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 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
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).
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?