FIFA

PRATO, ITALY - APRIL 13: General view during the FIFA Futsal playoff match between Italy and Hungary on April 13, 2016 in Prato, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
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FIFA disbands racism task force ahead of World Cup in Russia

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) FIFA has disbanded its anti-racism task force, declaring the work complete despite ongoing concerns about discriminatory behavior in 2018 World Cup host Russia.

FIFA wrote to members of the task force to say that it has “completely fulfilled its temporary mission” and “is hereby dissolved and no longer in operation.”

“I wish I could say that I am shocked by the decision, but unfortunately I am not,” task force member Osasu Obayiuwana told The Associated Press on Sunday. “The problem of racism in football remains a burning, very serious and topical one, which need continuous attention.

“I personally think there remained a lot of very serious work for the task force to have done – the 2018 World Cup in Russia being one such matter. But it is evident the FIFA administration takes a different position.”

The task force was established in 2013 by then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter and headed by Jeffrey Webb, a vice president of world soccer’s governing body until he was arrested in 2015 as part of the American investigation into soccer corruption.

Webb, who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, was replaced exactly a year ago as task force chairman by Congolese federation president Constant Omari, who also sits on FIFA’s ruling council.

“We never had a single meeting under his chairmanship,” Obayiuwana said. “I wrote him, more than once, asking for when a meeting would be held. But I never received a reply from him.”

Obayiuwana, a journalist, broadcaster and qualified lawyer, received the letter from FIFA on Friday announcing the end of the task force.

“The FIFA Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination was set up with your help on a temporary basis to develop recommendations for FIFA,” wrote Gerd Dembowski, FIFA’s diversity and anti-discrimination manager.

“We are therefore delighted to inform you that all of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented and all resulting projects are ongoing.”

FIFA pointed to the introduction of an anti-discrimination monitoring system at matches, the launch of a “Good Practice Guide ,” starting a team of footballing legends and a new diversity award. Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s first female and non-European secretary general, will present the award on Monday at the SoccerEx convention in Manchester.

FIFA also told task force members that its own initiatives “actually exceed the working group’s recommendations” – trumpeting its “Say No to Racism” campaign, women’s leadership conferences and programs in Russia. There are less than nine months until Russia stages the Confederations Cup, the warm-up event for the 2018 World Cup.

The most recent research from the Moscow-based SOVA Center and the UEFA-affiliated FARE Network reported a surge in the number of racist displays by Russian soccer fans, with most cases going unpunished. Researchers logged 92 incidents of discriminatory displays and chants by Russian fans in and around stadiums in the 2014-15 season, against a total of 83 for the previous two seasons put together.

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

FIFA hires Marco van Basten as technical director

CARDIFF, WALES - NOVEMBER 13:  Danny Blind manager of Netherlands (r) stands with assistant coach Marco Van Basten before the friendly International match between Wales and Netherlands at Cardiff City Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Cardiff, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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ZURICH (AP) FIFA appointed Netherlands and AC Milan great Marco van Basten as a technical director on Friday to help raise coaching standards.

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FIFA confirmed Van Basten’s new job after he resigned last month as an assistant coach with the Dutch national team.

Van Basten was at FIFA headquarters for the first time, and will have the title chief officer for technical development, FIFA said in a statement.

He will work with former Milan teammate Zvonimir Boban, who FIFA President Gianni Infantino hired as deputy secretary general overseeing football matters.

“It’s a great honor for me to be appointed for this assignment,” Van Basten said in the statement.

Bojan Krkic not eligible to play for Serbia, FIFA says

Bojan ripped it up in his debut PL season.
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ZURICH (AP) Bojan Krkic will not be allowed to play for Serbia because he has already represented Spain in a competitive match.

Serbia wanted Bojan to represent the country because the Stoke forward’s father is Serbian, but FIFA denied a request to change his international eligibility.

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Serbia made the request despite a long-established FIFA rule that means players are not permitted to change national teams after appearing in a competitive match.

