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BLATTER BLATHER

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber was struggling to remain diplomatic in the wake of recent comments by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who criticized MLS for its lack of progress.

Blatter told Al Jazeera television, in an interview broadcast December 28, that “there is no very strong professional league” in the U.S.  “They just have the MLS.  But they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

He added that MLS was “still struggling” to lift soccer to the level of gridiron football, baseball and basketball in America.  “We had the World Cup in 1994,” Blatter said.  “But we are now in 2012–it’s been 18 years.  It should’ve been done now.”

Countered Garber in an interview with the New York Times:  “We still have a lot of work to do–we understand and accept that.  But arguably there’s probably not another sports league in the world that has achieved as much as we have in the last 20 years.  [January 2]

Comment:  Blatter’s latest blatherings triggered a firestorm of criticism among American fans of MLS and Americans who simply believe the man should have been unseated when his first term as FIFA chief ended in 2002.  What was disappointing was how a man who, as FIFA general secretary, held America’s hand as it prepared for and pulled off World Cup USA ’94, could still have such a dismal understanding of this country.

Mainstream America really doesn’t know what to make of soccer.  An estimated 18 million of their countrymen and countrywomen and countrykids play the sport.  Its women’s national team is usually No. 1 in the world while its men’s national team, usually ranked around No. 30, is capable of beating Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup and Italy in Genoa, then losing to Jamaica in Kingston. And its official national league, whose average attendance of 18,807 last season topped the NBA and NHL for the second year in a row, making it third behind the NFL and Major League Baseball in average gate, remains a television bust, stuck at 0.1 and 0.2 in the ratings.

What Blatter and mainstream America need to understand is that MLS is no measuring stick of soccer here.  America loves the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA a whole lot more than MLS, not because they’ve had a 74-, 152- and 47-year head start, respectively, on MLS, but because the NFL, MLB and NBA are the best at their craft in the world.  The NFL, MLB and the NBA play their game like they invented it because, well, they have.  Even the National Hockey League can make the same claim, if, for the sake of this argument, we co-opt our Canadian friends.  As for MLS, everyone in America knows that it’s not the best soccer league in the world, even those who know nothing about the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the Italian Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga or the Brazilian and Argentine championships.  And it’s hard to imagine a time when an MLS, which has gone from crawl to hobble to jog in those 18 years, will have the means and talent to challenge those leagues.

MLS will continue to be a symbol, a happy, regular rallying point, for soccer here, but it will never be the heart–or reliable barometer–of our sport.  While the NFL can boast of astronomical television ratings and Major League Baseball can point to its tremendous total attendance figures, soccer in the U.S. quietly moves forward with a balance that should be the envy of the so-called “big four” pro team sports:  a professional league that continues to grow and improve, a competitive men’s national team, a world-class women’s national team, and those millions and millions or participants of all ages and both genders.  All underscored by a patience that Blatter doesn’t seem to possess.

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… AND AFTER THE DIE IS CAST ….

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was on the defensive during ceremonies in Johannesburg to mark the closing of the 2010 World Cup, insisting–and at one point pounding the podium for emphasis–that the controversial selection of Russia and Qatar as hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups was intended to develop soccer in those regions and nothing more.  [December 13]

Comment:  Blatter blithely brushed aside concerns over the searing heat that would await a Qatari World Cup and instead took heat himself for his clumsy remarks regarding how the locals would view alcohol comsumption and homosexual activity by their foreign guests during the monthlong event.   Yet heat remains the central issue as the reality of a World Cup in summer in a Persian Gulf state measuring just 6,000 square miles sinks in.  Despite the claims by Qatari organizers that their open-air stadiums will be cooled to 81 degrees, one can only recall the 1994 World Cup.  The host U.S. was swept by an unseasonable heat wave that June and July, and the image of Ireland coach Jackie Charlton angrily tossing water bottles onto the field for his dehydrated players remains indelible.  If Ireland was to qualify for Qatar ’22 and Big Jack was still in charge of the Irish, one of his first questions would concern the training grounds scattered about Qatar and whether they, too, were air conditioned.

Already, German legend Franz Beckenbauer and UEFA President Michel Platini have questioned the wisdom of a World Cup held in the heat of a Middle Eastern desert.  It has been suggested that Qatar ’22 be moved to January of that year.  That would be unworkable, however, given the power of Europe’s top clubs.

Obviously, FIFA’s M.O. is one of,  create a daunting problem now, solve it later.  (In U.S. Navy terms, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”)   But the more important lesson here should not be missed by nations considering a bid for a future World Cup:  Spend a few million and invest a couple of years to submit a bid with nary a blemish, but if the FIFA Executive Committee wants to “grow the game” in Antarctica, the Gobi Desert or Saturn, your bid will politely be given the circular file.

Among the talk out of the December 2 announcements in Zurich was that the 2030 World Cup will go to Uruguay or Uruguay-Argentina to commemorate the centenary of the first World Cup, hosted by Uruguay (or make that Montevideo, at only three stadiums).  If there’s any substance to that rumor, wanna bet that Uruguay 2030  runs unopposed?



EX-WORLD CUP REFEREE BUSTED FOR HEROIN

Former FIFA referee Byron Moreno, a hated figure in Italy for calls he made in the 2002 World Cup that helped eliminate the Azzurri, was arrested in New York by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after he was caught at JFK Airport with more than 10 pounds of heroin.

