FIFA vs. the Cheating Heart

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BARCELONA, Spain — The World Cup proved a triumph for the predictions of Paul the Octopus, which accurately forecast the rise and fall of Germany and the ultimate victory of Spain, after football pundits and the quants with their battery of supercomputers had tipped Brazil, Argentina, Germany or even hapless England to win.

Nevertheless, now that the vuvuzelas have sounded their last hurrahs, troubling questions remain, particularly about the dirty play at the heart of the “Beautiful Game.” FIFA, the governing body of the international sport, has a 140-page book of rules and regulations that say not a word about the most troubling aspect of the game — cheating.

Players and coaches are so intent on winning at all costs that cheating is part of the performance. Germany’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer boasted that by carrying on as if nothing had happened after Englishman Frank Lampard’s shot had bounced out of his goal, he may have fooled the referee into believing that the ball had not crossed the line. FIFA said nothing, did nothing, even after Neuer made his provocative comments.

Peter Singer, a Princeton professor of bioethics, has been virtually the only person to call Neuer a cheat for trying to fool the referee. England fans blamed the referee or a lack of instant replays to contest dubious decisions.

Footballers and the authorities don’t seem to understand how cheating is a cancer eating at the game. Another cheating example was the brilliant goal line “save” by Uruguay’s Luis Suarez when Ghana’s final-minute shot had beaten the goalkeeper and was all but in the net. The laws should be amended to allow a penalty goal, similar to a penalty try in rugby. There is no way that a penalty kick — which gives the defenders a second chance — or sending off the Uruguayan offender with no time left to play was an adequate recompense for Ghana.

As far as most footballers are concerned, Suarez “did what he had to do” to prevent a goal. What then about the red-carded offender being carried shoulder high by all his colleagues as if he were a conquering hero? The referee should have given red cards, individually and severally, to all the Uruguayan players and coaches for this unsportsmanlike behavior and bringing the game into disrepute.

In the final between the Netherlands and Spain, the English referee Howard Webb gave 13 yellow cards for cautions and one red card. The referee was far from being fussy: If he had properly penalized every illegal trip and push there would have been no one left to play, at least on the Dutch side.

Referees regularly routinely ignore shirt-pullings and constant pushing and shoving, especially before set-piece plays like corners and free kicks. At a free kick, the defending wall is supposed to be 10 meters back from the kicker, but rarely is, and in one World Cup game two defenders rushed the kicker before he had a chance to connect with the ball. They went unpunished.

The English referee in the final showed that you do not need video replays to make correct decisions. The replay showed that he was right to award a goal for Spain: When the ball was played, Spain’s attacker was onside. Yet several Dutch players petulantly complained of offside and tried to intimidate the referee to change his mind, another form of cheating.

The excuse of football players from park level to the premier professional leagues is that all sorts of cheating from handling the ball to shirt-pulling and shoving is “part of the game, even on the Hackney Marsh pitches (referring to London local leagues).”

But years ago when I was playing for my school, no one thought of grabbing an opponent by the shirt or sticking an elbow in someone’s back or kicking the opponent instead of the ball — not without the risk of instantly being sent off and possibly never allowed to play again.

Football became the “Beautiful Game” because dribbling, passing and shooting a ball with the feet are something that almost everyone can understand but only a few can do with skill, grace and power. The skills of the best players are being killed by a mixture of overt and underhanded cheating and foul play.

Yes, it is sometimes difficult to judge where robust tackles become rough or foul or whether a player has been felled by his own play-acting, but it is time for referees to reassert the essential need for fair play and sportsmanship that has almost gone from the supposedly professional game. A “professional foul” is always unprofessional and should be heavily punished.

This can only be done with the full backing of FIFA and the various national authorities, since poorly paid referees cannot compete with the much better money or reputations of the star players without backing from the football authorities. Footballers and their managers claim the excuse that they must win at all costs or they will lose their jobs, and extravagant pay packets. But this is the false logic of the individual; the game as a whole would be restored to its beautiful glory if skills were allowed to flower and not be chopped down by cheating and foul play.

FIFA does not have the excuse of money. It has pots of it, $3.2 billion inwinnings from South Africa, some of which it should return to South Africa for the magnificent organization and hospitality that country brought to the World Cup.

Yes, goal-line technology should be introduced, and video replays could be considered if they do not interfere with the run of the play. But football and FIFA’s key task is to get rid of the culture of cheating. Is FIFA boss Sepp Blatter too mesmerized by soccer stars that he dare not do his job of eradicating cheating that is ruining the game?

Kevin Rafferty, a freelance writer, used to write regularly about football for the Financial Times and The Observer, but he gave up football when money muddied the game.