FIFA, football and fairness?

Jun 11 2010 by Karsten Jonsen Print This Article

The football world is no stranger to foul play as exemplified last year when France advanced to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa at the expense of Ireland after Thierry Henry's handball set up a goal in the closing minutes of the match. Shades of Maradona's "hand of God" in the 1986 World Cup quarter final, perhaps?

But unlike many other sports associations, football's governing body FIFA stubbornly refuses to ask for a helping hand from technology - for example through the use of a video referee. Why?

To comprehend this, we may need to look beneath the surface into the "soul" of football and the underlying cultural assumptions of FIFA. Football is one of the few truly global sports, played on all continents and in most countries and followed by more than a billion people. Besides its competitive aspects, it serves many social purposes and is often referred to as "religion for the people".

FIFA has more than 200 member states (more than the United Nations) comprising over a quarter of a billion active players, and truly encompasses a variety of cultures. The non-Western countries of the world represent football's biggest fan base. This global aspect makes FIFA different from many other international sports associations that are predominantly Anglo-Saxon in most aspects, such as those for tennis and rugby, which have embraced the use of technology for increasing "fairness" at the top level of their sports.

Football has always had an element of surprise and "unfairness" to it which leads to heated discussions in pubs and homes around the globe about "who should have won" or "was the ball in or out". The most famous example was perhaps the goal at Wembley in 1966, which indirectly gave the world championship to England.

Moreover, football is unique in the sense that its very low scoring frequency (typically two or three goals per match) can result in one single act of cheating or a wrong decision by the referee changing the outcome of the match.

With the amount of money that is at stake in top level football, it is perhaps surprising that there is still a status quo in terms of rules, and the refusal to use video refereeing has persisted for so long. The discussions in the pubs are no longer about the ball being in or out, since that is often clear to the world watching on TV, rather they concern FIFA allowing "cheating" and fatal decisions.

Of course, the supporters of the team that gains from the "oversight" are delighted, and once the competition has begun, the bad taste that was left in the mouth has long been replaced by the strong smell of potential victory.

A clue to understanding this might lie in the cultural dimensions and assumptions that come into play because of the truly global nature of the sport and the mix of cultures. These may help to clarify FIFA's position and the dilemma it is faced with.

First, there is the question of "fate". In many Anglo-Saxon cultures, there is a tendency to respect the cultural dimension of mastery, meaning that we have a certain amount of control over our environment and what goes on around us. In football this could typically be done by video-camera surveillance followed by intervention and correction in order to ensure maximum fairness at all times.

In both Latin and Muslim cultures, by contrast, people are often less oriented towards mastery and more towards the belief that there is a larger plan (e.g. decided by fate or God) that determines to some degree what might happen, and thus people more readily accept the outcome, e.g. "the hand of God".

Second, there is the question of hierarchy. Latin and Muslim cultures are typically more hierarchical than Anglo-Saxon cultures and authority plays a larger role. In Latin and Muslim countries, the referee is the sole person who should make decisions on the pitch, and these should not be challenged. Even if "cheating" is discovered, the result of a game is irrevocable.

Third, there is the question of the present versus the past. Anglo-Saxon cultures are typically more in tune with the present and thus immediate needs and factors, whereas Latin and many other cultures are more concerned with the past, honoring traditions and continuity. This time-dimension, where the way things have been done in the past trumps everything else, might also help to explain FIFA's reluctance to introduce modern technology to help the referee in his decision making, even though "developing the game" is one of FIFA's espoused missions.

In conclusion, FIFA may be caught in a clash of cultures, torn between a strong call from Anglo-Saxon TV commentators, commercial interests and mass media to prevent "unfair" results and the desire of other societies to maintain the history and beauty of football culture.

But FIFA also needs to ensure harmony and balance between its members, which is another cultural dimension to take into account. There is probably no single easy solution to FIFA's dilemma, but hushing things up does not create harmony.

Since bad refereeing decisions, not to mention the countless incidents of spitting and cheating, are made globally transparent overnight (thanks to YouTube and other social media), football's governing body must be more transparent and reactive off the pitch.

Whether, and how, it should catch up with the world of technology or not is difficult to say, but it could start by openly discussing the more fundamental assumptions, such as culture, upon which it bases its behaviour and decisions.

Just as FIFA must take into account all these factors, any organization in business must consider the various cultural dimensions of its audience and stakeholders in their reflections and decision-making processes.


About The Author

Karsten Jonsen
Karsten Jonsen

Karsten Jonsen is a Research Fellow at IMD, one of the world's top-ranked business schools, located in Lausanne, Switzerland.