2010 FIFA World Cup

Colombia v Cote D'Ivoire: Group C - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil
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Top soccer ref Howard Webb reveals how he endures OCD

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LONDON (AP) In his changing room before the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, referee Howard Webb wasn’t comfortable in his blue shirt.

So he took it off.

Put it back on.

Took it off.

Put it back on.

Did this six times.

Moments from the most important game of his life, Webb was struck down by another bout of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition in which a person has obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior.

Webb kept the condition secret throughout a career that saw him referee the Champions League final and World Cup final in the same year, fearing the harsh world of soccer would mark him down as mentally unsound.

He has revealed the condition in an autobiography, and told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he didn’t want to jeopardize his career. “You have to give the impression of being an assured and confident person,” he said.

In Johannesburg, as the Netherlands and Spain prepared for the World Cup final, Webb was trying to get changed. He wrote: “I reached into my kit bag and grabbed my azure blue Adidas shirt. However as I pulled it on, a negative thought invaded my head, my anxiety levels rose and I took the top off again to erase that niggling feeling.

“In the end it took me about six attempts to keep that bloody shirt on my back.”

His mood wasn’t improved by what happened on the field. In a dirty game full of nasty fouls, the ex-policeman showed the yellow card nine times and the red card once, a record for a World Cup final. He also missed a vicious kick to the chest of an opponent by Netherlands player Nigel de Jong.

“There are some that are unrefereeable and that was one of them,” he said about the biggest game in global soccer.

Webb said he tried to avoid sending players off, but agreed that that sometimes meant he failed to show the red card when he should have done.

“I recall a Manchester derby when Cristiano Ronaldo sarcastically applauded me after I booked him,” Webb said. “Of course, I should have showed him the red card (sarcastic applause is seen as dissent, a booking offense) but I thought to myself, `I’m going to change the course of the game by doing this.’ For want of a better word, I bottled it by not sending him off.”

The 45-year-old Webb is a soccer analyst and head of refereeing for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, and says he’d like to land more roles that help to develop refs.

Famous as much for his bald head as his refereeing, Webb says the OCD began when he was a boy growing up in Rotherham, east of Manchester in northern England.

He noticed that sometimes he kissed his mother goodbye in the morning and a bad thought entered his head that something was going to happen to her. So he would kiss her again – and again – until a positive thought about her entered his head and he could relax.

His parents noticed the behavior, but brushed it aside as “Howard’s habits.”

Webb kept it from his football employers. “I could have imagined some less-than-sympathetic person remarking, `Can we trust Webb on a football field? Or shall we hand that semifinal to a ref who’s, erm, not so flaky?”‘

Until he retired in 2014, Webb was England’s top referee, and his autobiography reveals a profession riven by in-fighting among the small group of elite refs who control English Premier League games.

“What had been intended as an informal beer and barbecue night in Cumbria almost descended into a version of Fight Night … between Graham Poll and Mark Halsey,” Webb wrote.

He said: “Watching them trading personal insults and squaring up to each other was pretty unedifying.” Both ex-referees have denied any such clash took place.

While more and more technology was being introduced to help refs, Webb said footballing authorities needed to recognize that technology has its limits.

“There has to be a clear acceptance that it won’t be the answer to every decision in the game,” he said.

Goal-line technology has proved a big success, but Webb was a less a fan of video technology.

“Some decisions aren’t right or wrong,” he said. “They’re subjective decisions that should be made by the referee.”

New York Times investigation raises questions relating to match fixing and the World Cup

South Africa

The World Cup kicks off in less than two weeks, with hosts Brazil taking on Croatia in São Paulo. But as the world gears up for this huge event, a shadow is falling.

The New York Times conducted an in-depth investigation regarding match-fixing ahead of the last tournament, held in South Africa in 2010. Part One, already an intensive look, was published on Saturday, and the full article is worth your time and attention.

In Part One, called “Rigging,” Declan Hill, author of The Fix, teamed up with Jeré Longman, longtime sports reporter for the NYT, to tell the story of the manipulation of at least five matches in South Africa, played out prior to the country hosting the World Cup. They outline the ease in which a company from Singapore, a well-known front for a match-fixing ring, were able to control match outcomes to produce desired results.

The matches detailed in the report were friendlies, arranged both to raise money for the hosts and provide a World Cup warmup for South Africa. But that’s not to say significant games, such as those set to be played in Brazil in two weeks, can’t be affected. Ralf Mutschke, now FIFA’s head of security, admitted that World Cup games are at risk for match-fixing:

The fixers are trying to look for football matches which are generating a huge betting volume, and obviously, international football tournaments such as the World Cup are generating these kinds of huge volumes. Therefore, the World Cup in general has a certain risk.

