From Russia With Indifference

Tim Hall’s View From 101

We certainly don’t need to tell you, because it needs no introduction anywhere in the free world. You can scarcely pick up a newspaper or walk down any main street without hearing the buzz about it. It is, quite simply, the world’s fourth or fifth favorite quadrennial international soccer tournament.

It is the FIFA Confederations Cup, and if you think the grandiose claims made above are only so much bull, well, you’re right.

Come on. It’s Confed Cup. It’s literally the thing that gives the following summer’s World Cup host a chance to make sure the sewage systems in the stadiums are functional. But the teams have shown up and seem to have brought matching uniforms, so, let’s do this thing anyway.

The FIFA Confederations Cup is an eight team tournament featuring the six reigning continental champions – Mexico, Portugal, New Zealand, Chile, Australia and Cameroon – along with the reigning World Cup champions, who, since you don’t actually work for FIFA, you know is presently Germany. The final spot is taken by the host nation, in this case Russia, in the hope that they can actually sell some tickets to this thing. The tournament is used by the host nation, and by the governing body, as a dry run to make sure that all the infrastructure and so forth is in place and up to code before going live in front of billions of eyes next summer for the World Cup.

Insofar as it exists as a soft opening to the biggest sporting event in the world, it’s a particularly simple and smart idea, because it would be terrible for the game of soccer should everyone turn up next summer to find they’d forgotten to wire the lights, although holding the tournaments in first-world powers does mitigate that risk. Inasmuch as Confed Cup exists as a soccer tournament worth waking up early for and obsessing over, not as much.

That won’t stop many of us from watching, mind you. If there’s a reason to go have a pint in an air-conditioned bar at 11am on a June morning with some friends, we’ll take it. And if there’s something to put on in the morning while folding laundry or getting ready for work, that’s fine and dandy as well.

But since you can’t spell “FIFA Confederations Cup” without “FIFA”, there are some problems already with the tournament.

First of all, this time out the Confed Cup is not only serving as a dry run for the stadiums for 2018, but also for the rules, as next summer’s World Cup will be the first to use VAR, or Video Assistant Referees. The simplest explanation for American sports fans is that VAR will work as a replay booth. Either the on-field referee can request a review of a goal, potential penalty, or potential red card offense, or a special official watching the game on a bank of monitors can alert the match referee that such a play needs a second look. At that point, the referee can jog over to a monitor on the sideline, review the play and make a decision from there.

In the uses of VAR so far in the Confederations Cup, many people have been upset, as you would expect when they see a new thing for the first time. “That’s not how we’ve always done it” they exclaim over a sport where the ball used to be a pig’s bladder. There are complaints that VAR will slow game’s down, although already games that last 90 minutes can be condensed down to five minutes of highlights tops, and, you know, referees can just add that time back on the end when things are already more exciting, so hard to say something will be missed. If hockey, a sport five times faster than soccer on a bad day, can figure out how to use instant replay correctly, so can footy.

There are a few notes about VAR that are important to assuage any fears. First, and this is unlike the NFL, NHL or baseball, as of now coaches and players cannot ask the referee for VAR to be used. Well, they can, but they are supposed to receive a yellow card for this. Second, it’s going to get more calls right. Sports fans have this belief that a just universe balances out the good and bad calls over time, but there’s really no scientific proof that’s the case, and even if it was, what if the universe decided your team’s time to be the low man on the karmic teeter-totter was the 89th minute of a final? But don’t worry, balance will be achieved in the next qualifier!

Third, and most importantly, referees will now signal for a review by making a hand signal, drawing a rectangle in the air in front of them to represent a television monitor, much like rugby referees have for some time. Referee miming! That’s always a joyful thing to see.

But never mind this massive change to the rules and the fabric of our sport. The real problem remains hooligans. At least according to Deadspin, who have something of a love-hate relationship with the sport depending on who is on the by-line. They posted an article this week that said “Russia has to prove it can deal with hooliganism at Confederations Cup.”

Now, yes, Russian hooligans are in the running for the worst in the world right now, in terms of violence and racism and homophobia and none of that has any place in our game anymore. But Russia “has to prove” it can deal with it? Why, exactly? It would be swell if they did, but what does anyone think will happen if they don’t deal with hooliganism? Does anyone believe FIFA is going to stroll in and say “Look, we gave you the chance, we thought you’d change, but you didn’t, so now we have to take away the World Cup”? The people that gave the next World Cup to Qatar are suddenly going to get a case of the morals?

Violence and racism and homphobia and all other forms of bigotry are practically state-sanctioned in Russia right now. Telling them they have something to prove isn’t going to work because they aren’t eleven years old and hoping to go to the movies this weekend. It’s cracking down on hooliganism, not doing the dishes. How about instead of giving them the world’s stage and wishing they complete some magical turnaround in time, you just don’t give them the tournaments to begin with? Or at least don’t act surprised when people continue acting exactly as they have the whole time.

That, as ever, is the real threat to the sport. Not the shocking offense of a bit of technology holding up play for two minutes to get the call right, but the despots and crackpots who get to manipulate the purse strings behind the scenes and act shocked and innocent. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our screens, but in our selves.