Football is a sport with much scope for human error, in truth or in impression. The nature of its rules leaves many things vaguer than they need to be. Much scope exists for interpretation. Moreover, Sepp Blatter, the current head of international football administration, FIFA, likes it that way. He thinks that errors by officials are part of the game’s essential character. He may be right, but what if tolerating those errors makes the sport more dangerous than it need be? When less money was involved in football than it is today, one could understand just living with mistakes: little was at stake. Now, mistakes may mean millions of Euros or Swiss Francs, to use FIFA’s home country’s currency.
Two incidents during the current World Cup have brought this topic to a head.
First, an apparent biting incident occurred during a match, but was not penalized by match officials. FIFA investigated, using video evidence, and found a player guilty of an offence and slapped a heavy ban on him, plus a financial penalty. This, despite the player claiming it was a simple accident during play. Luis Suárez’s bite on Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder is not enshrined in history.
Second, last night, during the match between Brazil and Colombia, the home team’s star player was kneed in the back by a Colombian player. The immediate result was that Neymar was stretchered off. The referee, Carlos Velasco Carballo, had not signaled a foul, so the Colombian player, Juan Zuñiga, was not sanctioned. Since, doctors have reported that Neymar suffered a fractured vertebra and cannot play again in the tournament. Brazil won the match and next play a semifinal on Tuesday, against Germany.
Watch the incident, yourself, for the first or n-th time.
Many will say that the chances of Brazil winning the semi are much reduced due to Neymar’s absence. That’s speculation. But, there will be losses. Neymar has several sponsors; they may see his value fall if he cannot play and they cannot exploit his presence. Related, viewers may be fewer if this star is not playing. Whether we like it or not, people gamble on football games, and it’s not universally illegal. Bets associated with Neymar will be compromised. His club may lose his services unexpectedly, depending on the expected recovery time. More examples exist. It may take a few days for them to surface.
FIFA has announced it will investigate the Neymar incident. We may see another result as in the Suárez case.
But, in addition, legal actions may follow. Footballers are reluctant to bring legal actions against each other. But, if Neymar’s playing career is jeopardized, he may want to seek financial redress. Likewise, sponsors may seek redress. I am no lawyer, but can imagine how that could open many cans of worms that bring the offending player, certainly, and the match officials and FIFA, probably, into the case as culpable. Let’s leave that idea there for lawyers to ponder, as I’m sure they are doing already.
Many have clamoured for FIFA to use video reviews during matches to help resolve contentious incidents. Put simply, FIFA refuses to do so. Their detailed reasons often relate to the flow of the game, and Mr. Blatter’s liking of errors.
FIFA used this World Cup to introduce ‘goal line technology’, to avoid embarrassing mistakes that led to goals being awarded or denied (as in 2010, when Lampard scored for England against Germany) when the opposite should have been the case. It has succeeded in that task.
But, that leaves many important issues unresolved on the field, while TV viewers can see replays that show clearly, at best, mistakes were made, or, at worst, that no one can really determine what took place.
Other sports have moved to use video replays to help match officials, and the sports have not changed fundamentally as a result. Football has fewer natural breaks, but many do exist. In fact, stoppages are integral to the game, as can be seen from data showing how little time involves the ball being in play. In the Neymar incident, the time taken to treat the injured player could have been used for review with no extra time lost. So, the argument against stopping for reviews is not strong. However, I need not belabour that point now, because the details of how to apply reviews can be worked out later.
The issue is really whether the sport needs replays to maintain its integrity, players’ health, and the financial interests of clubs and sponsors in tact.
Had a player died or been permanently disabled, previously, during a match with or without sanctioning a culprit, the matter might have come up sooner. But, the fact that one of the sport’s stars has been affected (at a crucial juncture in a tournament, and on home soil) changes focus, drastically. That’s a sad reality, but there it is.
I think the clamour will rise over coming days. Referees can be shielded by the rules of the game because they can claim reasonably to not having seen incidents. That’s hard to disprove. But, it also opens up much suspicion about motives and biases of officials. If that comes into serious doubt, then the game’s integrity must fall.
But, I won’t jump too far ahead. Let’s watch this incident develop after the immediate dust has settled, knowing that should Brazil lose the semi all hell could break loose.