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Politically Incorrect Football
The issue of doping in soccer is only partially raised at best
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-07 00:26 (KST)   
More than just a game
Zinedine Zidane, captain of the French squad and corporate spokesman, in the streets of Paris.
©2006 Pierre Joo
Amid the World Cup frenzy a new type of late-night television show has appeared on French television: football talk shows. A roundtable of sports journalists, consultants or former players is assembled to discuss various World Cup topics, with only one simple rule: provide viewers with politically incorrect thoughts and debates they usually don't get from traditional news or sports papers.

Most of the discussions should not be taken seriously as the main objective of these talk shows is to entertain people rather than to inform them. Yet the content of these discussions is interesting, as it reflects the average football fan's opinions.

Since France and Korea were to battle in the same first round group, a lot of the early shows were related to Korea's past and current performances, and some of them were particularly annoying for those supporting the Korean team and its 2002 coach Guus Hiddink. For a lot of French people, and probably a lot of people from other European football powerhouses, Korea's 2002 performance is suspicious.

Of course the Taeguk Warriors benefited from home field advantage as any World Cup organizer does. But there could be other reasons for Korea's outstanding performance, so they say, which could be found somewhere in Hiddink's medical suitcase. This is also supposed to explain why Korea performed so poorly in Germany, and I do agree the team had lost some of the stamina and physical strength that were their 2002 trademark, while Australia, coached by Hiddink this year, passed the first round and almost beat Italy.

Doping and football. Aside from some controversial claims that may be expressed during heated late-night talk shows, this issue is hardly ever raised. Why? Probably because if we paused from the current World Cup frenzy to think of this issue rationally, we might come up with two possible conclusions, both unacceptable for football lovers.

The first conclusion is an idealistic, even naive one: aside from some individual cases that were swiftly dealt with (Maradona in 1994), football is free from the plague of doping. Such is the official line of FIFA, the world football association, which claimed that all 232 doping tests conducted after the German World Cup quarterfinals proved negative.

Those who believe in such a conclusion must also believe in several questionable facts: that it is humanly possible to keep up the pace of three top-level matches per week and yet be physically fit at the end of a long football season to sustain yet another round of up to 7 matches within one month; that doping, while ravaging other sports such as track and field, baseball and cycling -- the Spanish doctor Fuentes at the center of the latest cycling doping scandal claims he also had football players among his clients -- but has kept away from football, a sports discipline where the highest economic, political and media interests collide.

The second conclusion is a cynical one, related to the above-mentioned interests at stake, as the economic and political consequences of football have become enormous.

As the France vs Brazil World Cup quarterfinal was being aired live from Germany by TF1, the number one French TV channel, two particularly anxious French supporters were shown, among the thousands of people attending that match: French President Jacques Chirac, and TF1 Chairman Patrick Le Lay. These two screenshots sum it all up: today, football far outreaches the strict boundaries of sports and has significant consequences on a political, economic and social level.

In France TF1 has agreed to pay 200 million dollars for the right to broadcast matches featuring the French team for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. That price has even increased by 50 percent for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. One can thus imagine TF1's relief that France was able to pass the first round of the tournament, then beat Spain, and then Brazil in a dreamlike quarter final that has revived memories of France's unforgettable victory in the final of the 1998 French World Cup, and finally Portugal to reach the finals. The three last matches were indeed up to the channel's and its advertisers' expectations, with an audience almost reaching the levels for the 1998 final match.

No matter whether it is France or Italy that will be lifting the football World Cup trophy on July 9, we already have an absolute winner: FIFA. With revenue of $2.5 billion and a bottom-line profit of $1.3 billion, the German World Cup is undoubtedly the most profitable of all tournaments, mostly thanks to huge transmission rights --$1.2 billion -- that TV networks, and increasingly, internet providers and wireless carriers have agreed to pay to FIFA, the exclusive owner of these rights. Indeed, it is an economic miracle for FIFA.

Not to mention all the political miracles that football are capable of. In 1998, Chirac's plummeting popularity was able to rise from its ashes after the president, wearing a French football team jersey and hugging all the sweaty French players after their heroic matches, was able to appear closely associated with Les Bleus' victory. Today, the same story is repeating as les Bleus' revival and performances have replaced all the critics on Chirac and his Prime Minister Villepin in the news headlines. In Ivory Coast, the national football team's World Cup qualification got such unanimous support that it was even able to appease the civil war.

Even if doping existed, would it overcome these tremendous economic and political interests to finally come up in the spotlight?

I frankly do not have an opinion on whether Korea's 2002 performance was fuelled by illegal medical substance: maybe its outstanding performance is to be found in cheating, or maybe it is to be found in the team's intensive five-month training prior to the tournament, a real luxury that hardly any national team can enjoy, given their players obligations with their clubs. Nor does it bother me that some people may hint that doping is the secret of Korea's performance.

As far as I'm concerned, I've chosen to believe that even if doping existed, it is the inherent value of a team and the talent and motivation of its players that make the difference in the end.

What bothers me however is that some so called politically incorrect talk shows raise the issue of doping in football and carefully avoid the truly disturbing aspects of it. Should such an issue be raised in a politically incorrect manner, it should include not only the Korean case, but all cases of outstanding performances. And in that respect, France's dramatic revival in the World Cup should be part of the questioning.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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