Peter Goldstein


 
Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Don't mess with Wendy Testaburger



    As our man on the Africa beat, I guess I should comment on the news that FIFA has docked Cameroon six points in the qualifiers for wearing an illegal one-piece uniform at the African Nations Cup. OK, I'll comment.

It stinks.

    For those few out there who don't know the story: in the group stage of the Nations Cup, Cameroon unveiled a new uniform, called UniQt, manufactured by Puma. Instead of the traditional shirt and shorts, it was a one-piece affair, with shirt and shorts together (it also had a silly set of claw marks on the side--Lions, you know?). FIFA took a look, said the uniform was in violation of Law 4, and told Cameroon to junk it when they played in the quarterfinal against Nigeria. Cameroon went ahead and wore it anyway, lost, and went home. And nobody thought much about it again--until last week, that is. In punishment for the rule violation, a "serious infringement of the laws of the game," FIFA's disciplinary committee fined the Cameroon federation $154,000. And much more importantly, they docked the team six points in the standings for group 3 in the World Cup qualifiers.

    Consider the magnitude, the incredible magnitude, of that sanction. Six points! Cameroon is out of the World Cup. You can't spot Egypt or the Ivory Coast six points in a 10-game group stage. They might not even make the next Nations Cup; Sudan is certainly no slouch, and with a 6-point advantage could easily finish in third, leaving Cameroon in fourth place and nowhere.

    Now consider how unprecedented such a sanction is. When was the last time a national team was docked points in a WCQ group stage? I've been looking over the records and I can't find one example. Not one.

    For that matter, how often does a club team get docked 6 points in a domestic competition? Give me a month or so to do the research, and I'll tell you--but you know it's not exactly an everyday occurrence. Sure, 1, 2, and even 3 points, but 6? Maybe once in 10 years? 20 years? And club seasons are generally at least twice as long as the WCQ, so there's plenty of time for the team to recover.

    But teams get disqualified from the World Cup all the time, you say. Sure. Usually it's because the government is somehow encroaching on the FA (that's a topic for another column). Sometimes it's a refusal to play at designated sites (Iran, 1986). Sometimes it's a political thing (Yugoslavia 1994). And sometimes it's cheating in a FIFA competition (Chile 1994, Mexico 1990). But let's get serious. Does anyone out there really think that a violation of the kit rule, a violation that gives a team no advantage whatsoever, is worth virtual disqualification from the most important football competition in the world?

    And when you think about it, the 6-point deduction is worse than outright disqualification. It's sadistic. It gives Cameroon a mountain they want desperately to climb, but can't. It's like lifting an ant out of its colony at the top of a mountain and putting it at the base. And watching with pleasure, day after day, because you know it'll never make it home.

    No one really thinks the punishment fits the crime. I don't even think FIFA believes it's a "serious infringement of the laws of the game." But, the argument goes, this wasn't just a Law 4 violation, it was a deliberate flouting of a FIFA order. FIFA gave them a chance to mend their ways, and they refused, so they can't complain if they get hammered.

    Fine. But if you take that view, you might as well support FIFA no matter what they do. That's power for its own sake. And make no mistake: this is an exercise of power, pure and simple. It has nothing to do with the merits of the issue. It's an ultra-clear statement: we have the power, and you don't. It reminds me of an episode of the American animated TV show South Park, in which a 9-year old girl, Wendy Testaburger, finds that her boyfriend is attracted to the pretty new schoolteacher. Wendy tells the teacher to stay away from her boyfriend if she knows what's good for her. The teacher, of course, simply goes on teaching. At the end of the show, Iraqi soldiers burst into school, grab the teacher, put her in a rocket, and blast her into the sun. Wendy tosses them a handful of bills. One of the boys looks at her, shocked: "Wendy! You didn't!" She responds simply: "I told her--don't mess with Wendy Testaburger." Except the word isn't "mess." It's a different four-letter word, beginning with "F."

    And that's all this is, folks. No principle, no ideals, no "good of the game." Just power. Don't mess with Wendy Testaburger. You'll notice that teams around the world aren't exactly lining up to support Cameroon. They know the score.

    But you need to have rules, I hear. You can't just disregard a FIFA ruling. OK, I agree. So what should FIFA have done?

