Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 4, 2015

The Beautiful Game, One Ugly Mess

The good news for soccer fans is that two major events that will return focus to what happens on the pitch are on the immediate horizon. Early Saturday afternoon east coast time, with Fox holding the U.S. broadcast rights, Barcelona and Juventus square off at Berlin’s Olympiastadion in the Champions League Final. For Americans of a certain age who think soccer is a nice game for school kids, the match will determine the 60th season champion of Europe’s premier soccer tournament. The World Cup may be soccer’s biggest event, but since that is a quadrennial tournament the Champions League Final is each year’s Super Bowl of a sport played by more than a quarter billion people all around the globe.

Juventus, from Turin, Italy, and Spain’s Barcelona, are the last two teams standing from a year-long tournament that included 77 teams from 53 of the 54 member associations of UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, one of soccer’s six regional governing bodies. Each of the national associations are allotted a certain number of teams in the tournament based on the performance of their squads in European play over the last five years. Traditional soccer powerhouses Spain, England and Germany are granted four spots each in the tourney; while 38 of the 53 associations send but a single representative to Champions League play.

The timing of entry into the multi-round event is also based on association ranking. Representatives of the six lowest-ranked national associations began play last year in the First Qualifying Round. Teams from places such as Estonia and the Faroe Islands would have to survive three rounds of qualifying plus a Playoff Round in order to advance to Group Play. In contrast 22 of the 32 teams at the group stage begin their tournament there, with the chance to advance to the final Knockout Phase by garnering one of the two best records in the round-robin matches of each of 8 groups.

It should come as no surprise that 13 of the 16 teams that won through to the Knockout Phase were from the list of those with byes all the way to Group Play, and that the other three entered the tournament in the Playoff Round. As much as the Champions League showcases the breadth of the game across Europe, in the end power resides in a handful of associations and their best teams. Juventus is the most decorated club in Italian soccer and ranks 4th in Europe for the most trophies won; while Forbes ranks Barcelona as the second most valuable soccer club in the world. The Italian squad has won a pair of Champions League titles, though the last was 19 years ago. The Spanish team has claimed four UEFA championships, including three in the last decade.

On Saturday 75,000 fans in the stands in Berlin and millions more watching all around the world will see a contrast of styles. Juventus is a brilliant defensive team, while Barcelona is a scoring machine led by the front line of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Both have played 12 matches against the best competition on the continent in this tournament. Juventus has allowed just 7 goals, but Barcelona has scored 28. The only certainty is that on Saturday something will give.

Not long after supporters of either Juventus or Barcelona begin what will doubtless be a grand celebration, the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off with the opening match between host Canada and China at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. Over the next month 24 national teams, a fifty percent increase from the 2011 field, will compete through Group and eventually Knockout Stages until only two remain. The 51st and final match of this, the seventh edition of the Women’s World Cup, will be July 5th in Vancouver.

The top seeded teams, based on world rankings, are those from Germany and the United States, followed by France and Japan. Brazil and the host team, co-ranked 8th in the world, were given the other two seeded positions when the draw was conducted last December. While Team USA should certainly make it through to the knockout stage (failure to do so would be an unmitigated disaster), the American women must contend with Australia and Sweden, both ranked in the top ten, during Group Play.

The reasonable expectation is that the finalists will come from among the top four powers, but one shouldn’t sell host Canada short. The Canadian women are still smarting from their loss to the U.S. in the semifinals at the 2012 Olympics, when a late and controversial penalty call opened the door for Abby Wambach to tie a match that the Americans eventually won in extra time.

It will be a great relief for soccer fans to be able to talk about actual matches, and very important ones at that, after a week of talking about nothing but the foul mess that is the leadership of FIFA. Soccer’s international governing body and the organizer of the World Cup tournaments was racked by the arrests on corruption charges of more than a dozen top officials who were gathered in Switzerland for the association’s annual meeting last weekend. Long-time president Sepp Blatter initially deflected criticism, as he has done for most of his regime, and rode his support among small countries and FIFA’s “one country, one vote” policy to reelection. But just days later Blatter announced that he would step down.

His decision was greeted by a vocal “good riddance” from soccer lovers across the globe, and if it is the first step toward cleaning up FIFA and restoring integrity to the organization that sits atop the beautiful game, then even casual fans will cheer. But that remains to be seen. The voting policy which gives disproportionate sway to small nations with miniscule roles in the soccer universe remains in place, and one has to wonder why those who benefit from it would vote to change it. While obviously not everyone in a leadership role in FIFA is corrupt, the list of possible replacements for Blatter is lacking in true outsiders, who might feel free to enact genuine change.

Sepp Blatter’s sudden and precipitous fall is both stunning and, given the years of investigations, reports and rumors of rampant corruption, not surprising at all. But it will take more than the departure of one man to truly change the culture of an organization. FIFA’s official motto is “For the Game. For the World.” But in actual practice the organizational mantra for years has been “For Me and My Bank Account.” Much remains to be done to change that. Odds are that long after this weekend’s important matches have been decided, the ugly tale of FIFA corruption will still be unfolding.

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