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Fixing some wonky wheels at FIFA

One of several official FIFA logos
One of several official FIFA logos

FIFA, our guardian of the integrity of this cherished game has a couple of wonky wheels in need of straightening.

Ask me why I love football and I will tell you it is, in part because football is such a civilized sport. Baseball is civilized too, and like football the “grand old game” is steeped in tradition. But long ago, baseball and I had a falling out.

As much I might try, it is impossible to think of the Blue Jays as Toronto’s team and much less Canada’s team as the marketers like to refer to this assemblage of mercenaries. They leave me with something akin to that stood-up, empty feeling. In only a matter of hours following the season-ending last out, every pre-packed and ready-to-go player on the team high tails it back to wherever he might call home. The local team? Disbanded. The fan attachment? Disjointed. And not a Blue Jay could give a damn.

I fear for world football too.

Really, it is a relatively new thing, this business of club teams shopping the world and stuffing their roster chock full of young up-and-comers as well as established starters. What is that doing to things like community pride and attachment, them versus us, homegrown talent and player development which, unlike baseball, football has always championed?

It gives us leagues of teams like those in the English Premiership; a league which boasts world’s finest status at the expense of hundreds of English born players and coaches pushed off the roster sheet. Does Chelsea really need to keep their traditional English “Tea Lady” for the few Englishmen left in the line-up? In Argentina clubs like Boca and Estudientes maintain financial stability by grooming players solely for the export market, with no intent of permanence. Mexico”s Chivas, somewhat of a national treasure, find it tough to win titles because they insist upon maintaining their tradition of signing only Mexican born players.

National teams are well on their way down the same road.

If such things as long lost blood lines or hastily acquired citizenship are good enough for FIFA to tie a player to a country, national associations are willing to do it. Even twist it if they can. As a spectator sport, football prospered on human need for identity. So, dread the day diluted national pride and our flag, our colours, our people, our way, and everything else that goes with it, homogenizes world cup football to such a degree the playing of national anthems becomes a de-sensitized pre-game exercise.

Just maybe it is appropriate to replace under 17 with under 18 thus protecting young players from international exposure until they are no longer minors. Just maybe, at 18 and only at 18, all players must pledge allegiance to a nation. Changes of mind not allowed. Pretty tough for some individuals but good for the game.

Wish I didn’t have to revert back to baseball to illustrate the other wobble – well more than just a wobble ‘cause the wheel has already fallen off – FIFA must fix before qualifying for 2014 begins. I’m all for tradition. Tradition is another of the reasons I love football, but the tradition of accepting grossly inadequate refereeing must go. For as long as I can remember, refereeing has not been up to the game. Let’s be perfectly clear here. I am all for keeping the tradition of on-the-scene human decision making. No instant replays in football please. All tha’s needed is enough live field officials to do the job right.

Those umpire crews in baseball do not make glaring mistakes. Countless television replays prove their split second, millimeter close decisions to be dependably bang on. And how do they do it? Specialization. Six umpires – right there on the playing field with nine ballplayers – each with a specific job to do and know one even notices they are there. They work as a team and as such, each knows the others moves.

Who says 4 or 5 assistant referees can’t work? Who says they must not enter on to the field to get the right angle to make the right call? Eight years of team building, two years of qualifying, and six months of concentrated final preparation is just too much to allow the dreadfully awful calls we saw in the 2002 Spain versus South Korea match or Argentina – England in 1986. France – Ireland is just most recent in a long list of disgrace.

Just maybe, the way around these things would be for the FIFA Office State to grant diplomatic immunity to unpledged players and field a couple of displaced person teams. Put them in Oceana for qualifying. Bora Milutinovic and Gus Hiddink are naturals to coach them. And just to have a truly measurable control group to verify improvement, wouldn’t it make sense to deploy six or seven man crews of MLS referees to work that confederation?

Did I really say that?

This column first appeared as my back page commentary in the February issue of Inside Soccer Magazine  It is here now on Examiner in case you missed the print version.



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