After the Jabulani experiment (see my previous post), FIFA has further demonstrated examples of how to mismanage political and public relations risks.
FIFA’s recent PR battering came from a set of refereeing mistakes made in some crucial games of World Cup 2010. In the first round, USA was disallowed a legitimate game-winning goal in a match with Slovenia. Brazil’s Fabiano handled the ball illegally in scoring against Ivory Coast.
In the second round knockout games, a clearly legitimate strike by England’s Frank Lampard was disallowed. This goal, by which England would have tied Germany 2-2, would have completely changed the game. In the next match, the referee allowed an illegal offside goal by Argentina’s Carlos Tevez against Mexico. England and Mexico ended up losing badly.
Referee mistakes happen; it’s human. Unfairness happens; it’s life. But most high-profile sports use technology to minimize errors and ensure the games are as fair as possible. FIFA’s stance, however, has been adamantly against using technology to assist referee decisions. This is inexplicable and outdated.
FIFA’s reaction to the recent events had five aspects. Let’s look at these, for these are things you should not do if you’re serious about managing political and public relations risks.
FIFA’s Five Reactions
1. Ostrich syndrome. Right after the horrendous England and Mexico incidents, FIFA buried its head in the sand and said, “FIFA will not make any comments on decisions of the referee on the field of play.” So, first impression of the public: FIFA just doesn’t care (as long as the money keeps rolling in).
2. Blindfold and gag rule. FIFA’s spokesman Nicolas Maingot later came out to admit that a mistake had been made. From FIFA’s perspective, the mistake was to show on the stadium’s screen the video replay of Tevez’s illegal goal. FIFA said it will be careful to further censor instant replay of match moments. Wow! Impression of the public: FIFA is an autocracy; you should only see, hear, and feel what FIFA wants you to see, hear, and feel.
3. Revisionism. Then FIFA resorted to revisionist writing to cover up what happened. FIFA’s official website reported the Lampard incident as follows: “Meetings between these two sides [i.e., England and Germany] often provide talking points and this one’s came 60 seconds later when Lampard’s shot from the edge of the box struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced down, with the referee ruling the ball had not crossed the goalline.” Really? It just bounced down, and it was merely a “talking point”? It was so blatant that even Germany’s Angela Merkel apologized to the British Prime Minister right afterwards. Similarly, on Tevez’s offside goal, FIFA’s website reported, “Messi was quick-witted enough to return the ball towards goal, where the Manchester City striker [Tevez] was waiting to head home.” With another sleazy sleight of hand, FIFA made it sound as though was a natural, legitimate goal. Public’s impression: FIFA officially doesn’t give a damn about truth.
4. Sticking to guns. As the storm raged further, FIFA kept referring to its decision in March to not introduce any referee-assist technologies. FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter had said then, “No matter which technology is applied, at the end of the day a decision will have to be taken by a human being. This being the case, why remove the responsibility from the referee to give it to someone else?” At a press conference after the England and Mexico incidents, FIFA’s spokesman said, “we obviously will not open up any debate [on the issue].” Public’s impression: FIFA leadership belongs to the nineteenth century.
5. Swallowing words — but not enough. In the last election, Mr. Blatter struggled to get elected, securing just 66 of 207 votes. With his outmoded stubbornness, he has clearly lost the confidence of more big countries now. He will not win the next election, and that will be good for world football. Still, he made a last-ditch effort to rescue his politics by eventually calling up the football federations of England and Mexico and apologizing for what had happened. And then, he said, “it would be a nonsense not to reopen the file of technology,” but restricted FIFA to considering only goal-line technology. FIFA is still unable to put forward a sound reason why it is unable to conduct an open and public discussion on technology. Public’s impression: FIFA is incapable of learning fully.
At the end of the day, as a popular soccer blog put it, “the primary question remains – is it corruption at work or ineptitude compounded by embarrassment?”
What should FIFA do?
It’s clear, isn’t it? FIFA should have come clean after the two games, admitted the referee mistakes instead of trying to cover them up and blaming the public for watching the mistake on a giant screen, and become open to more ideas for incorporating technology.
From a risk management perspective, it should have begun long ago. When every other major international sport embraced technology to assist human decision, Sepp Blatter continued to insist that the “human aspect” of the game must be preserved. One got the sense that in Blatter’s mind, robots are taking over the field.
Tennis uses hawk-eye and a system of player challenges. Olympic races use photo finish technology. NFL uses a television review system. Basketball also uses review to some extent. Cricket uses hawk-eye and a third official referral system. So why not the world’s most popular sport?
FIFA said it will disrupt the flow of the game. But the game already stops at every whistle the referee blows. FIFA claimed that the human mistakes are part of the game, and ultimately, even with the inclusion of technology, humans will have to make the decision. That’s flatly silly. The goal is not to replace humans with AI, but use technology to assist humans. The referees already wear headsets and communicate with each other. That’s technology. Why can’t they refer a controversial decision someone who has a clearer view using TV replay?
Some say that it will increase the cost of administering games. That’s also silly. Football is the world’s largest sport; it makes more money than any other sport by far. If a smaller sport like cricket can afford it, football surely can.
The one crucial lesson FIFA should take from its poor record at risk management it to be more open to ideas going forward. Instead, it is showing a characteristic obstinacy by restricting the discussion to goal-line technology only. It should evaluate arguments about a referral system. If a referee deems an event controversial or unclear, there is no reason why he should not be able to refer it to another official for instant review. The play will stop anyway, and it works well in other sports. And, from FIFA’s perspective, it should give the organization a little window to make more money by selling ad rights.