SPORTS

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July 12, 2002

Fussballweltmeisterschaft with Dino Christenson

Current blurbs in the world of football concern everything from Brazil's modern domination to the recent purchases of the top tournament performers by the English and Italian clubs. On a national level, the surprise contenders of the 2002 World Cup, Senegal, Ireland, South Korea, Turkey and Japan, are all being praised for their valiant efforts. Meanwhile in Italy, Argentina, Portugal and France, domestic critics are lambasting their star players and coaches for disappointing performances and the crushed hopes of their respective nations. This routine follows each World Cup. The structure and pedantic commentators remain, only the names of the countries and players are changed.

Yet this year, along with the usual discourse, some unorthodox concerns over the structure of the Cup have remained. Because of the outcomes and particular style of this World Cup, some heretofore deservingly stagnant movements within football are gaining momentum.

This summer, President Sepp Blatter and his FIFA dittoheads—as well as commentators the world over—are lobbying to keep players from being overworked before the World Cup, add popularity to the world's most popular sport, and provide better officiating. If we follow their reasoning, this Cup was devastatingly boring, the expected giants of the tournament were eliminated too soon, and the stadiums were often not filled to capacity. This must be due to some structural weakness in football that the great minds at FIFA can remedy.

It all began, as it does every four years, with some debatable calls. Italy, in particular, was hampered by offside and diving calls in their opening round matches. In the three matches before their fatal loss to South Korea, Italy had 5 of their goals withdrawn. In their last match, striker Francesco Totti was debatably dismissed with a second yellow card for diving in the box. Since then Italy, a powerful soccer nation and former favorite in the 2002 World Cup, has launched a media campaign disgracefully implying a conspiracy carried out by the referees.

Sepp Blatter has gone so far as promising better standards for selecting World Cup referees to placate the crying Italians. Not unlike Italy, Portugal, which was at least expected to win Group D, felt they received harsh treatments from the refs in the tournament. Yet in their knockout match versus South Korea, Joao Pinto punched a referee after debating the red card he received for an obviously illegal slide tackle. Not helping matters, the referee sent 'Beto' Severo off minutes later with his second yellow. Not even the likes of Rui Costa and Luis Figo, FIFA World Player of the Year, could convert a nine-man team into victors over the Red Devils. They were sent packing after a lackluster win against Poland and losses to the U.S. and South Korea.

Certainly both squads received some debatable calls, but their respective moans for better arbitrating more likely stem from nationalist pride than an objective appreciation for the game. It is as if their high rankings, star studded squads, and grandiose expectations suggest to them that they deserve special treatment. La Squadra Azzura yells, "How dare a referee red-card Totti! Is he not aware that this man is Italy's golden boy, the star Roma striker?" They should give him the benefit of the doubt, even though he has been diving like a professional swimmer for the last three weeks. How can these linemen imply Vieri was offside, are they not aware that this man is capable of timing each run to perfectly avoid the defensive trap? It is Cristiano Vieri for god's sake! I saw it in Totti's face when Moreno ended his game, and again in Portugal captain Fernando Couto's when Sanchez banished Pinto: pure self-pity. The world treats them like gods, and then these despised arbitrators treat them just like every other player on the pitch—the nerve!

And still FIFA and so-called football loyalists are suggesting ways to improve the arbitrating. Recent suggestions include utilizing instant replay, adding another referee and having all three referees come from the same country. Fortunately, Sepp's Squad is downright opposed to using modern technology in officiating. I would hate to see action stopped on every offside flag, tumble, or shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. Likewise, I cannot see how placing an additional referee on the field will add any clarity. Instead of having two linesmen and one referee, rumors have circulated about creating space for another referee. Therefore a referee would cover each half of the field with help from a linesman. One envisions Collina punching Moreno as the referees themselves disagree over a call. Some commentators even suggest that the poor officiating is a result of the three arbitrators not understanding each other. Demanding that they all come from the same country may make the halftime water break more pleasurable, but I fail to see how it will benefit a game where hand and flag signals are international. I can only hope that this recent hubbub is merely an act of patronizing some sore losers, and will soon be dismissed by the powers that be.

Italy and Portugal were not alone in leaving the tournament unexpectedly early. Top-ranked France and Argentina raced each other to the runways. Team France, backing three of the best goal scorers in the world, Henry and Wiltford of Arsenal and Trezeguet of Juventus, was unable to score a single goal in the World Cup. After having lost to Senegal 1—0, France went on to a scoreless match with Uruguay and a pitiful loss to Denmark. This marked the first time in 36 years that the defending champions were expelled in the first round. Coach Lemerre, despite having led France to victories in the Euro Cup 2000 and Confederations Cup 2001, has taken the blame and been officially sacked. It appears that Lemerre's brilliant 4-2-3-1 formation depended too heavily on the mad skills of Zinedine Zidane. Although lacking the great Zizou to injury, Lemerre stuck with his previously successful formation, and suffered the consequences of inadaptability.

