Although the organization puts on arguably the greatest sporting event for professional athletes on the planet, the term ‘professionalism’ is probably not one you can associate with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Unfortunately this lack of professionalism can and does impact this greatest sporting event, the quadrennial World Cup currently going on in Brazil. This is particularly true in the area of referees.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), entitled “The Problem with World Cup Referees”, reporter Joshua Robinson explored that precise topic. There are several problems with FIFA’s approach to referees. The first is a conscious approach, which is designed not to put the most professional referees on the pitch. FIFA does select the most experienced or even the referees who show the best performance. Rather, “While the World Cup’s 32 teams must play their way into the tournament through a grueling two-year qualifying process, FIFA, the sport’s governing body, pulls referees from more than 40 countries out of a sense of fairness to all of its member associations.” In other words, a person who has never even been to a World Cup, who referees local clubs in Tahiti, “is a pulled hamstring away from the biggest stage in the game. And it isn’t just the alternates who lack experience. Among the 24 official referees are several who have never called games involving big-name teams and players.”
Steve Jaive, an ESPN refereeing analyst and a former NBA official, was quoted in the article as saying “I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t have the best soccer officials there.” Moreover, “some critics believe that World Cup games ought to use referees with experience ejecting superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo.
David Elleray, a retired English Premier League (EPL) referee was quoted as follows “A referee from Brazil, Argentina, Italy, England, week in, week out, they are refereeing high-profile matches.”
To compound this race towards ineptitude, FIFA stubbornly refuses to enter the 21st Century and use the technology available to it to get the calls right. As noted by Robinson, “Perhaps befitting a sport founded in England, soccer is an officiating monarchy. Each game features a single referee whose calls can’t be challenged on the field or—until this World Cup—assisted by goal-line technology. Although two linesmen run along the edge of the pitch raising flags to indicate offside and fouls, the referee is free to ignore those calls.” Anyone who remembers the 2010 World Cup and the absolutely pathetic level of competency by the referees will welcome even this modest advance.
Yet another problem that FIFA stubbornly refuses to address is the pay for referees. The last time FIFA publicly announced the compensation for referees at the World Cup was back in 2006 and then it was listed at $38,000. That is an incredibly small amount of money for such an important role. The entire FIFA referee system has come under greater concern because of match-fixing allegations. In a two part series in the New York Times (NYT); part 1 was entitled “Fixed Soccer Matches Cast Shadow Over World Cup” and part 2 was entitled “Inside the Fixing: How a Gang Battered Soccer’s Frail Integrity”, reporters Declan Hill and Jeré Longman wrote about a NYT investigation of match fixing ahead of the last World Cup and provided an unusually detailed look at the ease with which professional gamblers can fix matches. The article reviewed an “internal, confidential report by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. FIFA’s investigative report and related documents, which were obtained by The New York Times and have not been publicly released, raise serious questions about the vulnerability of the World Cup to match fixing.” The reporters noted that the FIFA “report found that the match-rigging syndicate and its referees infiltrated the upper reaches of global soccer in order to fix exhibition matches and exploit them for betting purposes. It provides extensive details of the clever and brazen ways that fixers apparently manipulated “at least five matches and possibly more” in South Africa ahead of the last World Cup. As many as 15 matches were targets, including a game between the United States and Australia, according to interviews and emails printed in the FIFA report.”
These NYT articles detailed how betting syndicates would target the national football associations that are charged with selecting and supplying the referees in international matches. The articles pointed out how the betting syndicates would find the weakest link in any security or compliance system and then exploit it. In the past World Cup it was both the South African football association that signed contracts allowing the betting syndicates to select the referees for games to actually bribery of referees themselves.
These problems were made more relevant on Monday with an article in The Telegraph, entitled “Football match-fixing: Ghana deal casts cloud over World Cup finals in Brazil”, in which reporters Claire Newell, Holly Watt and Ben Bryant detailed that the “Ghana Football Association calls in police after undercover investigation by The Telegraph and Channel Four’s Dispatches programme finds that the President of Ghana’s FA agreed for the team to play in international matches that others were prepared to rig.”
They wrote, “The president of the country’s football association then met the undercover reporter and investigator, along with Mr Forsythe and Mr Nketiah, and agreed a contract which would see the team play in the rigged matches, in return for payment. The contract stated that it would cost $170,000 (£100,000) for each match organised by the fixers involving the Ghanaian team, and would allow a bogus investment firm to appoint match officials, in breach of Fifa rules. “You [the company] will always have to come to us and say how you want it to go…the result,” said Mr Forsythe. “That’s why we will get the officials that we have greased their palms, so they will do it. If we bring in our own officials to do the match…You’re making your money. You have to give them [the referees] something… they are going to do a lot of work for you, so you have to give them something,” said Mr Nketiah, who is also the chief executive of the Ghanaian football club Berekum Chelsea and sits on the management committee of the Ghana U20 national team.”
In a meeting prior to the 2014 World Cup, when Ghana was playing warm-up matches in the US, Forsythe and Nketiah introduced the undercover team to Kwesi Nyantakyi, the president of the Ghana FA. In a meeting in “Florida, the president agreed to a contract that stated each match would cost the investment company $170,000 and that they could appoint the match officials for each game. A contract was drawn up that specified that “The Company will appoint and pay for the cost of the referees/match officials in consultation with an agreed Fifa Member association(s),” in direct breach of the rules that prohibit third parties from appointing officials, in order to protect their impartiality. During the meeting, the president suggested that the fictional investment company put on two matches after the World Cup to prove that they were able to organise games.”
What are the lessons for the compliance practitioner? I think two jump out from the examples from the world of FIFA. The first is to assess your risk. Clearly the style FIFA is using to manage the quality of its referee corp is less than acceptable. FIFA must provide clear evidence that the best quality of refereeing is on the field, together with the best players in the world. Further, technology should be employed to make sure it is the athletes who decide the outcome of a game, not some blown call. FIFA should ensure that ‘getting it right’ is what officiating is and not idiotic calls that any third-grader could see were incorrect.
But the second problem seems to me to be even greater. The system itself either lends itself to corruption or makes itself more susceptible to corruption. If a company has a sales structure that does not allow for proper oversight or even transparency, then the sales structure should be changed to allow such oversight. The money generated by the sport of soccer worldwide makes clear that professionalism must be brought to the referee ranks. If FIFA pays some paltry sum for men who hold the game literally in their hands, it needs to ensure that they can resist a bribe to fix matches.
As to the 2014 World Cup it has been spectacular, largely in spite of FIFA and not because of it. And, of course,
I believe that
I believe that we will win.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014