Controversy in the centenary


By ROB HUGHES

LONDON: FIFA's sale of the centenary is in full sway. This week, tickets are available at the booking office for two “spectacular showcase contests” to be staged by football's world governing body at the Stade de France on May 20. 

First, there will be, to quote FIFA, “the fascination of women's football which continues to take the world by storm.”  

To follow, France, the country where FIFA was founded, will play Brazil, the most accomplished nation in the game's history, at the rather more timeworn men's game. 

It is logical, and right, that those who live by the sport should choose to reflect their past and present by inviting France and Brazil to play for the public. Since May 21 is the actual foundation day of the meeting in Paris that started the FIFA ball rolling, the night of May 20, moving into the birthday, is reasonable enough. 

However, both games are on a problematic course, courtesy of Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA. 

Barely a day goes by when we are not invited to praise the peripatetic leader of a sport with 250 million active participants across the globe. In Africa, he promises that Africans will stage World Cup 2010. In South America, he says 2014 belongs to Brazil. 

No doubt if Joseph S. Blatter were invited to Mars tomorrow, he would invite any form of life that exists there to accept his presidential invitation to stage the games of the second FIFA century on the red planet. 

The style of Blatter, learned from his predecessor, Joao Havelange, is to brand anything and everything with his own signature. Blatter pronounces that women's football should promote “a more female aesthetic” by having players wear tighter shorts.  

Blatter expands and expands the FIFA branding by filling in dates for his own tournaments: the Confederations Cup, the World Club Cup, and now this prestigious centennial double, the women's and men's spectaculars. 

The women of Germany, the reigning FIFA world champion in women's football, will take the field at Stade de France against an All-Star FIFA select team. 

They will probably stick to conventional clothing. The 68-year-old president's observations in a Swiss tabloid, SonntagsBlick, did not go down too well with the players. 

“Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” Blatter reportedly said. “They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have different rules to men - such as playing with a lighter ball.” 

The chorus of disapproval has been swift and constant. Lise Klaveness of Norway said that if crowds only wanted to watch models, they should buy a copy of Playboy. Countless women players, and even some men, point out that the president is mistaken if he thinks the ball is lighter in the female game. 

A Canadian player, Kara Lang, said: “I'd like to see Sepp Blatter wearing hot pants.” 

Blatter is less enthusiastic about men wearing figure-hugging uniforms. He forbade Cameroon, the fashion leader in men's football,, from wearing a one-piece costume at the African Nations Cup. The Indomitable Lions and their sponsor, Puma, simply ignored the diktat. 

From hot pants to hot issues.  

When FIFA was born in 1904, the English, lawmakers of the game, were disapprovingly absent. Though Blatter's next whistlestop is in London at the end of February – where he finds time to meet the queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair – he is aware that the venerable Football Association of England is somewhat compromised by the May 20 spectacular in Paris. 

By a coincidence that any rudimentary planner would have foreseen, the date is less than 48 hours before the oldest Cup final in existence, the English FA Cup. Unless there is a stunning turnaround in form, the finalists could well be the two dominant clubs in the land: Arsenal and Manchester United. 

What has that got to do with France versus Brazil in Saint-Denis? Everything and nothing.  

Arsenal field five players – Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva, Edu and Sylvain Wiltord – who are in the current French or Brazilian squads. United have two: Mikael Sylvester and Kleberson. 

From any perspective, the prospect of a big night in Paris on a Thursday followed by the biggest Cup afternoon in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday is farcical. 

FIFA, of course, says their centennial calendar was issued in good time and the FA should have avoided the third week in May. 

“The date has been on the international calendar, approved by everyone, since August 2000,” said Jerome Champagne, the deputy general secretary of FIFA. France and Brazil, he adds, must respect FIFA by lining up their strongest teams.  

Michel Platini, Blatter's protege who is on the fast-track from playing idol to FIFA administrator, pleads for compromise.  

“The clubs will have to abide by the date, and everybody knows that,” Platini says. “But I am sure that if Arsenal or the other clubs reach the English Cup final something can be sorted out. 

“Thierry Henry can make an agreement with the French coach to play for half an hour or something. It is just common sense.” 

Is it? The FA Cup is older than FIFA, and Arsenal are attempting an unprecedented fourth consecutive final appearance, and third successive triumph. Their coach Arsène Wenger, a Frenchman, has already spoken out against the burgeoning FIFA competitions. 

Blatter champions a biennial FIFA World Club Championship, from July 2005 involving 12 to 16 clubs, such as Arsenal.  

“It's an idea not based on quality,” scoffs Wenger, “and that is wrong. I think the responsibility of football bodies is to keep the interest and quality high.” 

But if the money is right, Arsenal will play in it. Similarly, the national federations who wail that there is not enough time or scope for players to rest between club and national team duties will march to the FIFA tune in another competition, the Confederations Cup, again for the profit motive. 

Yet if Blatter must have his way, the least he should do is make sure his emissaries sing from the same hymn sheet. This week, the FIFA president will again try to push through legislation to stop national team coaches from by making wholesale substitutions in friendly internationals. 

Sven Goran Eriksson, the Swedish coach of England, and Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian in charge of the Portuguese team, have agreed that the friendly on Wednesday between the countries, in Faro, could use 11 substitutions per side. 

This, they reasoned, would allow them to see young as well as established contenders for places in the line up. It also appeases the clubs which object to their overworked athletes being made to run the full 90 minutes in a friendly. 

Blatter wants to stop this “mockery” and to impose a limitation on the use of substitutes. Platini, meanwhile, advocates a cameo role for Henry, and others, on May 20.  

The centennial might turn out to be a symbol of a game being torn apart by vested interests.  

Tickets, by the way, are on sale in Paris at prices from E25 to E95, or $32 to $122. – IHT 

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