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FIFA president Sepp Blatter speaks during a media briefing in Johannesburg June 29, 2010. Blatter apologised on Tuesday for the refereeing mistakes that have blighted the World Cup and said soccer's governing body would look again at introducing goalline technology. (HO/REUTERS)
FIFA president Sepp Blatter speaks during a media briefing in Johannesburg June 29, 2010. Blatter apologised on Tuesday for the refereeing mistakes that have blighted the World Cup and said soccer's governing body would look again at introducing goalline technology. (HO/REUTERS)

STEPHEN BRUNT

Blatter's opinion is the only one that matters Add to ...

It is good to be king, and that Joseph (Sepp) Blatter is, an unchallenged regent of the vast and populous land of soccer.

They are of a type, the sports bureaucrats who through a combination of guile and smarts and mastery of backroom politics rise to become the one-man rulers of their games. Some, such as international hockey czar René Fasel, are big frogs in relatively small ponds, while those who wind up atop the International Olympic Committee are treated nearly as heads of state.

Blatter is closer to the latter, and one could certainly make the case that he is a more powerful figure than current IOC boss Jacques Rogge.

Soccer is more widespread than any sport, the World Cup is bigger than the Summer Olympics by every measure, and the opportunities for personal enrichment and the potential for systemic corruption are therefore vast.

There has been a bad smell trailing Blatter going all the way back to 1998, when he was elected International Association Football Federation (FIFA) president, defeating then-European Union of Association Football boss Lennart Johansson in the contest to replace the long-serving Brazilian Joao Havelange. He was accused of, essentially, buying votes. The charges didn't stick, though, and since then, Blatter has been the unchallenged administrator of the world's most popular game.

It's telling that the great muckraking sports journalist Andrew Jennings, who made his career illuminating the dirty dealings of the IOC under the rule of the old fascist Juan Antonio Samaranch, has these days turned his attentions almost entirely to the sins of FIFA in general and Blatter in particular, because it provides such fertile ground. (A visit to Jennings's website, transparencyinsport.org, makes for fascinating, if intentionally inflammatory reading. Among other things, he compares FIFA to the Mafia, and makes a rather compelling case.)

So the bottom line, in reference to the preventable refereeing mistakes this past week which have to a large degree overshadowed the World Cup, and to pretty much everything else related to the game, is that l'État, c'est Sepp. He can pretend that the sport is a thriving democracy, that he is but a servant of the many national soccer associations that make up its membership, but as long as the money keeps pouring in and the right people are looked after, he has about as much to fear from the electorate as does Kim Jong-il.

And for a whole lot of people - not just English and Mexican supporters, but anyone who has watched this tournament with a relatively clear eye - that's a maddening state of affairs right now.

At his press briefing Tuesday morning, Blatter acknowledged the mistakes that may well have affected the outcome of the England-Germany and Argentina-Mexico matches in the Round of 16 - "It was not a five star day for refereeing," he said (no kidding) - and let the world know he had personally apologized to the affected associations.

But instead of opening the door to what is a relatively simple and inexpensive solution - judiciously employing video replay - Blatter started talking about balls with microchips (which would no doubt be another bonanza for FIFA's pals at adidas even richer) and Hawk-Eye cameras, technologies that are available, but wildly costly, and to a large degree unnecessary.

In terms of the problem of a game that has no full stops and starts once the clock starts running - well, it stops dead as a doornail every time a player drops in mock-agony as though shot. A quick pause to look at the monitors wouldn't be any more disruptive than a trip onto the pitch by the stretcher bearers, or a session with the magic spray. And as for the notion that replay would serve to North Americanize the world game, take a quick look at rugby, which is certainly not North American-centric, which has a clock that keeps on running, and which uses video to judge whether a try is really a try when there is a question without grinding things to a halt the way replay challenges can in the NFL.

There is no logical counterargument, and even the romantic ones fall by the wayside as one watches an event as traditional as Wimbledon playing along beautifully with a small assist from the modern world.

But that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what you think, or what the English FA thinks, what the players think, what the referees think. It might matter what the sponsors think, but until a scandal affects their bottom line, don't expect them to bolt.

This is the world's game and a one man show. What Sepp says goes.

 

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