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Beautiful game, dirty business

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A man controls a ball as he plays soccer Sunday next to a FIFA Fan Fest complex in Fortaleza, Brazil.


A man controls a ball as he plays soccer Sunday next to a FIFA Fan Fest complex in Fortaleza, Brazil.

The mesmerizing wizardry of Lionel Messi and the muscular grace of Cristiano Ronaldo are joys to behold. For deep-dyed internationalists, however, soccer's true beauty lies in its long reach, from east to west and north to south. Soccer, more than any other sport, has thrived on globalization. Nearly half of humanity will watch at least part of the World Cup, which will kick off in Brazil on Thursday.

It is therefore sad that the tournament begins under a cloud as big as the Maracana stadium. Documents obtained by Britain's Sunday Times allegedly have revealed secret payments that helped Qatar win the hosting rights to the World Cup in 2022. If that competition was fixed, it has company. A report by FIFA, soccer's governing body, is said to have found several exhibition matches were rigged ahead of the World Cup in 2010. As usual, no one has been punished.

This only prompts other questions. Why on earth did anyone think that holding the World Cup in the middle of the Arabian summer was a good idea? Why is soccer so far behind other sports such as rugby, cricket and tennis in using technology to double-check refereeing decisions?

Most of all, why is the world's greatest game led by such a group of mediocrities, notably Sepp Blatter, FIFA's boss since 1998? In any other organization the endless financial scandals would have led to his ouster years ago.

More than that, however, he seems hopelessly out of date. From sexist remarks about women to interrupting a minute's silence for Nelson Mandela after only 11 seconds, the 78-year-old is the sort of dinosaur that left corporate boardrooms in the 1970s. Nor is it exactly heartening that the attempts to stop Blatter from enjoying a fifth term are being led by Michel Platini, Europe's leading soccercrat, who once was a wonderful midfielder but who played a woeful role in supporting the Qatar bid.

Many soccer fans are indifferent to all this. What matters to them is the beautiful game, not the tired old suits who run it. Besides, FIFA's moral turpitude is hardly unique. The International Olympic Committee, after all, faced a Qatar-like scandal over the awarding of the winter games in 2002, though it has made a much bigger attempt to clean itself up. The boss of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, stands accused of bribery in Germany, while American basketball recently had to sack an owner for racist remarks. Cricket has had its own match-fixing scandals. American football may be overwhelmed by ex-players' compensation claims for injuries.

Soccer fans are wrong, however, to think there is no cost to all this.

First, corruption and complacency at the top make it harder to fight skullduggery on the field. Ever larger amounts of money are being bet on each game -- it may be $1 billion a match at the World Cup. Under external pressure to reform, FIFA recently has brought in some good people, including a respected ethics czar in Mark Pieth. Who will listen to lectures about reform, though, from an outfit whose public face is Blatter?

Second, big-time corruption isn't victimless, and it doesn't end when a host country is chosen. For shady regimes, the type that bribe soccer officials, a major sporting event also is a chance to defraud state coffers, for example by awarding fat contracts to cronies. Tournaments that ought to be national celebrations risk becoming festivals of graft.

Finally, there is a great opportunity cost. Soccer is not as global as it might be. The game has failed to conquer the world's three biggest countries, China, India and the United States. In America, soccer is played but not watched. In China and India, the opposite is true. India and the United States will not be playing in Brazil, and indeed have played in the World Cup finals only once between them.

In FIFA's defence, the big three's lack of interest owes much to their respective histories and cultures and to the strength of existing sports, notably cricket in India. Soccer is slowly gaining ground: In the United States, for example, the first cohort of American parents to grow up with the game are now passing it on to their children.

That only underlines the madness of FIFA giving the cup to Qatar, however, instead of the United States. The foul air from FIFA's headquarters in Switzerland will hardly reassure young fans in China who are heartily sick of the corruption and match-fixing in their domestic soccer leagues.

It would be good to get rid of Blatter, but that would not solve FIFA's structural problem. Though legally incorporated as a Swiss non-profit organization, FIFA has no master. Those who might hold it to account, such as national or regional soccer organizations, depend on its cash. High barriers to entry make it unlikely a rival will emerge, so FIFA has a natural monopoly over international soccer. An entity of this scale should be regulated, but FIFA answers to no government.

All the same, more could be done. The Swiss should demand a cleanup or withdraw FIFA's favourable tax status. Sponsors should weigh in on graft and on the need to push forward with new technology: An immediate video review of every penalty and goal would be a start.

The hardest piece of the puzzle is the host-selection process. One option would be to stick the World Cup in one country and leave it there, but that nation's home team would have a big advantage, and tournaments benefit from moving between different time zones.

An economically rational option would be to give this year's winner, and each successive champion, the option of either hosting the tournament in eight years' time or auctioning off that right to the highest bidder. That would favour soccer's powerhouses. As most of them already have the stadiums, there would be less waste -- and it would provide even more of an incentive to win.

Sadly, soccer fans are romantic nationalists, not logical economists, so this proposal stands less chance of winning than England does. One small step toward sanity would be to rotate the tournament, so that it went, say, from Europe to Africa to Asia to the Americas, which would at least stop intercontinental corruption.

Little of this is likely to happen, however, without change at the top in Zurich.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2014 0

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