Moreno had arrived in New York on a commercial flight from his native Ecuador when the heroin was discovered during a routine search.  Moreno “became visibly nervous” during the inspection, and agents eventually found 10 plastic bags attached to his stomach, back and legs.  A federal judge in Brooklyn ordered him held without bail on a drug smuggling charge.

The news of the arrest was greeted in Italy with another round of derision.

“I think Moreno already had the (heroin) in 2002, but not in his underwear–in his body,” said Gianluigi Buffon, who was the goalkeeper the day Moreno’s controversial decisions allowed World Cup co-host South Korea beat Italy in overtime.  “Joking aside, when sports people get involved in drug cases it means they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.  It also means they’ve lost the real meaning of the sport, which is also to save kids from the street and various dangers, like drugs.”  [September 21]

Comment: An opportunity to run an excerpt from the “Referees” chapter in Soccer Stories, entitled “The Curious Officiating of Byron Moreno”:

          Soccer is the most international of games.  In what other sport could an Ecuadoran cause nationwide joy in South Korea and despair throughout Italy on a single day?

          Byron Moreno is the Ecuadoran, a referee whose questionable work during South Korea’s 2-1 victory over the favored Italians in Daejeon in the second round of the 2002 World Cup arguably altered the outcome of the tournament.

          The then-three time champions were ahead, 1-0, on a headed goal by striker Christian Vieri in the 18th minute and doing what they do best, protecting a slim lead.  The only bump in Italy’s road came back in the fourth minute when a debatable penalty kick was awarded to Korea, but goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon saved off the foot of striker Ahn Jung-Hwan.  In the 88th, however, Seol Ki-Hyeon slipped in, pounced on a misplay by defender Christian Panucci, and beat Buffon with a low shot to level the score.

           Thirteen minutes into overtime, it all began to unravel for Italy as playmaker Francesco Totti dived in the penalty area and was shown a second yellow card by Moreno for attempting to draw a penalty kick.

          The shorthanded Italians then had a seemingly valid goal by midfielder Damiano Tommasi nullified by Moreno for offside.  Given new life, the Koreans finally produced the winner three minutes from the end of extra time when Lee Young-Pyo floated a cross onto the head of Ahn, who nodded in the golden goal.

          More than a million Koreans flooded downtown Seoul in the biggest of the impromptu celebrations staged throughout a country where seemingly everyone was wearing a bright crimson “Be The Reds” T-shirt.  Many of the revelers linked the South Korean triumph of 2002 to the North Korea upset of Italy in the 1966 World Cup.

          In Italy, the reaction was quite different.

          “Shame!” and “Thieves” read the headlines in Italy’s leading sports dailies, La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport, and Italian commentators suggested that Moreno was part of a plot by FIFA to prevent a fourth Italian world championship and/or to deliver South Korea, the tournament co-host, into the quarterfinals.  One Italian town named a row of toilets after Moreno.

          Italians were already in a snit over the officiating during their team’s earlier 2-1 loss to Croatia, a result that left Italy second to Mexico in its group.  A first-place finish would have pitted Italy against what was believed to be a soft touch, the United States, in the second round.

           “Italy has been thrown out of a dirty World Cup, where referees and linesmen are used as hitmen,” read a commentary in the normally reserved Corriere della Sport.

          FIFA, which selected Moreno to work the match, received approximately 400,000 e-mails from fans of Italy regarding the state of the officiating at the Korea-Italy game, causing the world soccer governing body’s server system to crash.  A FIFA spokesman described the e-mails as “virulent, some quite abusive, some of them very threatening, some of them quite disturbing.”

          Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter seemed to believe that Moreno and his brother referees had it out for the Azzurri.  “Unfortunately, through exceptional circumstances and coincidences, numerous and consecutive errors were concentrated on the Italian team,” he said.

          So the 32-year-old Moreno went home in disgrace.  He wasn’t quite done, however.

          That September, Moreno was still refereeing–and running for a seat on the Quito city council.  While working an Ecuadoran league match between Liga Quito and Barcelona of Guayaquil in Quito, he awarded a hotly disputed PK to each team, ejected two players, and disallowed a goal he originally OK’d.  The topper:  With 90 minutes gone, Barcelona was leading, 3-2, and Moreno signalled for six minutes of stoppage time.  Unfortunately for the visitors, Moreno extended stoppage time for a total of 13 minutes and Liga scored in the 99th and 101st minutes to pull out a 4-3 win.

           Exasperated by the performance of its supposed top referee–and by the perception that he was trying to capitalize on his exposure as a ref to win public office–the Ecuadoran soccer federation suspended Moreno for 20 games.

          Within weeks, FIFA began an investigation “as a result of a number of controversies regarding referee Byron Moreno in Japan, Italy, and South America over the past few months . . . .”  At the new year, he was dropped from FIFA’s list of international referees.

           In May 2003, three matches after his 20-game suspension ended, Moreno was at it again, ejecting three Deportivo Quito players during a league match at Deportivo Cuenca.  All three were sent off for being cautioned twice.  Quito somehow survived, holding Cuenca to a 1-1 draw.

          The Ecuadoran referees’ association finally had enough and booted Moreno out in 2004 when it was discovered that he was officiating regional tournaments without authorization.