England has not looked so pitiful since their 1982 military defeat in the Falkland Islands. If any country was simultaneously prepared to hoist the Cup and in need of a morale boost, Argentina was it. With an ever-worsening economy, and more talent on their second string than most teams' first, Argentina seemed destined to win. The only question appeared to be with which players they would do so. Though Argentina was nestled in the Group of Death with the likes of Nigeria, England and Sweden, a Batigol opener against Nigeria signaled great things for Bielsa's boys. Unfortunately the Argentine nightmare began when England squared off against the team they have not beaten in 36 years for the most anticipated opening round match of the Cup. In the midfield, the proletarian powerhouse Nicky Butts dominated Veron, clearly out of shape due to an injury. A fierce attack in the 42nd minute by the fleet footed Michael Owen allowed Beckham, while conforming to this year's football hairstyle, to drill a penalty kick down the middle and avenge his 1998 dismissal. Argentina might still have qualified with a win over Sweden, but an amazing bender by Svensson and bench theatrics by Caniggia, who received a red after lippin' off to the referee, saw to it that Argentina missed the opportunity of a lifetime.

Argentina, France, Portugal and Italy all left the tournament uncharacteristically early. Their parting sent shock waves through the world of football and commentators on missions to discover the reasons why. I found the articles and actions against the referees to be particularly tactless, but nothing was as humorous as suggesting that the athletes were worn out because of their commitments to their club teams.

Certainly some of these athletes engage in a rigorous schedule with final matches of the Champions League and other regional tournaments leading up to a few weeks before the World Cup. However, arguing that there must be more time between these tournaments is nothing more than an act of protectionism for the most marketable players in the world. Of course these tournaments increase the likelihood that some of the biggest stars might have an injury. Yet injuries occur randomly, and often take some of one's favorite stars, even in practice. Poor Argentina had to play with an out of shape Veron, while the French held their breath for a one legged Zidane. This is the nature of sports. Banning or rearranging these tournaments suggest that one player makes a team and that there is no compensation for club allegiance. On the contrary, every winning team need be well rounded and most players in the European and South American leagues are paid marvelously for their club involvement.

The true motivation behind this movement is ensuring that the World Cup remain the most marketable sporting event in the world. It is the same mentality that focuses on superstardom and profit in the face of an honest sport. When stadium seats in South Korea were left open, FIFA scrambled to fill them up. Maintaining a last minute call group of nearly 2000 spectators, FIFA presented them with free tickets. The danger to FIFA is that their sport may look unpopular in front of the television rights purchasers. Obviously, the football nations of Europe and South America pack the stadiums for their teams, but when unexpected nations advance in the World Cup, commentators call the games boring. Where are the heroes from the top European club teams? Where are the hooligans of the world? Where are the guys on the commercials? Forget that the superstars on the traditionally heroic teams are acting like babies and drama queens. Ignore the unspoiled and diligent football played by the winning teams, and blame the refs and the schedules.

If one were to take an objective look at this year's World Cup, one would see the finest and most dramatic of series. Beginning with surprise victories by the co-hosts, Japan and South Korea, and concluding with a magical Brazilian victory over a determined Germany, World Cup 2002 was brilliant. I could not ask for more than watching Ronaldo, who had recovered from an injury that haunted his previous World Cup, score twice over the finest keeper in the world, Oliver Kahn. It was a perfect blend of soccer styles as the three R's inventively created opportunities on a fortified German defense. Brazil has truly made a niche for themselves as the modern day champions of football, while Germany is sure never to go underestimated again.

Although the atrocities that follow the English hooligans were slightly missed in the media, the Japanese and South Korean crowds showed that football mania is contagious. One would also have to mention the stunning performances of Ireland, the U.S., Sweden and Senegal. The latter, led by the most original of all strikers - Diouf, foreshadows the future of football, while Sweden proved that there can be grace in losing.

Though the World Cup was a triumphant success in a myriad of ways, the pervasive sense of needless reforms suggest many fans and players lack of satisfaction with the tournament. The great majority of these potential reforms appear motivated by nationalist pride or a misunderstanding of the sport. Some of these are dangerous for the sport in general, while others do damage merely by silencing truly needed reforms already on the docket. As far as necessary changes go, FIFA need look no further than the deciding penalty kicks that follow the sudden death overtime. Consider replacing the closing series of penalty kicks for the 'golden goal' sudden death ending, and one is hard pressed to find many players or coaches who would not support the change.

Of course this is not FIFA's concern. Television networks and commercial sponsors are remarkably supportive of the time conscious conclusions provided by penalty kicks. Given the amount of money involved in professional football, the majority of which comes from the purchase of television rights, FIFA and their sketchy President may want to reevaluate all potential forms in light of their allegiance to the 'beautiful game' instead of the 'almighty dollar.'

Dino can be reached for comments at dinochristenson@hotmail.com