other than the fact that this is what countries often do to gain a edge in soccer. And oftentimes a slight edge is all it takes to win a game.
In the past few days, I’ve spoken to many North Americans who have enjoyed the World Cup but would be much more interested in the sport if the cheating and diving could be eradicated from the game. And they’re absolutely correct. The diving that we’ve seen by footballers has been disgusting such as Italy’s Daniele De Rossi (to win the penalty against New Zealand), Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (to win free kicks in dangerous places on the pitch against Ivory Coast), Chile’s Jorge Valdivia (who received a yellow card Monday for diving to try to win a penalty), Ivory Coast’s Fadel Keita (who charged at Kaka on purpose to draw a foul, which ended up being a second yellow for Kaka and he was sent off), etc.
Several people I speak to say that they would love the sport if only the diving and cheating could be eliminated. They blame the referees for not seeing the fouls. They blame the players for faking and cheating. I blame FIFA for not being strong enough. Here’s why:
The referees are at a disadvantage. We get to see every controversial incident on replay as well as from different camera angles (including overhead cameras at times). Plus, we see the incident in slow-motion and we can watch it over and over again in a couple of minutes while the referee and his assistant referees are handicapped by only seeing it once without the aid of TV replays. When we as the TV viewer have so much more evidence at our fingertips, how can we expect the referee to make a fair and accurate result unless he sees the same things we see? Simply put, FIFA needs to introduce video technology to the modern sport of soccer.
FIFA has so far not introduced the chip technology in the ball and the addition of two assistant referees behind goals to help referees in World Cup matches. They’ve also resisted introducing video technology. The reason they are so archaic when it comes to the question of introducing technology is because they’re fearful of losing control and power. Once the decisions are made by people with video monitors, the balance of power and authority has shifted from the referees to a man in a TV studio or press box. Getting a decision correct with the aid of video technology should be the way FIFA is heading, but it undermines their authority and it undermines the authority of the referee.
FIFA wants to maintain as much control as possible. The best example of this was the controversial incident involving referee Koman Coulibaly who disallowed USA’s third goal against Slovenia. After the incident happened, no one knew what the call was. Was it offside, or was it pushing? As is FIFA’s policy, the referee didn’t conduct a post-match interview to explain his decision. And there was no word from FIFA regarding what really happened. This was on Friday. Over the weekend when the video highlights were added to the FIFA.com website, all evidence of the controversial incident was not included in the video highlights section. All we knew that FIFA was going to make a statement on Monday. So, for 3-4 agonizing days, FIFA said nothing until now when they announced that Koman Coulibaly would not be refereeing any more matches in the World Cup. And what did the head of referees think of their performance so far? “We are very, very satisfied with the performance of the referees,” Jose-Marcia Garcia-Aranda, head of refereeing for FIFA, said Monday.
FIFA is walking a tightrope. I’m convinced that between now and the final a very controversial incident will happen again and a referee will make an incorrect decision which will lead to a country being knocked out of the tournament and injustice being served. This is the sort of thing that turns fans off soccer. It can be corrected, but FIFA is too stubborn and too protective of the power they maintain to let anything go. Unfortunately it’s going to take a controversial incident that will get people incensed to encourage FIFA to change. And even then, FIFA will only change on their own time and when they feel like it.
Bottom line, FIFA needs to be more transparent and needs to be seen as doing everything they can to make the game fair. They also need to stamp out cheating and allow referees to come down hard on players who conduct that behavior. For the sake of soccer, let’s hope FIFA does something after this World Cup to improve the game.