I suppose most fans hate the ruling bureaucracy in their chosen field. Basketball fans hate David Stern. Baseball fans hate Bud Selig. And where's the music fan that feels warm and fuzzy about Sony? Still, I'll put my evil bureaucracy up against yours any day of the week. Headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, world HQ of secretive banking practices, FIFA's byzantine autocracy rivals that of the Vatican, and its financial dealings are nearly as suspect.
The raison d'être of the organization, of course, is to promote the value of its franchise. And what a franchise it is. In one of the few public pronouncements ever about its value, then-FIFA-President Joao Havelange noted that in 1994, soccer generated some $225 billion worldwide -- some 65% more than the previous year's revenue for General Motors, the world's largest corporation. Most of that revenue, of course, goes not to the 200-plus national federations who are FIFA members, but to the privately owned teams in national leagues around the globe. And it's these team owners -- not the sport or the fans or the players -- who command FIFA's loyalties.
It is ever thus, of course. But if you think American team ownership is bad, you ain't seen nothing yet. In Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, sports teams are owned by major corporations, and treated as the high-profile promotional properties they are. Silvio Berlusconi owns the dominant team in Italy, AC Milan, as well as the biggest media conglomerate on the continent; after he became the prime minister, and was finally shamed into divesting himself of properties, was it the newspaper chain that caused a problem, or the fact that he owned four of the top cable channels in the nation? No, it was the soccer team he had to put into a blind trust. Elsewhere, it's pretty much a standard: If you're a major corporation, you want to own a major soccer team and plaster your logo on their chests -- Philips in Holland, Fiat in Italy, Bayer in Germany, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Nissan in Japan, Hyundai in Korea -- and that's just scratching the surface.
The point is, that's the community FIFA has evolved to serve, and which in turn serves FIFA and its leadership very well. FIFA's longtime marketing partner, ISL Worldwide (also a Swiss company) declared bankruptcy last year after somehow losing track of about $400 million in a series of extremely complicated banking transfers. But of course, no one thought that the money was in fact lost; it was just, er, misplaced.
And what services does FIFA render in exchange? Well, I suppose you'd say it was in the nature of labor relations. As with more familiar American sports, free agency has become unavoidable in soccer -- but FIFA has fought a valiant rear-guard action to minimize the impact of the individual player. In a sport in which jersey numbers still mostly refer to positions rather than individuals (you're not a star midfielder, you're "a number 9"), FIFA takes pains to keep its star players from getting too big for their britches. From subtle rule changes and disciplinary decisions to transfer regulations, FIFA's main consideration generally seems to be to keep the value of the franchise from being too dependent on any of the players -- who tend, after all, to be so ephemeral and unreliable.
So it should come as no surprise that FIFA should put out a CD such as this one -- 20 tracks, each one completely interchangeable with any other -- a perfect mishmash of Euro-disco-techno-pop-funk fusion. It's an interesting approach to creating a "World" music -- 16 nations represented, and not a distinctive sound among them. It's really quite a feat: Korean music sounds like Brazilian, sounds like British, sounds like German, sounds like ... Jennifer Lopez? Where's the samba? Where are the bagpipes? Where are the drums? Where's the, well, humanity? Blech.
The first round features eight four-team groups (A-H) playing each other in a round-robin format. The top two in each group advance to the final 16-team bracket. Here's the schedule for this week.
Fri 5/31 6:30am France vs. Senegal (A) Defending champs are prohibitive favorites over former colony.
Sat 6/1 1:30am Ireland vs. Cameroon (E) Critical matchup; Irish captain Roy Keane was dismissed from team.
4am Uruguay vs. Denmark (A) Winner takes a giant step toward second round; loser must beat France.
6:30am Germany vs. Saudi Arabia (E) Germans, a big favorite to win this group, could be overconfident.
Sun 6/2 12:30am Argentina v. Nigeria (F) Physical matchup: Argentines second in world; Super Eagles very strong.
2:30am Paraguay vs. South Africa (B) Their first meeting ever; South Americans strong, but miss star goalie.
4:30am England vs. Sweden (F) Injury-plagued Brits face fractious Swedes; is fighting in practice a good sign?
6:30am Spain vs. Slovenia (B) Major pre-tourney favorite against the smallest country in the field.
Mon 6/3 1:30am Croatia vs. Mexico (G) Overachievers vs. underachievers; experienced Croats will be favored.
4:00am Brazil vs. Turkey (C) Top two in this group; Brazilians under huge pressure; watch out here.
6:30am Italy vs. Ecuador (G) Italians often start slow, but Ecuador has not impressed.
Tue 6/4 1:30am China PR vs. Costa Rica (C) Major unknowns: Riqueños unfancied; no one's seen the Chinese.
4am Japan vs. Belgium (H) Hosts need a result against dangerous squad to think about advancing.
6:30am Korea Rep. v. Poland (D) Other hosts face a stern opener against racially torn Poles.
Wed 6/5 1:30am Russia vs. Tunisia (H) Tunisians may be worst of the 32; this is clearly the weakest group.
4am USA vs. Portugal (D) Americans get their toughest test right off the bat against No. 5 in the world.
That's the end of the first leg of the round robin. The second leg starts that same morning:
6:30am Germany vs. Ireland (E)
Thu 6/6 1:30am Denmark vs. Senegal (A)
4:00am Cameroon vs. Saudi Arabia (E)
6:30am France vs. Uruguay (A)
The round-robin first round continues through Friday morning, June 14. The Round of 16 begins the next morning, Saturday, June 15, and the tournament continues through the Final on Sunday, June 30.
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