Games particularly vulnerable to match-fixing are those involving cash-strapped soccer federations, particularly those that lack much administrative oversight. It’s certainly feasible to think that certain teams playing in Brazil may be targeted by betting syndicates looking to get even richer off the World Cup games.

The discussion’s inevitable, but World Cup playoff routs don’t change the allocation debate

Edinson Cavani of Uruguay fights for the ball with Adnan Adous of Jordan during their World Cup qualifying playoff first leg soccer match at Amman International stadium

The mistake here is assuming the World Cup is supposed to feature the world’s 32 best teams. It’s more complicated than that. The desire to give those spots to the most competitive teams has to be balanced against making the competition truly representative. There’s no point of having a ‘World’ Cup if you stack the tournament with European teams.

We’re already at that point. Thirteen spots for UEFA is ridiculous. Sure, a team like Slovenia (in 2010) was probably among the top 32 teams in the world, but within their own region, they’d showed no real ability to compete with the top teams. Not viable competitively and not crucial to the representation of their confederation, Slovenia’s inclusion at the World Cup was superfluous. Giving that spot to a nation in Asia, Africa, or Central America ould have done more to grow the game.

It’s important not to lose sight of that when analyzing today’s routs, particularly since we’re likely to hear a number of people use the results to argue against a more inclusive World Cup. Just at that divide, they’ll note, hinting places like Asia (and by inference, any other region under-represented at World Cups) shouldn’t get more of Europe’s share.

But did we need a game in Amman to tell us the defending South American champions are years ahead of a team that’s never qualified for World Cup? Or a soccer power like Mexico is on another level than New Zealand? No. We knew that before kickoff. Nothing’s changed as a result of today’s blowouts.

If anything, today’s games reminded us of how strange these playoffs are. If you want Asia to get more teams in the World Cup, just give them another spot. Same with Africa and CONCACAF. If we agree places at the World Cup can help grow the game — bringing attention to a sport that may be struggling to gain a greater foothold in some nations — take some spots away from Europe and just give them to the “developing” regions. Don’t force the likes of Jordan and New Zealand to have to knock off relative powers like Uruguay and Mexico to earn their spots. And in the process, make the Uruguays and Mexicos of the world to prove their worth in qualifying. Remove their net.

If it’s not politically viable to take spots from Europe, then cue Michel Platini’s 40-team World Cup. Or perhaps decide we care too much about growing the game, not enough about making the World Cup the most competitive tournament it can be, even if that attitude would have never allowed the competition to grow to the point it’s at now. Where would teams from Africa, Asia, North America and the Caribbean be in a world where World Cup spots were only tied to competitiveness?

Yet when somebody complains about the scoreline to today’s playoffs, that will be the subtext. Neither Jordan nor New Zealand are up to snuff, further evidence that redistributing World Cup spots or expanding the tournament is a bad idea.

But World Cup spots aren’t about results alone. If there’s any complaint to be had about today’s playoffs, it’s that they were played at all. We don’t need to see if Mexico and Uruguay are better than still-developing soccer cultures. We need to do more to help those soccer cultures develop.

‘Mistake’: Sepp Blatter confesses possible Qatar 2022 error

Qatar 2022

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard a FIFA executive call Qatar 2022 a mistake. But it is the first time the M-word has passed the lips of the most powerful man in world soccer. That Sepp Blatter’s now acknowledging FIFA may have screwed up may clear the way to finally correcting the problem, potentially providing long-term solutions for when climate forces World Cups to shift seasons.

In July, FIFA executive committee chairman Theo Zwanzinger (former German soccer head) called awarding World Cup 2022 to Qatar a “blatant mistake,” but citing reasons like the “unity of German football,” Zwanzinger’s complaints sounded more like self-centered objection than broad, level-headed concern.

Blatter, however, has no such allegiance, even if his devotion of FIFA’s power creates a whole different bias. But in this case, with so many people objecting to a summer World Cup in Qatar, it’s now in Blatter’s best interest to admit his organization made a mistake.

From The Guardian’s reporting (linked above):

Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, has admitted that it “may well be that we made a mistake” in awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar but underlined his commitment to move the tournament to the winter to avoid the searing summer heat …

Blatter has swung from saying that it was for the Qatari World Cup organisers to insist on a switch from summer, when temperatures can reach 50C, to proposing a vote when the Fifa executive board meets on 3 and 4 October on a move in principle.

This issue has been vaulted back to into the news by Tuesday’s meeting of the European Clubs Association – the body expected to provide the greatest resistance to a winter World Cup. The potential to interfere with Europe’s club season was expected to spur objections, but as organization senior vice president Umberto Gandini, AC Milan’s director, put it on Monday in Geneva, the shift in season is “almost inevitable.”

