BOSTON — Given the vast scope of criminal enterprise in Italy, it is rather surprising to find Italians fascinated, even obsessed, with the recent arrest of one man — an Ecuadorian no less — on drug trafficking charges in New York.
At least until you find out exactly whom that man is. Byron Moreno may not be a household name even in his native country, but Italians recall him all too well. He was the referee whose dismal performance at the 2002 World Cup — he wrongly disallowed an Italian goal, then later booted an Italian star from the game for an alleged dive — helped the home team, South Korea, stun Italy in the quarterfinals.
It is hardly a major leap — in Italy or anywhere else — to conclude that a man alleged to have taken a commercial flight into Kennedy Airport with 10 bags of heroin strapped to his body just might be susceptible to a bribe that would yield a popular upset for the Cup’s host nation.
Moreno never officiated another major soccer contest after the Korean farce, though FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, never publicly suggested any wrongdoing on his part. His career as a ref ended the following year, amid allegations of corruption, after he extended a game for an unheard of 12 minutes — long enough for the team that had been trailing at the 90-minute mark to rally for a victory.
Italians, of course, are all too familiar with the stink of corruption in soccer, having experienced their own scandal at the upper echelons of the country’s once-revered Serie A. For those who insist that soccer’s popularity immunizes the sport — even against wrongdoing — the Italian experience suggests otherwise.
The scandal is only one of several reasons for declining interest in Italian soccer, a decline that is reflected in steep drops in attendance there. Indeed Italians are now almost as cynical about the country’s most beloved sport as they are about their politicians and their church. And despite Inter Milan’s Champions League crown last season, the prowess of Serie A, once European soccer’s crown jewel, has clearly declined too.
Italy is hardly the only country to have experienced corruption on its soccer fields. There have been soccer scandals throughout Europe — a current German investigation involves teams and officials from a dozen European countries — across China, where local gambling syndicates have purportedly exerted huge influence, and in South America. That makes it particularly galling to hear FIFA continue to rebuff technological advancement, casting the issue as a matter of maintaining tradition when, in reality, technology — particularly the use of replay — is the game’s best weapon against corruption.
Nothing in the long history of soccer has prepared anyone for the extraordinary high stakes of the modern game. It’s not just the gambling ties, but also the immense rewards teams and players garner for advancement to and through events like Champions League or for promotion to a nation’s top soccer division. In England’s Premier League, for example the latter is estimated to be worth — at a minimum — almost $100 million per season in additional club revenues.
Yet no sport uses fewer officials to govern more ground and more players than soccer. It is easy to understand why they can’t always see things correctly. It is impossible to understand why soccer is so blind. Moreover, no sport vests more power in a single official than soccer does in its referee. All the potential for error is compounded by the fact that soccer, particularly in its biggest contests, is a low-scoring affair in which the result is likely to be determined by a single score. Thus one call or one non-call can be decisive. Was that ever more in evidence than during World Cup 2010? Spain was clearly the best team in the tournament, yet won the championship with a succession of 1-0 victories. A botched call could have tipped the scales and, perhaps, ousted Spain in any of those games.
All sports, of course, have to find a way to live with human error. Officiating gaffes, after all, have decided World Series and Super Bowls too. But virtually every other major sport has bucked up its system with some replay component. Its absence on the soccer field is an intolerable invitation to corruption. And given the scandals in so many institutions — sacred and non-sacred alike — it is fatuous to expect fans to accept good anybody’s intentions on faith.
Qualifying for the next big international tournament, Euro 2012, is underway. There are a host of critical match-ups including Germany-Turkey, Ireland-Russia, Northern Ireland-Italy, Scotland-Spain, Portugal-Denmark, France-Romania and Netherlands-Sweden. And today in Group G there is a David-and-Goliath meeting of unbeatens at Wembley, as England hosts Montenegro. How much do you think an upset by Montenegro might be worth?