FIFA’s Corruption And Censorship At The World Cup: The Keyword Is Not Trust

From the England-Germany game report on FIFA’s World Cup website:

England pulled a goal back in the 37th minute when a short Lampard corner from the right was played to Gerrard who crossed into the box. Upson, atoning for his earlier error, rose highest above the Germany defence and with Neuer stranded, powered a header into the net. Meetings between these two sides often provide talking points and this one’s came 60 seconds later when Lampard’s shot from the edge of the box struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced down, with the referee ruling the ball had not crossed the goalline.

There is no mention that the ball clearly crossed the line, with the reader left to ponder on precisely where it bounced down and why the referee might have made such a ruling.

Then we have FIFA’s report on the Mexico-Argentina game, with a notable absence in the description of Tevez’s first goal:

Maradona’s side were hardly lacking in attacking menace themselves, however, and Lionel Messi soon embarked on one of his trademark elusive runs before attempting a chip over Oscar Perez that the Mexico keeper judged well. Messi’s hunt for a goal at South Africa 2010 continues, but it was not long before the Barcelona talisman played a key role as another of Argentina’s star forwards opened his tournament account.

Tevez might have thought his chance had gone when Perez raced out to block bravely at his feet, but Messi was quick-witted enough to return the ball towards goal, where the Manchester City striker was waiting to head home. Breaking the deadlock enabled Argentina to take a firm grip on proceedings, and within seven minutes that hold was strengthened as Mexico reached for the self-destruct button.

Frank Lampard, Ball, Goal-line, World Cup, South Africa, England, Germany

No mention that “where the Manchester City striker was waiting to head home” was in a clearly offside position, or the bizarre scenes that followed which might just have played into Mexico reaching for that “self-destruct button”.

What’s interesting isn’t so much the banal and blatant official spin here, but that due to a growing suspicion of FIFA, whitewashing accounts like these may only make matters worse for Sepp Blatter and company.

It’s fairly obvious that when referees make mistakes, the finger is going to be pointed at FIFA — and, of course, they are responsible for maintaining high standards of refereeing at the World Cup and in the world’s game. FIFA’s stubborn resistance to even adequately explore goal-line technology is only the most glaring example of failure in this regard.

Many, though, sniff corruption rather than incompetence. The second largest number of visitors that arrived at this site through entering keywords into a search engine today did so by typing “FIFA corruption” into Google (the first was “Pitch Invasion”). The last time that same search term spiked so high was on Friday, June 18th, the day the US played Slovenia: and, pace Henry Winter, that game also had a high-profile refereeing controversy that had many searching for answers via Google. I’m guessing this was indicative of a global trend.

FIFA’s footprint is more obvious to casual viewers of the World Cup than it ever has been, as part of their self-promotional branding of the tournament. Their name is splashed on the screen at the start of every instant replay on television: FIFA, right before we see the ball cross the line by half a mile, or Tevez standing two yards offside, or Dempsey standing onside.

And so we have FIFA trying to keep the lid on these mistakes by cutting out comments on its website mentioning such unfortunate incidents and clamping down especially hard on YouTube videos featuring those particular incidents, as well as the obvious spin in the match report examples above. As Robin Goldstein at Blind Taste detailed right after the U.S-Slovenia game:

As of this writing, of the 343 comments to have been approved by the moderators on FIFA.com’s “Have Your Say” discussion board about today’s controversial US-Slovenia 2-2 draw in World Cup competition, not one of them contains even a passing mention of the main topic of discussion of every article that has been written about the game: the fact that referee Koman Coulibaly disallowed the third US goal for reasons that weren’t (and still aren’t) clear to players, fans, or television announcers.

Other soccer discussion boards, like the Washington Post’s Soccer Insider, were flooded with debate and discussion about the questionable call, which began almost immediately after it happened at about 16:40 GMT (the time zone used by FIFA.com). So were Twitter feeds (although at some point Twitter crashed, as it frequently has during the World Cup). The discussion over the controversy really exploded around the internet after the game ended at 16:51, and before long, USA’s tie with Slovenia already had more Google News blog hits (850) than Serbia’s upset of Germany (701).

But on FIFA.com, the silence about USA-Slovenia has been deafening. The latest comment to appear on the discussion board has a timestamp of 20:04. In the 193-minute span between the game’s end and the latest comment’s time stamp, only 24 squeaky-clean comments have been approved. For instance: “great fightback by the USA”; “this is the right result on the balance of play”; “way to go USA”; “the match was really exciting!”; “slovenia is the best team”; “USA are becoming a real nice team!”; and “Slovenia had a great chance to qualify in the next round!! But in the second half we were too defensive.”

By comparison, in that same span of time—193 minutes—after the end of Germany-Serbia (which ended today at 14:20), there were already 175 comments posted. That’s more than seven times as many.

FIFA’s efforts at massaging the conversation about the games will only drive people from using their official sources, erode their trust in them as an organisation, and feed conspiracy theories. As Goldstein puts it: “This doesn’t just undermine fans’ trust in FIFA; it also squanders an easy opportunity for the body that administers the world’s favorite sporting event to become a place where fans can share, discuss, and debate the things that they care most deeply about—thus engendering goodwill and helping to spread the good word about soccer.”

Even though we don’t have any inkling of any actual corruption in South Africa, FIFA is surely only engendering unnecessary further suspicion by such heavy-handed attempts to control the storylines.

We all saw the ball cross the line, Sepp, and we’re going to talk about it whether you like it or not.


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