Gandini’s bigger fear, at this point, is that moving the World Cup will becoming more than a one-off for 2022, a potential policy made more likely by Blatter’s recent comments to Inside World Football (as collected by The Guardian):

“If we maintain, rigidly, the status quo, then a Fifa World Cup can never be played in countries that are south of the equator or indeed near the equator,” he said. “We automatically discriminate against countries that have different seasons than we do in Europe. I think it is high time that Europe starts to understand that we do not rule the world any more, and that some former European imperial powers can no longer impress their will on to others in far away places.”

If you’ve been following this blog for long, you know this is my exact position. Committing the World Cup to any specific time of the year precludes a number of nations from hosting the event. A number of these are highly populated nations (China, India) where a World Cup could eventually be highly influential, while other regions (North Africa, West Africa) are already soccer-loving areas where World Cups at another point of the year would make for a better event (rationale that would also apply to places like the United States and Mexico, previous hosts of World Cups).

source: Reuters
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani and his wife Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser al-Misnad hold a copy of the World Cup trophy after the awarding of the 2022 World Cup. The event marked the first time a World Cup finals was awarded to a nation in the Middle East – the second time the event will take place in the Asian confederation (Japan-South Korea 2002).

Beyond that, it’s just kind of narrow-minded. Why commit to one point of the calendar when you don’t have to? Why not take every potential World Cup and ask “how do we make this the best event possible?” Relative to that question, the status quo seems confusingly restrictive: “How do we make this the best June-July event possible?”

This, however, is not a popular view. Many believes the World Cup just belongs in the European summer. Why? Because that’s how it is. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it should be. That’s what people have grown to expect.

You’ll hear arguments about television viewers, broadcast revenue, and the impossibility of shifting schedules. None of them are true. Nobody’s going to avoid watching a January-February World Cup. As such, broadcasters aren’t going to pay less. As much as European leagues will argue a schedule can’t be done, an early August until December, March through late June window will allow even the crowded English football season to be played out. The objections aren’t about impossibility. They’re about inconvenience.

As Qatar is teaching us (on multiple levels), there is no “should be”. Instead, it’s about doing what’s best for the event. And now that FIFA has committed to this Qatar mistake, it’s time to move the finals to January. Because that’s the way to put on the best World Cup 2022.

And once that precedent is set, it’s time to look at places like West Africa or China, look 20 or 40 years down the road, and ask who’s best served by committing the World Cup to summer? Is it the 700-plus million people in Europe? Or the over 6 billion people living elsewhere in the world?

FIFA taskforce to recommend pressuring Russia, Qatar over anti-homosexuality laws

Nigeria v Burkina Faso - 2013 Africa Cup of Nations Final

If they were serious about influencing Russia and Qatar, FIFA would threaten to pull the World Cups from their 2018 and 2022 hosts. Perhaps that will come, but at this point, we’re seeing (at most) mild indignation from soccer’s world governing body over each country’s anti-homosexuality legislation, with president Sepp Blatter at one time going so far to say potential  gay fans at Qatar in 2022 should “refrain from sexual activity.” After all, nothing says anti-discrimation like ‘please stop being you.’

That stance cast today’s news as a form of meek progress, with FIFA’s anti-discrimination taskforce set to recommend the broader body exert more pressure on Russia and Qatar. Russia recently enacted legislation outlawing public displays of homosexuality, while Qatar bans homosexuality altogether. While much of the focus on Russia’s laws has centered on next year’s Sochi Winter Olympics, FIFA faces having to deal with the discriminatory laws five years from now. And again in 2022.

While Blatter’s comments (made before Russia enacted their laws) did initially brush off the issue, FIFA’s new anti-discrimation taskforce, formed last year and chaired by CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, will reportedly recommend that the body take a more active role in trying to reform the laws.

Via The Guardian, here’s former England FA chairman David Berstein, a member of the taskforce, on the group’s view:

“These are issues of civil rights, fans and players of all races, religions and sexuality need to feel comfortable going to the World Cups in both Russia and Qatar. It is going to be quite a challenge but we have to make sure that football becomes the vehicle for social change that we claim it is. This is a big issue.”

Football as a vehicle for social change is a pretty nebulous, self-serving concept, but the principal could motivate FIFA to do the right thing. That’s assuming this taskforce is more than mere lip service to acting against discrimination. FIFA may be content saying they have a task force, as opposed to actually acting on their recommendations.

Between these issues and the increased attention to racism that’s arisen, FIFA has incentive to address the problem, if only to avoid increased coverage of the problem. Whether that incentive transcends their want to choose World Cup hosts like Qatar remains to be seen. It’s not like Qatar wasn’t anti-gay when World Cup 2022 was awarded.

Urging FIFA, as a whole, to get tougher on discrimination is a positive step by the taskforce. We’ll have to wait and see what that means to the broader governing body.

But if FIFA were serious about curtailing discrimination, they would not only pressure Russia and Qatar. They would dissociate entirely. Given they’ve already awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, step one would be threatening to take them away.