THEY say the bad guys are all gone from Fifa's executive. Maybe, maybe not. One thing's for sure: quite a few stupid guys remain. The backward institutional culture of the game's ruling body hovers on like a supernatural fart; it will take a world-class sangoma to exorcise the stink of greed and folly implanted in Fifa's hierarchy by Sepp Blatter and his inner circle.
Don't ask President Gianni Infantino to heal the soul of football: my sense is that Swiss people are not big players in the world of mystical healing. They tend to favour the world of the tangible: making watches and chocolate, mainly, plus a little bit of discreet money-laundering on the side.
But what Fifa really needs, even more than a consultation with a top-drawer inyanga, is a sudden attack of common sense. And introducing video refs RIGHT NOW in all top-flight games would be a very good start. Instead, Fifa wants to fanny about with pointless trial projects for years on end. The latest verdict is that Fifa “may” proceed with expanding its video-assisted refereeing programme in 2019, if the experimental system first introduced at the last World Club Cup proves successful. Don't hold your breath.
What got me riled up about this issue was the “miracle” at Camp Nou on March 8. It offered yet another surreal reminder that, when it comes to officiating, the world's biggest game is stuck in the Stone Age compared to smaller codes like tennis, cricket and rugby. For some reason, football's rulers still feel that nakedly fraudulent behaviour by its stars is somehow normal and traditional and even quite charming.
After Barcelona's spectacular comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, the football media pack, with a few exceptions, ululated and salivated about Barca's performance – hailing it as a “miraculous” feat. Last time I checked the dictionary definition, a fraud is not a miracle. I'm not disputing the brilliance of five of the six Barcelona goals that overhauled a five-goal deficit. But one of those six was secured with a flagrant dive by Luis Suarez. And they needed six to win. The entire result was thus fraud-enabled, and the game's ethical integrity damaged yet again.
Referee Deniz Aytekin's decision to award the spotkick may have been swayed by the sheer force of expectation emanating from the crowd. It may have been a simple mistake. It doesn't actually matter. With a video ref on hand, it would not have been awarded.
Fifa has defended its caution on video assistance with two arguments: it fears that the flow of any given game will be disrupted by video reviews, and it is reluctant to introduce rule changes that cannot be applied at every level of the game.
Neither argument makes much sense. The addition of reviews for major decisions (on goals and red cards), whether requested by the on-pitch referee or the video-equipped assistant ref, would only add a few minutes at the most to each match -- and the interruption would in fact inject a welcome dash of dramatic tension to the proceedings.
As for the issue of consistency of rules, the tech-savvy codes of tennis, cricket and rugby have all introduced video assistance only at the elite level, with no damage whatsoever to the coherence of each game.
While Fifa dithers, the players and fans are ensnared in a seductive web of dishonesty. Many of the players quietly enjoy the licence to dive, and have become immensely skilled at the art of translating the faintest brush of contact into a bullet in the back. Suarez is far from alone in this – almost every major team boasts a couple of gifted fallists.
Meanwhile we the fans tend to vacillate between outrage (when our favoured teams are the victims of simulation) and sniggering pleasure (when our guys are the successful perpetrators). Our perceptions of every dive or ambiguous incident are coloured by our personal loyalties. And the broadcast media are not about to shut down the simulation circus: every scandalous con-job is grist for their commercial mill.
But what about the refs, who are the central protagonists in this sordid story? They are generally more dispassionate than the fans or the players, but they are visibly human, and they are subject to perfectly honest emotional interference in their thought processes in the heat of a decision: for example, their irritation at a player who has dived earlier in a game, and/or their anxiety that they may previously have denied a legitimate appeal to the same team or player.
What puzzles me is why the refs don't collectively demand video assistance, which would make their lives so much easier.
Sure, they would relinquish some power, and occasionally suffer the indignity of being overruled by an assistant (though it's worth noting that the Fifa trial project leaves the final decision with the referee, even when he has been shown a replay by his assistant that proves his initial decision wrong).
But the mind-bending pressure that referees currently experience in big fixtures would be dramatically eased by the knowledge that they could appeal for a replay of any tricky incident, and that their honest mistakes could be corrected. They would also enjoy more respect and more job satisfaction if their mistakes were reduced, or even eliminated.
Perhaps what motivates the referees' fear of change is that old human tendency to defend one's turf. When you've been in charge for decades, you don't want to share your authority, even when that act of surrender would heighten your happiness and prestige.
To tweak an old idiom: there are none so blind as those who will not look at the replay.