Eight years ago, the former Barcelona player made one appearance for Spain, where he was born. At 18, Bojan came on as a substitute in Spain’s 4-0 win over Armenia in Albacete in September 2008. Spain went on to win the 2010 World Cup.

Serbia is in a six-team 2018 World Cup qualifying group that includes Wales, Austria and Ireland.

FIFA moves toward goal of video review at 2018 World Cup

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 07: The goalline technology is tested prior to the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Swansea City at the Boleyn Ground, May 7, 2016, London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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GENEVA (AP) The goal of helping referees with video review to make decisions at the 2018 World Cup has been facing key tests at FIFA headquarters.

Two systems among the 11 in talks to win the World Cup contract were undergoing trials this week during training sessions with Europe’s candidates to referee in Russia.

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An idea met with a skeptical response when then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter presented it in 2014 has support from his successor, Gianni Infantino – even if Blatter’s idea of NFL-style challenges by coaches looks unlikely to survive.

It is not certain that video assistance referees, or VARs, will be approved in time for the World Cup.

Still, history was made on Wednesday with a first significant intervention by video review at a Dutch Cup match. Willem II player Anouar Kali was sent off for fouling an Ajax opponent one minute after the referee initially showed a yellow card.

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Here is how FIFA is moving to give top-level referees the kind of help that is standard in American sports leagues:

THE REQUIREMENTS

FIFA wants video review only for potential “clear errors” in four situations: goals being scored, penalties being awarded, players being sent off and cases of mistaken identity.

It needs a technology system to help VARs and the referee communicate quickly without spoiling the game’s flow.

Massimo Busacca, FIFA’s director of refereeing, believes it should take “not take more than five, six seconds” to review an incident.

“If we need one (camera) angle more, of course it can take two seconds more,” Busacca told The Associated Press.

In most situations, play has naturally stopped and review time will not disrupt the flow.

All involved agree that calling back play to impose a decision not initially taken is the biggest challenge for FIFA and its rule-making panel, known as IFAB, which must give final approval.

THE TECHNOLOGY SYSTEM

The DreamCatcher system developed by Evertz Microsystems of Burlington, Ontario is among FIFA’s options. It has already been proven in NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL games.

This week at FIFA, two DreamCatcher operators worked in a windowless portable cabin next to the hedges lining the soccer body’s compound.

Two banks of screens – each to be monitored by one of two VARs, helped by a technician – take feeds from cameras around the artificial turf pitch that flanks FIFA’s offices.

The largest wide-screen TV above the desk shows a live game feed. Two smaller screens at desk level show several angles of the action at a slight delay, allowing the VARs to take a quick glance at an incident. The VAR can ask to zoom in anywhere on the split-screen images. Each World Cup match has at least 30 cameras, but too many angles can slow a decision.

Though the NBA and MLB centralize review operations in one location, FIFA would likely want each VAR team in a truck or booth at each of the 12 stadiums in Russia.

FIFA had set a two-year timetable and wants a decision by IFAB by March 2018.

“This has been the most thorough review of the leagues we have worked with,” DreamCatcher project manager Nima Malekmanesh said.

THE REFEREES’ BOSS

Six seconds. In that time, Busacca wants his officials to know if they must change a clear mistake.

That will require expert analysis and communication skills from the VAR, who Busacca believes should also be a FIFA-list official.

“Absolutely. If he is not the same level, how can he change the decision of the referee?” said Busacca, who suggests video review could be a rarity at World Cups with only the best referees taken from each continent.

“If you have a top referee, one situation every four or five games,” he said.

Busacca insists video review cannot compromise the “personality and football understanding” of his officials, and he is no fan of letting coaches challenge decisions.

“Never lose the authority of referees, never take it out,” he said.

THE REFEREE

Bjorn Kuipers supports video review within clear limits.

“You need a VAR which you can trust,” said the referee from the Netherlands. “If you don’t have a VAR on the same level, it will be difficult.”

He foresees the two video reviewers joining a referee’s two assistants and fourth official as part of a regular match team from the same country, speaking their native language.