    First of all, they shouldn't have banned the uniform. As noted, it gives Cameroon no competitive advantage. It's pretty ugly, but no uglier than a lot of regular uniforms. It might be in violation of Law 4, but why interpret the rule so closely? Many football laws aren't at all closely interpreted. Take Law 13, on free kicks. The law says: "the free kick is taken from the place where the infringement occurred." My guess is maybe 50 percent of free kicks take place on the spot of the infringement. Half the time, the teams just pop up and continue play from a spot close to the foul. And that's exactly as it should be, because it's more important to keep the game going than to get it exact. And although uniforms don't affect the flow of the game, it's more important to allow innovation than to make sure everything's neat and precise. Unusual kits can add color and controversy--just ask a guy named Joseph Blatter, who, in one of his less excusable moments, said women players should wear tighter uniforms. Even the ugliest of kits is no danger to the game: if fans don't like a kit, it'll disappear on its own.

    But OK, let's say the kit really does violate the rules, and it's bad for the game, and you have to do something. And a fine isn't enough, because Puma will reimburse Cameroon. But there are a million other things you can do. Ban Cameroon officials from holding seats on FIFA committees. Keep them out of a youth competition for one cycle. Take away the FA's parking spaces. The only reason for this particular punishment, this ultimate punishment, is to show who's boss. Ask yourself: would FIFA have done the same to Brazil? Heck, we saw Rivaldo take one of the most notorious dives in World Cup history, and all they did was fine him pocket change. Cameroon doesn't have the muscle, and FIFA knows it. So they get the axe.

    Of course, Cameroon isn't exactly innocent here. It's not as if they've been punished for promoting world peace, or saving puppies and kittens from a horrible fire. They, and Puma, were in it for the money. It was the same when they went with the sleeveless jerseys in Korea/Japan. They wanted publicity, notoriety, and something to sell. At the Nations Cup, Puma said the UniQt wouldn't go on sale to the public, but somehow I suspect they wouldn't have said no in the face of widespread demand. It's all business, and no one should feel sorry for them--but it doesn't make what FIFA did any more defensible.

    See, FIFA has no objection to people making money, as long as it's them. It seems hardly a coincidence that adidas, a competitor of Puma, has close ties with both FIFA and Sepp Blatter himself. By cracking down on Cameroon, FIFA is not only damaging one of Puma's teams, but making Puma themselves less attractive to potential clients. Who wants to go there if you know every move you make will be scrutinized, and if you don't toe the line you'll be crushed?

    Then there's the matter of Egypt, the most likely beneficiary of the sanction. They're one of the richest countries in Africa, with zillions more consumer dollars than Cameroon. They also just happen to be a contender to host the 2010 tournament. Egypt isn't exactly a regular at the World Cup, and if they do get the bid, it wouldn't disappoint FIFA one bit if they qualified in 2006 as well. That was the strategy when Mexico got nailed in 1990 for fielding overage players in a youth tournament. The 1994 host was a little country called the USA, who needed a boost to qualify in 1990. They got it and they did.

    Puma has gone to court in Germany to overturn the ruling, using a time-honored businessman's strategy: when in doubt, sue. But I doubt it'll get them anywhere. FIFA isn't breaking any laws; they're just interpreting their rules the way they want to. They have every right to do this--except, of course, the moral right. But courts aren't in the business of morality.

    As for Cameroon, they're doing exactly what FIFA wanted: they're groveling. They've put together a ten-man committee to file an official appeal, which has to be ready by Monday, April 26. What's it going to say? Minister of Sports Bidoung Mkpatt has given us a clue: according to a BBC report, he admits "Cameroon probably deserved the sanction," but believes FIFA "should show some pity." Want more? "The committee is not going to confront FIFA but will try to persuade them to be considerate and lift the sanction...I think the solution can only be gotten through peaceful negotiation and consultation." What's more fun than ten Cameroonians on their knees? (Remember, this is the nation of Issa Hatayou, who had the audacity to challenge Sepp Blatter for the throne.)

    The issue may be settled by the time you read this. My own guess is that FIFA will reduce the sanction from six points to three. After all, they've got what they wanted. Halving the penalty will show just enough flexibility to keep the troops faithful, and just enough steel to keep them in line. Everyone will nod and call it fair, and Sepp will be a Solomon, or a Daniel come to judgment.

    But I think he's a Wendy Testaburger. Maybe we could start calling him that. I suspect he won't mind, really--as long as we do what he says.



 

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