FIFA firm over government intervention
As the World Cup approaches its conclusion after a month-long jamboree of colour and controversy, two of the under-achievers have learned first-hand what happens when you try to undermine FIFA and make sporting failure a national offence.
No-one in their right mind genuinely believes that sport and politics don't mix. They have done so for ages, often to good effect when it comes to regime change. Take, for instance, the ban on South African sports teams in the days prior to apartheid.
But when it comes to national governments playing the role of Big Brother and treating failed sportsmen and sports officials as criminals for no other reason than they didn't meet expectations, in football at least they are put firmly in their place by Sepp Blatter and world football's governing body. FIFA may rightly be accused at times of self-interest, self-promotion, empty words and foot-dragging. But the one area in which they attempt to be scrupulously consistent is that of governmental impropriety - as both Nigeria and France have discovered to their cost.
Whether or not Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan knew he was breaking FIFA rules when he announced he was banning the national team for two years after their poor World Cup campaign, only he can say. But within days, not weeks, the ban was lifted and a compromise deal struck, with the Nigerian Football Federation promising to disband and rebuild the side.
Significantly, the news came shortly before a deadline set by FIFA for the ban to be rescinded. FIFA warned in a letter to the Nigerian government that the country faced expulsion from world football at all levels if there was deemed to be any interference in football affairs. Cue a back-tracking statement from the Nigerian presidential office, saying that Jonathan had decided to "review the earlier two-year ban."
Nigeria, banned from the African Nations Cup for two years after refusing to travel to South Africa for the 1996 edition of the tournament, isn't the first country to fall foul of FIFA regulations and it won't be the last. At the heart of the problem is that FIFA statutes and those of Third World and totalitarian countries, where government and sporting officials are often one and the same, can be in direct conflict. Article 13.1 (g) of FIFA's official rule book states that national federations are obliged "to manage their affairs independently and ensure that their own affairs are not influenced by any third parties."
But which carries the most clout, national law or global footballing regulations? It's a tough call but the repercussions for breaking the latter are serious. Had Nigeria been suspended, its clubs could not have played in continental competition, the national team could not participate in any competitive matches and a host of financial penalties would be incurred. "A suspension goes beyond the suspension of the national teams," explains FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot. "It also freezes financial help and no referees can participate in international competition."
If you think FIFA is selective in applying the rules and has no teeth, think again. No sooner had French president Nicolas Sarkozy warned of possible sanctions following the country's acrimonious World Cup campaign than he received a stern letter from Blatter's office.
Within 24 hours of Blatter threatening to suspend the French football federation, the French government, mindful of the fact that France has just been awarded the 2016 European Championships, denied any interference in football affairs. FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke, who is himself French, said that just because his country was (questionably) considered a major footballing power, there was "no reason to take a different approach for a European country."
FIFA's aim is essentially to make sure that some sort of consistency can be achieved in the administration of the game in every country and curb indiscriminate firing of federation officials by overbearing politicians. When countries are suspended, national and club teams plus referees cannot take part in international matches and officials are barred from attending soccer meetings.
Although warnings of suspension are usually heeded, some have paid the ultimate price. Iraq was suspended for several days in May 2008 after its government disbanded all national sports bodies. The dispute threatened Iraq's place in the World Cup, and was resolved three days before it was scheduled to play a qualifier against Australia.
Greece could boast the reigning European Championship holders at the time it was suspended from world soccer for several days in 2006 because its parliament tried to change a law regulating professional sports organizations. Even Spain was threatened with expulsion just weeks before Euro 2008 because the incoming national government wanted sports federations to hold elections before the Beijing Olympics later that year. "There is a system in place to run football around the world and that system is under FIFA," declares Valcke.
While both France and Nigeria appear to have softened their respective stances, the matter will not be left there. FIFA will be monitoring both cases intently, unafraid to re-impose sanctions should the need arise. Blatter himself has stated that world football's controlling body would deal heavily with the two nations if they continue to defy regulations.
"Political interference will be dealt with by FIFA notwithstanding what kind of interference and what is the size of the country," he declared. As a warning shot across the bows of anyone else trying to break the rules, it could not have been more unequivocal.