What I learned on my (sort of) summer vacation.
The World Cup is such an addictive thing for a first-time attendee, like I was in South Africa for two weeks. I fell for the event, and not just being in stadiums to watch American dramatics, artful Brazilian passing and South African fans in full Zulu dress. Lasting memory for me, as I wrote in this space three weeks ago: watching four reed-thin, bare-chested Namibian tribesmen walking wide-eyed through a ritzy outdoor mall in Johannesburg -- to stand alongside a thousand fans from five continents watching Germany play Australia on a big screen in a neighborhood square. Only at the World Cup.
I'll sound like the Know-It-All American -- if not the Ugly one -- giving FIFA advice. But from my 26 years covering the NFL, and from traversing our country watching games of all sports, I not-so-humbly offer three suggestions to make the greatest sports month in the world better. I've seen three maddening things in South Africa that show FIFA to be fat, happy and figuring if it isn't broken, why fix it? Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, attending his ninth World Cup, told me outside the USA-Slovenia match in Johannesburg: "FIFA historically has been criticized for not being particularly innovative or progressive.'' To put it mildly. I'll start with the thing that still makes me burn.
1. Make the game officials accountable. Imagine late in the fourth quarter of that intense Saints-Vikings playoff game Brett Favre threw a go-ahead touchdown pass, and referee Peter Morelli waved off the TD and handed the ball to the Saints at their 20, announcing nothing about the negated touchdown. Afterward, imagine Morelli spoke to neither team and walked out of the stadium; no explanation. And imagine the NFL saying nothing, and 120 million fans around the country being left to wonder: "What was the call, and why didn't the Vikings win?''
Whatever referee Koman Coulibaly saw when he disallowed the go-ahead United States goal with five minutes left in America's 2-2 tie with Slovenia, he told no one. A worldwide audience estimated at 800 million asked the same question in unison: What was the foul? The official gamesheet listed the violation on the negated-goal-scorer, Maurice Edu, but replays showed Edu was one of the few players in the box not committing some sort of foul. FIFA doesn't require an explanation from Coulibaly. "That's the sport we live with,'' U.S. defender Jay DeMerit said afterward, shrugging his shoulders resignedly. Why? You've got nearly a billion people around the world on their edge of their seats watching this game, and it's acceptable to abuse their trust and not explain the game-deciding call? "We're all accustomed to the fact that if it's an NFL playoff game, if there's a call in question, there will be a statement from the referees,'' U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "Soccer's different.'' Not in a good way. FIFA should institute the NFL's pool-reporter concept for the World Cup, and force officials to answer to the masses who live for these games.
2. Improve the stadium experience. I'm not talking about the vuvuzelas, either. (Though with the cacophonous horn-blowing, you lose out on the traditional chants and songs from the crowd, because those are simply drowned out.) The least these stadia could do is show the elapsed time and score, which none of the World Cup venues do, except occasionally when the international TV feed shows up for a short spell on the small stadia scoreboards. FIFA's got a great racket going, because when I complained to a couple of English writers -- and my Twitter followers -- all I got heard back was: Use your wristwatch, you dope.
Some things, like the hand-operated scoreboard at Fenway Park, are cute traditions. Some things, like not knowing the time left in the game, are stupid annoyances. The scoreboards could be so much better too. At either end of Johannesburg's Soccer City, the new $700-million palace built as the jewel stadium of this World Cup, are mindful of what NFL stadiums had in 1980 -- small, hard to see, and very often turned off. Bizarre. Put the elapsed time and score up in every stadium. It's not hard.
3. The TV product, too often, is cookie-cutter brutal. The international feed of the games, which we see in South Africa, is the same for almost every game: helicopter shot of teams arriving, players getting off bus, players marching out to the field from the tunnel, Anthems and closeups of players, the game, bad studio halftime and postgame, quick on-field interviews with a player from each team. Lather, rinse, repeat. No in-depth stories on players or coaches, no players or coaches on the set, no locker-room interviews (blasphemy ... media in the locker room!), no accommodation to follow news stories of any sort that arise out of the games. You want to know the U.S. reaction to the waved-off goal? Wait till the papers the next day, or the internet that night. Because that's the way it's always been done. FIFA needs to let stories happen, and needs to let fans around the world see them.
They call soccer The Beautiful Game. Being in the middle of the World Cup, I understand the madness, and I hope to be in Brazil in four years. But the jewel could use some polishing.
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