“The communication has to be very clear, very short,” said Kuipers, who worked the 2014 Champions League final before going to the World Cup in Brazil. “We have 10 seconds or 12 seconds if we want but it’s not good for the game.”

Kuipers was granted 10 seconds earlier this month when Italy hosted France in Bari, and he made a key video-assisted decision to show France defender Djibril Sidibe only a yellow card for fouling Daniele De Rossi. The Italy midfielder’s teammates wanted a red card.

“Players like it when they got confirmation,” Kuipers said, referring to that outcome.

THE FIFA MANAGER

As FIFA’s lead official for technological innovation, Johannes Holzmueller oversaw the process of approving goal-line technology and picking the GoalRef system for the 2014 World Cup.

Holzmueller visited the U.S. in February to hear from pro leagues about their experiences with video review.

The 11 contenders in talks with FIFA also include American firm XOS Digital and Hawk-Eye, the British system used in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

The technology works, and FIFA must find “a clear protocol” for feeding information to referees, Holzmueller said.

Coaches’ challenges could lead to stoppages to tactical reasons, and requiring referees to check images on a tablet computer also appears to be slow.

“We have to look at, `Does it improve the game and not just refereeing?”‘ Holzmueller said.

Infantino fighting resistance to overhaul FIFA

ATHENS, GREECE - SEPTEMBER14: FIFA's President Gianni Infantino during the opening of the 12th Extraordinary UEFA congress in Lagonissi  in Athens, Greece  14 September 2016.   (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)
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ZURICH (AP) Sepp Blatter has been expelled from FIFA but not eradicated from its headquarters.

A swift left turn after entering FIFA’s slate-walled lobby in Zurich still takes visitors to the place where football’s disgraced self-styled “godfather” is forever president. A plaque of infamy commemorates the FIFA leadership on the day their gleaming global base opened in 2007. Now it provides a snapshot of a sullied era in soccer governance, with six of seven vice presidents serving under Blatter on that May day since implicated in wrongdoing or banned outright from the sport.

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FIFA is still trying to shake off the toxic legacy of Blatter, whose 17-year presidency was abruptly halted last October as the extent of his financial misdemeanors started to unravel. The first seven months of Gianni Infantino’s presidency have seen the charge sheet against his predecessor grow even as the new leader embarks on a mission to clean up the organization and rebuild trust.

And yet Infantino shuffles in his seat when Blatter’s name is raised during an Associated Press interview, seemingly reticent to join the chorus of those condemning the man revered for so long by soccer leaders globally.

“That’s not my job to do that,” Infantino responded when asked to assess how damaging Blatter was to FIFA. “There is an ethics committee looking at this.”

Asked whether the 80-year-old Blatter should face jail, Infantino responded: “I don’t want to comment on the past. The facts speak for themselves.”

Already serving a six-year ban for authorizing an improper payment of 2 million Swiss francs to Michel Platini (one of those now discredited former vice presidents), Blatter is under further investigation for bribery and corruption by the FIFA ethics mechanisms he created. He is also a suspect in a Swiss criminal case but denies wrongdoing.

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FIFA’s own lawyers said in June that Blatter and two colleagues gained improperly through annual salary increases, World Cup bonuses and other incentives exceeding 79 million Swiss francs over five years.

Infantino, a Swiss-Italian law graduate, is more guarded than FIFA’s own lawyers, withholding a verdict on Blatter until a forensic and financial audit is complete.

“There will be conclusions of this audit on what went wrong and why things went wrong and on what we have to do to improve things here in the future,” Infantino said during an exclusive 30-minute interview – held in a subterranean lounge at FIFA’s Swiss fortress-like HQ where his finger print was required for entry.

“What concerns the past, there are people are dealing with. I have to make sure in the future wrongdoing doesn’t happen anymore in FIFA and around FIFA.”

That isn’t easy when Infantino in February inherited a workforce inevitably packed with Blatter loyalists, staff resistant to change or those still disgruntled at being cut out of the decision-making process. Some executives were dismissed as Infantino cleared out the old guard.

