WHEN the much awaited global most popular sporting event, first ever to be staged on the Africa soil kicks off, certainly the world will watch smart looking young men carrying a banner with the inscription ‘fair play’ as part of the ceremony before the kick-off.
The generic concept of fair play which has become the cornerstone of FIFA’s campaign “my game is fair play” is a fundamental part of the game of football, because it represents the positive benefit of playing by the rules using common sense, respecting fellow players, referees, opponents and fans.
The issue of ensuring that we play by the rules of the game was largely conceived as an indirect result of the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico when handball goal by Diego Maradona – now coach of the Argentine team – stimulated the admirable reaction of England coach Sir Bobby Robson – whose team was the victim of the infamous “Hand of God”.
One wonders whether the fair play campaign is still alive. This question is being posed against the back drop of a handball goal scored by France’s Thiery Henry in a crucial play-off match between France and Republic of Ireland for South Africa 2010 reminiscent of the 1986 Maradona’s “hand of God” goal against England.
Among the 30 referees appointed by FIFA as best referees in the world for this year’s World Cup is Martin Hanson who allowed the goal scored by Thiery Henry to stand though TV replay showed it was a clear handball. FIFA turned down a request by Ireland for a re-match. Is this in the spirit of the fair play?
In reaction to concerns raised after the end of South Africa 2010 qualification matches, Sepp Blatter in December last year, at an extraordinary general meeting of FIFA Executive Committee, was reported to have remarked “I appeal to all the players and coaches to observe this fair play.
In 2010 we want to prove that football is more than just kicking a ball but has social and cultural value…so we ask the players “please observe fair play” so that they will be example to the rest of the world”.
Certainly, Sepp Blatter has overlooked the conduct of referees in his admonition. Good refereeing or match officiating is sine qua non to fair play. The referee who officiated the match between Italy and Australia at the knock out stage of Germany 2006 allowed a controversial penalty that made Italy to beat Australia to proceed to win the Cup.
Is Italy a worthy world champion in 2006 in light of fair play? No wonder FIFA boss Sepp Blatter later came to apologise for that error. But is a late apology worth accepting? Football is a game of passion and emotions and participating teams and fans deserve “instant justice”.
FIFA’s campaign “my game is fair play” is more significant at this year’s World Cup in South Africa. The South African society had been victims of racial segregation through the apartheid policy over a long period of time, till they heaved a sign of relief in 1994 when the policy was abolished and the country returned to democratic free state of equal rights.
The South Africa fans, and indeed anybody who believes in the fair play campaign will expect nothing but fair officiating in this year’s World Cup tournament. The greatest threat to this year’s World Cup is not going to come from terrorists attack but from within the knights of the whistle; their acts of commission or omission could either beautify the game or mar it.
African football has come of age from the dark day of the 1974 tournament when the continent’s representative Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, were humiliated 9-0 by then Yugoslavia leading to questions as to whether Africa was matured for the global event, but conspiracy in the game had robbed Africa from making significant impact in the 80 year old global sporting event.
It appears there is a plan to let Africa celebrate only at the quarter-final berth a success chalked by Cameroun in 90 and Senegal 2002. Is Africa destined for only quarter-finals? Certainly no! The history of the World Cup is replete with bias officiating numerous to recount but suffice it to recall a few. Africa countries are often at the receiving end.
Algeria, now making their third appearance in the World Cup tournament stunned the world by beating then European champions West Germany 2-1 in the opening of the 1982 World Cup. They lost 1-2 to Austria but won their last game 3-2 against Chile, putting the Raber Madjer led Desert Warriors in contention for a quarter-final.
West Germany and Austria, ignonimously demonstrated their European solidarity at the expense of the fair play spirit of the game and contrived to play out a result which allowed the two Germanic teams to qualify at the expense of Algeria.
Then again, the bold attempt by Nigeria to carry the Africa flag to the quarter-finals of the US ’94 World Cup tournament was frustrated by the referee. A highly controversial penalty awarded to Italy by the referee which was converted by Robert Baggio gave the “Squadra Azzuris” a 2-1 victory over the “Super Eagles”.
The Slovak referee Michel Lobus exhibited a clear bias against the Black Stars at their maiden World Cup appearance in Germany 2006 in the match against Brazil at the knock out stage, which the latter won 3-0. The referee did not only allow the Brazilians to score what appears to be offside goal but also went in for Ronaldo’s jersey after assisting him to score seemingly offside goal.
The referee at the centre of affairs at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals held in Egypt last year, between Ghana and Brazil, attempted to frustrate Africa from winning the Cup for the first time by reducing the numerical strength of the Satellite when he unjustifiably reduced them to 10 men but they remained resolute and won the Cup by beating Brazil via penalty kicks.
Although FIFA has rubbished claims by England’s former FA Chief, Lord Triesman, that Spain and Russia were conspiring to bribe referees at this year’s World Cup, such a claim must not be swept under the carpet.
Let no referee at the South Africa tournament evoke the memories of the apartheid regime by way of bias officiating to favour one country against the other or one player against the other player, the world will surely stand against it! The rules of the game must be applied across the board irrespective of colour race, status and religion.