Posted by: Steve Coplan | June 29, 2006

The fix is in?

Ghana was what the bookies describe as a long shot against Brazil and they certainly didn’t help themselves by squandering opportunities in front of the goal. It does strike me as more than a little odd that two of Brazil’s three goals were from clearly offsides positions. Granted Ghana was playing the offsides trap to neutralize what are arguably the world’s best strikers, but it was obvious watching on TV that the Brazilians were not getting called for being in front of the last defender. Ghanians saw advancing to this stage as a enormous achievement — if this BBC report is to be believed — and they were by no means the only team that seemed to be playing against twelve men. (Note: that’s not a jury of their peers). In fact, several referees were sent home on the basis of their less than stellar officiating.

The question is: is there some sort of pattern to the bad refereeing? After all, FIFA is not renowned as a bastion of proprietry. The principle of “follow the money” should provide the foundation for analysis — as this disappointed Ghanian fan suggests. The bookies are sure to hope that most of the favorites are eliminated early on, and that a cinderella team that hasn’t attracted a lot of interest makes it through. FIFA on the other hand want to ensure that the world’s top teams packed with stars make it through to the final rounds — assuring the TV audiences it has promised advertisers.

The circumstances and outcomes don’t allow for a clear conclusion or suggest that there’s any systematic rigging, but certainly individual games may have been the subject of attempts at manipulation. Brazil would have beat Ghana without any help, while the Socceroos both suffered at the hands of the ref and benefited from some of his dubious calls. Italy was reduced to 10 men in the 51st minute of the second-round match against Australia when Marco Materazzi was sent off for bringing down Marco Bresciano just outside the penalty area. But then lost the game because of a foul in the 91st minute that was questionable. Also, if FIFA wants football to take off anywhere it’s the US, and what would ignite interest more than the US beating Italy and making through to the second round? The refeering was so abysmal that the US coach felt compelled to complain publicly. And then there was the Portugal-Holland debacle.

Here is FT football maven Simon Kuper’s assessment of the World Cup so far. Our grannies were good friends — for real.

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