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“When you have to embrace such significant reforms, it’s obviously normal you get some blowback and turbulence,” Infantino said. “The worst for a human being is to change his habits. It’s obvious some people were not happy but we have to move on.”

Infantino feels ready to declare: “There is a change now in the culture.”

“The vast majority is embracing the change,” he added, “for a more flat organization where discussion and debate is not prohibited but is open.”

And yet for months, while striving to instill a new adherence to ethical business practices, Infantino was himself under investigation by FIFA’s ethics prosecutors.

Infantino has dismissed as “orchestrated hysteria” claims of excessive spending billed to FIFA for rental cars, a private driver, a tuxedo, flowers and a mattress for his FIFA-owned apartment in Zurich, and a step machine for his office. A FIFA ethics court, which looked into Infantino’s use of private flights to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican, Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the Emir of Qatar, found that no rules had been broken.

The damaging leaks, which emerged in early June after a shaky first congress in Mexico for Infantino, seemed intended to paint him as unscrupulous as the old regime.

“The perception was also fed by those who did not want change to happen – you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs,” he said. “You learn always from everything you do. I’m certainly not someone who has never made mistakes. I am certainly not immune from making mistakes. What is important is to always do things with conviction.”

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The 46-year-old Infantino is FIFA’s accidental president. His campaign was only launched on the back of Platini being suspended with Blatter last year, emerging from the shadow of his former boss at European soccer’s governing body to lead the global game.

As UEFA’s top administrator, Infantino’s moments in the limelight came when hosting Champions League draws while his day-to-day work was in the background, implementing Platini’s policies. The two men ended up on the same plane from Switzerland to the UEFA Congress in Athens this week, when onlookers were quick to spread word of their lack of interaction.

“Before the plane we shook hands,” said Infantino, who occupies the job that Platini, the former France captain and coach, craved for so long.

Assuming the leadership of the world’s most popular sport and World Cup organizer hasn’t been comfortable for Infantino.

“One other thing that did surprise me, beside the tough opposition, was the public scrutiny that you are faced with,” Infantino said. “You learn to deal with this, to be maybe a bit more sensitive.”

Apart from swelling the World Cup by eight teams to make it a 40-country competition and taking about changes to the Olympic football competition, Infantino is still short of detail about his plans for FIFA – beyond overseeing its clean-up.

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And there is wariness not only about condemning Blatter but also Russia, host of the 2018 World Cup, over a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation which exposed a state-sponsored doping scheme that included football,

“It’s not my job to judge this report,” Infantino said.

“Let’s work in a positive sense in this direction rather than trying to undermine” the World Cup, he added, while backing Russia’s sports minister, Vitality Mutko, implicated in the doping program. Mutko denies any wrongdoing.

When it comes to threats by Europe’s elite clubs to form a breakaway Super League or world competition, Infantino sidestepped the chance to assert FIFA’s authority and warn them to remain in the existing structures.

Instead, Infantino has prioritized enhancing FIFA’s relations with clubs, hosting Barcelona’s president in Zurich on Thursday to “re-establish relations after two years” following the Spanish champions’ transfer ban in 2015.

Asked if the tax fraud conviction for Barcelona’s star player, Lionel Messi, should prevent him being crowned world player of the year again by FIFA, Infantino said: “It has nothing to do with his performances on the pitch.” Messi has said he is appealing the Spanish court’s deicsion.

Infantino’s public replies and actions ooze caution in marked contrast to the shoot-from-the-hip Blatter, whose staff would be on tenterhooks, fearing a gaffe or controversial statement, when he faced the media.

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“I don’t work with threats,” Infantino says of his leadership style. “I work much more on dialogue and finding common solutions with everyone.”

Infantino cannot afford to offend the global game. He is only completing Blatter’s ill-fated fifth, four-year term that started in May 2015 and has to seek re-election in less than three years.

“The time is not enough to do all the things I would like to do,” Infantino said.

Rob Harris at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports