Sunday, July 12, 2015

FIFA and the Women's World Cup, Part II: Incompetence, Arrogance, and Sexism

Another image we'd like to remember.
So, we scratched the surface of FIFA’s colossal array of sexism, incompetence, venality, hubris, and all-purpose criminality yesterday, concluding with the observation that the monumental prize money disparity between the men’s and women’s World Cups is actually well down the list of FIFA’s crimes against the sport, against women, and against any reasonable conception of either law or ethics.

So what’s higher on the list? Well, for one thing, more garden-variety corruption. As Jeff Kassouf explains, FIFA cheerfully stacked the deck for what it perversely calls “sporting reasons.” First, it put the Canadian and American sides in the biggest venues in the biggest cities, ensuring not merely larger crowds (which could be considered a pragmatically good and ethically neutral endeavor), but also bigger partisan crowds, giving even more home-pitch advantage to the two North American sides.

Secondly, FIFA arranged the seeds in such a way that—oh, so coincidentally, of course—the only two seeds who, assuming they won through, wouldn’t have to face another seeded team until the semis were (who’da thunk it?) Canada and the USA. FIFA says this was unintentional.  I believe them.  I also believe in the tooth fairy. Of course, Canada was seeded only because they were the host nation, and they were derailed by England (who, ironically, would—or at least should have been seeded had the top six teams in fact been the seeds) in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, two of the three top teams in the world—Germany and France—met each other in the quarters. And the winner got the other Top 3 team, the US, in the semis. That is, the world’s #1 team would need to beat #3 and then #2 to even make it to the finals, whereas world #4 Japan wouldn’t need to play anyone ranked above #6 to get there. (Overall #5 Sweden wasn’t seeded because FIFA whimsically thought it would be kind of cool to seed #7 Brazil instead.)

There are two fair ways of working out the seeds. You can power-rank: have the top two seeds play the two advancers who were second in their group, with #3 against #6, and #4 against #5. Or you can do what the men do, and randomize the process, so that every team has an equal chance of playing against a particularly strong opponent… or against a relatively weak one.  FIFA, of course, chose neither of these strategies.

As it happened, #1 Germany advanced to the semis on penalty kicks over France, and French star Camille Abily made her feelings known: “At some point FIFA has to stop taking women for idiots. I’m sorry but if they did a real draw maybe we would not have played Germany or the United States after. Inevitably, it’s frustrating even if we knew this from the start.” FIFA, of course, unabashedly admitted its perfidy: “[Teams] are seeded and allocated into specific groups for ticketing and promotion reasons…. The allocation of teams to venues, the ticketing and promotion plan and the ticket price strategy are among the key factors for the overall success of the event.” That’s asshole-speak for “of course, we created an unfair event. We’re FIFA. We can’t help ourselves.”

Sydney Leroux released this photo of what her legs look like
after playing on artificial turf.
Then there are the venues. FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association decided it would be just a peachy idea to have all the games played on artificial turf. This was widely and accurately regarded as a sexist decision: as Abby Wambach argued, “the reality is, the men would never play (the World Cup) on field turf, so for me, it’s a women's rights issue, it’s an equality issue.” Here’s USA striker Sydney Leroux on the subject:
Between men and women… this is not equal. For us to be playing the biggest tournament for women’s soccer on artificial grass is unacceptable. The game is completely different. It’s fake. So you don’t know how it’s gonna bounce. You don’t know how the ball is gonna run. It’s terrible for your body. The constant pounding. You’re running pretty much on cement. … We’re the guinea pigs.
FIFA knows all that, of course. They just don’t give a shit. They’re FIFA, and in their feeble and deluded minds, they rule the universe. A coalition of at least 18 players, many of them stars, from eleven or more countries sued FIFA and the CSA to have the World Cup played, as it should be, on natural grass. The suit’s argument is that:
CSA and FIFA’s decision to hold the tournament on artificial turf is inherently discriminatory and injures an elite group of female athletes in three significant ways: (1) by forcing them to compete on a surface that fundamentally alters the way the game is played, (2) by subjecting them to unique and serious risks of injury, and (3) by devaluing their dignity, state of mind and self-respect as a result of requiring them to play on a second-class surface before tens of thousands of stadium spectators and a global broadcast audience.
Characteristically, FIFA didn’t care. FIFA deputy director of women’s competition Tatjana Haenni said “there’s no plan B” and that the World Cup would be played on artificial turf. Why? Because FIFA said so.

Eventually, when it became clear that FIFA was going to do whatever it damned pleased regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit (the players had made it clear they weren’t going to boycott), and it became clear that some of the players were being threatened with reprisals, the suit was withdrawn. FIFA responded, as might be expected, by lying: “we are totally committed to providing the best possible surface to enable everyone to enjoy a great footballing spectacle.” That was FIFA Secretary General Valcke, by the way. One way you can tell he was lying is that his statement so obviously flies in the face of the fact that literally no one thinks an artificial surface is the “best possible surface” for soccer. The other way is recognizing that he works for FIFA and that his lips were moving.

A more accurate assessment comes from Hampton Dellinger, one of the players’ attorneys: “The players are doing what FIFA and CSA have proven incapable of: putting the sport of soccer first.” And the players did achieve something—apart from calling (further) attention to what a repulsive gaggle of goons comprise the FIFA leadership. Goal-line technology was introduced, apparently as a direct result of the players’ suit, and the turf at BC Place in Vancouver, the site of the final, was indeed replaced by something a little less horrible.

But yeah… about that finals site… it didn’t require the former goalie in Curmie to notice that at the beginning of the final match, one end of the pitch was in shade, whereas at the other end, the goalkeeper would not only be staring into the sun, but shots might start in light, disappear (in relative terms) into shade, then re-appear in bright sunshine. Seriously, did no one at FIFA or CSA even check out the site for the final… like, you know, what it would look like in late afternoon in early July? This is the level of incompetence that would be unacceptable for a high school regional tournament, let alone a World Cup final.

Even the Fox announcers proclaimed that it was a huge advantage to be heading in one direction (right to left on our TV screens) in the first half. Carli Lloyd’s hat trick was scored in that direction. There were seven goals in the game. One came after shade covered the entire field. In five of the other six, the goaltender was looking into the sun. And seeing goalkeepers of the caliber of Solo (on Japan’s second goal) and Japan’s Ayumi Kaihori (on Lloyd’s midfield bomb) look so flat-footed: was that a coincidence, the product of their being human, after all, or did they literally have trouble seeing the ball? The point is that we’ll never know, and the idea that unequal playing conditions even might influence the outcome of the most important match in the entirety of a sport for four years—well, that doubt ought never enter our minds.

And finally, there was that medal ceremony. Sepp Blatter may not have been there in person, but the guy whose solution to making the women’s game more popular was to have them wear tighter shorts (really!) was certainly there in spirit. The medals and trophies were brought ought by a phalanx of young women in slinky black dresses. Curmie can’t improve on this description by Rachel Bertsche, so he’ll just repeat it:
When models in skimpy tight dresses walked onto the field dressed like Robert Palmer girls, fans on social media let out a collective groan. “Sepp Blatter’s last middle finger to women’s soccer is medal-bearing, black-dress-wearing models from Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’ video,” sportswriter Tom Reed tweeted about the president of FIFA.
Don’t get me wrong. Curmie likes seeing attractive young women in sexy outfits as much as the next guy, but let’s not be ridiculous.

Curmie talks in his theatre history classes about the evolving meaning of the ancient Greek word hamartía. In the archaic age, it meant missing the mark, as, say, in archery. By the time of Aristotle, the word suggested more of an error in judgment, a mistake. A few centuries later, it became the word for “sin” in the Greek New Testament. The medal ceremony didn’t just miss the mark. It wasn’t merely a mistake in judgment. It was a sin.

None of this changes the magnificent effort put forth by so many of the athletes from all over the world, or the joy that we Americans take in a well-deserved victory by “our team.” FIFA did their level best to destroy their own sport, and they failed. Just as the demagogues and charlatans who gravitate towards political office in this country do not represent the spirit of the nation, neither do the petty despots of FIFA represent soccer (men’s or women’s), its players, or its fans. Despite all the chicanery, all the incompetence, all the arrogance of FIFA, our memories will be of this:
And that is how it should be.

No comments: