Off The Cuff

by Neil Sherwin

BackPageFootball columnist Ed Diggins is back with his weekly look at the game’s hottest talking points.

Reffing Disgrace

As Bolton manager Owen Coyle lashed the officials on Tuesday night after his side’s failure to get two penalties against Chelsea, he joined a growing list of managers who have cause to be more and more frustrated with the declining standard of officiating that is gripping the game at the moment. Last season, we were impaled with the respect campaign and how it was going to revolutionise the standard across the country. Something the FA forgot however was the need to show some respect themselves.

Managers and players are handed heavy punishments when they criticise officials, yet it seems the referees involved always seem to escape punishment for their incompetence. Last weekend alone, we saw farcical decisions in favour of Manchester City and Portsmouth, with devastating consequences. But this is normal now. Every weekend something happens and the element of shock is now gone. Watch Match of the Day on Saturday night and I would bet my house, if I had one, that something major will happen as a result of incompetence by officials.

In late October I watched on in horror,as Burnley visited the KC Stadium to take on Hull City. What unfolded in front of me that day was perhaps the most scandalous display of officiating I have ever seen. Time and time again, the people in charge of controlling the game got key decisions wrong. It resulted in a 2-0 win for Burnley, but I do not think anybody could deny that the course of the game, was impacted by a poor display from the officials.

The following week, Manchester United visited Chelsea and the performance of Martin Atkinson that day was nothing short of a disgrace, from a man who is supposed to be one of the top officials about. Several other high profile decisions followed, I could list them all, but it sickens me to think about them. And let’s not mention a certain cheat from France. It does not inspire confidence in this summer’s World Cup does it?

People say these things balance themselves out but a lot of the time that is not possible. Different games, different consequences. Referees are paid to be professional, but the standards are getting more and more amateur. They are paid not to make mistakes. FIFA’s refusal to embrace technology is sickening and they are guilty of being perhaps the most backward and obstinate group of morons on the planet.

Managers make mistakes, they get sacked. Players make mistakes, they get dropped.  But did you hear about the ref who gave one of the most farcical decisions of the season just two weeks ago? He was put him in charge of the biggest game of the season the following Saturday. And guess what, he made a balls of it.

Balance? Let’s see those people who ignore the growing problem, try to tell Hull City fans about balance, if their team ends up in 18th position come the 9th of May.

FIFA’s Freebies?

FIFA are perhaps facing one of the most embarrassing situations of any of the large sporting organisations around, as we approach the biggest sporting event of 2010. With only weeks remaining, less than 70% of the tickets for the World Cup are sold, with almost one million still un-allocated. Sponsors have returned 378,000 tickets, which in itself is shocking, but when you add in the fact that it follows 650,000 tickets being returned by the 32 competing football associations, you get the overall picture of how badly FIFA have planned this event. Alarmingly, the public sales events in the competing countries yielded sales of just over 50%, with some countries down as low as 20%. I am all for having a spread around the world, but surely they couldn’t expect any different when they decided to award this to South Africa? Germany 2006 received 15 million applications alone, almost 13 million more than this year.

The cost of getting to South Africa is turning off most fans, with the average costs of flights from England for example running at $2,500. It is estimated that fans of teams who make the last four, will end up forking out up to $12,000 for the entire month’s stay.  This has lead to the FA sending back almost 1,000 tickets, something that would have been unheard of, given the fact that England traditionally has been one of the best travelling supporters in world football.

That explains also the lack of interest from sponsors. Given the current global instabilities, companies just cannot afford to send employees on freebies off to South Africa for a month.  Furthermore the country, despite huge investment, still has very poor infrastructure meaning that fans will have a logistical nightmare getting from one city to another.

Crucially however, there is the fear factor associated with South Africa. With a reputation of being one of the most dangerous countries in the world, it is now clear that people just are not willing to spend extra money on going to a place riddled with safety issues.

And the problems for FIFA do not end there. They have been forced to cancel almost 50,000 pre-booked flights for the event, with 20,000 hotel rooms in the same boat. There are rumors of planned public sector strikes also to coincide with the event, but that is for a different story.

So what will be the likely outcome? Its un-thought of that the seats will remain empty, so no doubt Blatter and co will get in touch with Rent A Crowd and start handing them out for free to the locals in south Africa. Last weekend, FIFA launched a campaign in South Africa to make the locals aware of the availability of tickets. It pointed to the fact that they ignored that a huge proportion of the population there have no access to the internet and their initial focus on online sales, was the incorrect one.

But will they buy them? Or will we see the crazy situation of tickets being handed out for free around the stadiums. Empty seats just are not an option. This poses a further problem, how the hell are we going to listen to those annoying fans and their hooters for every game, now at an increased level? Overall, this is just not an attractive venue for most people and it has been a farce from the outset once it was awarded. What were they thinking? Idiots.

Poland/Ukraine 2012- Problems ahead?

Speaking of major championship disasters, there could be another one looming further east. While both countries report “good progress”, it is clear that major issues are brewing in the Ukraine. Last week, UEFA President Michel Platini visited the country to check on progress and if reports are to be believed, he left the area in a state of severe shock and concern. Indeed, it has led to Platini setting a deadline for immediate progress.

“I told him (Ukraine Leader Viktor Yanukovich) we need guarantees from the government on going forward and I told him that in the next two months we would like to see strong signs of advancing,” said the former France international.

Internal political troubles, poor economic stability and infrastructure, added to a lack of funding, has led to the planned development of the host cities, now being 6 months behind. To give an idea of just how serious the issue is, it is estimated that a gap of $5 billion now exists just to catch up on the said delays. Ukraine are confident of finding this extra funding and getting back on track, but time is running out for them.

There is also a huge concern that the project will plunge the country into unfeasible debt, a concept that is turning the general population against the hosting. Once the World Cup is over, focus will then once again switch to 2012 but if the Boris’ and Igors in Kiev do not get their finger out and start pouring some concrete, we could well be heading to Berlin rather than Berdiansk.

El Messiah

And finally someone I just have to mention. Lionel Messi. I saw an article last week where a colleague described him as the best player of all time. While it is a small bit premature to call him this, it is perhaps only a matter of time before it becomes the reality. I could write for the next 20 minutes about this lad and everything would already have been said elsewhere. He is just unbelievable. I have seen him play live once and while he was off form that night after a spell of injuries, you could see the sheer quality in him.

Sometimes you just have to stand back and admire and this is one of them. To pass the 40 goal barrier last week with five goals against Arsenal and Real is just incredible going. And it is not just about his goals, he is involved in absolutely everything that is good about Barcelona, adding another 10 assists to his stats for the season. We are witnessing something special with this lad.

ed@backpagefootball.com

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