11 June 2018

Africa: Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup - Behind the Scenes

As Brazil hammered Austria in a final warm-up match with an impressive 3-0 victory, behind-the-scenes issues surrounding the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup are also taking centre stage

South American football powerhouse Brazil ended its preparations for the 2018 World Cup with a victory against Austria in Vienna. The team used their fearsome quartet of Neymar, Willian, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus to secure the win. Even Neymar, who was starting on the pitch for the first time since he fractured a metatarsal bone and sprained his ankle in February, had an impressive game.

The team's coach had indicated that the game would determine the selection of the starting line-up for the World Cup tournament in Russia. "I don't know if I can say that this will be the team at the start of the World Cup," he told reporters. "The match (against Austria) and the performance will decide that."

A controversial World Cup

This year's World Cup is said to be the most controversial and politically charged tournament in some time. Although little progress has been reported, the tournament is being held amidst investigations of corruption and ethics rule breaches that occurred during the bid process. After spending £21 million and two years seeking votes from a 24-man FIFA executive committee, England lost the bid to host the World Cup to Russia. However, it was found that 17 members of this committee may have been compromised. Consequently, investigations are under way either to prove or discount this, despite both countries denying any wrongdoing.

Tensions are likely to be high between FIFA and Russian officials if former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, who is currently banned by FIFA from participating in any footballing activity, honours the invite that was extended to him by Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. A 2,4km perimetre around the stadium is FIFA terrain, but can they thwart the inclinations of a host country that are contrary to their own?

Interestingly, FIFA has maintained Russia as the host country even throughout revelations that the country's sports ministry had overseen a huge athlete doping programme. This led to the Russian team being banned by the International Olympic Committee from competing in the winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Controversy also surrounds many of the officials who are set to participate. The African continent is in an uproar after the release of a documentary that shows around 100 referees and officials allegedly taking bribes. According to the documentary, Kenyan referee Aden Range Marwa was seen taking a gift of around US$600. Marwa, who was due to officiate at Russia 2018, quit his World Cup duties after being implicated in the scandal. Some viewed the situation as 'entrapment', citing the fact that it was unlikely that the referee would risk a fee of up to US$70 000 plus a match fee of US$3 000 for a mere US$600.

The scandal has gone on to cause the dissolution of the Ghana FA, after the president of that association, Kwesi Nyantakyi, was filmed accepting a "cash gift". Nyantakyi was shown receiving US$65 000 from a Ghanaian undercover reporter, Anas Aremayaw Anas, who pretended to be a businessman keen to invest in Ghanaian football. According to a report by the BBC, had the deal gone ahead, Nyantakyi could have potentially have made US$4,5 million from the diversion of funds.

Video Assistant Referee (VAR)

For the first time at a World Cup, the video assistant referee (VAR) system will be in use. The on-pitch referee will make all the same calls, at the same speed and unaided, as he would without the system in place. At the same time, the VAR, who is a current or former top referee, is in place to check decisions in four areas of play.

These are:

Goals, including 'missed' attacking offences in the build-up

Penalties awarded and not awarded, including 'missed' attacking offences in the build-up

Direct red cards

Cases of mistaken identity, where the wrong player is shown a red or yellow card.

It is the intention of the VAR is to have more accurate decisions, more often, and at the most important points in a match. According to calculations by the KU Leuven University in Belgium, the system improves decision accuracy from 93% to 98,8%. Nine percent of matches were shown to have had a different, and probably fairer, result than would have been the case without a VAR.

However, incidents have also shown that technical hitches can arise. As reported by the BBC, in the Portuguese top flight in February, an apparent offside goal stood because a giant flag waved by a fan blocked a camera. On the other hand, in a big Bundesliga relegation clash in April, the referee recalled the teams from the dressing rooms at half-time to award a penalty after VAR officials belatedly spotted a handball late in the first half.

If managed properly, the VAR can produce more dead-eyed calls and correct referee incidents of mistaken identity.

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