Saturday, 8 July 2006

What price victory?

The current World Cup—now on its final stage with the epic clash between footballing titans Italy and France this weekend—has by and large been a very exciting sporting event.

More perhaps in the earlier stages than the latter, the participating nations have been quite keen to observe the fair play and sportsmanship that FIFA have taken great pains to stress over and over again in the game.

More than just lip service and token gestures however, the emphasis on fair play and good behavior is critically important in the sport of soccer. Watched by billions of fans around the world and supported by billions of dollars in corporate sponsorships, it is not only the biggest show on earth, but quite literally the biggest sporting business in the planet.

Its stalwarts are worth millions in advertising revenue, with the likes of David Beckham and Ronaldinho easily eclipsing big name American sports stars in terms of advertising income. No wonder it is difficult to play fair and square when it comes down to one’s passbook.

It is therefore no coincidence that the knockout stages— that make or break time when the outcome of a single game determines whether a team goes further in the tournament or goes home—departs from the earlier atmosphere of fair play.

One of the best examples, perhaps, of the change in mood from “gentlemanly” to “take no prisoners” was the contest between The Netherlands and Portugal. In all, the referee showed sixteen yellow cards and sent off three players amidst one of the worst scenes of cheating and dirty tactics ever seen in a major tournament.

Portugal particularly has developed a nasty reputation in this competition for all-around dirty play and rule-breaking. This reached sickening heights in the semi-final contest with France, when Portuguese players would just mysteriously fall to the ground without being tackled, in the hope of getting free kicks or penalties from the referee. Unfortunately, like the boy who cried wolf once too often, the referee never paid any attention to their protestations, even if in some instances it did look like some real fouls were being committed against them.

And of course, such is the irony of life and sport that those who live by cheating are bound to get a dose of their medicine.

Portugal’s exit was by virtue of a penalty kick awarded to France, in what looked to be a questionable foul committed on Thiery Henry while in a scoring opportunity. Appropriate comeuppance for the cheats indeed, if ever one was needed.

It is doubtful, however, if any of this will restore the game to a pristine state of chivalric purity. Too much is at stake, and too much stand to be lost. For the players the World Cup is the chance to sell their wares to prospective clubs and corporate sponsors. In the space of a month millions of dollars in potential transfer deals and advertising clout have been lost by erstwhile top class players who failed to perform to their ability, while millions more were gained by those who have patiently waited on the sidelines, and then used the occasion to show how good their skills were. Exit David Beckham and Roberto Carlos. Enter Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

And yet the pure football fan, wishing only to be mesmerized and entertained by the magicians of the sport, is the one being shortchanged in all this. But thankfully there is still a lesson to be learned here further down the road – fans buy the products that football players advertise. Who wants to buy from a cheat?

Indeed, in the end it may be up to us to teach these cheats a lesson in Business 101.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, July 08, 2006 (

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