The true nature of sport is being overshadowed by corporate interference, poor management and corruption, writes Dr Lee Duffield.
WHEN THERE IS manipulation by managers or “human mistakes” that turn the tables in a game or race, followers can’t help feeling distrustful because of all the money at stake.
With the lifting of COVID restrictions, sports followers got revved up for some great enjoyment, which they have had, but tinged with a certain uneasiness — were they being had?
AFL — good times spoilt by crooks?
In the “Australian” game, AFL football, hundreds of thousands flirted with heart attacks at the Preliminary Final in Sydney, watching Collingwood dramatically come from behind, but miss out by one point to the Swans (14.11.95 to 14.10 94). How good could that get for fans — those in good health?
One week later, on 24 September, the Swans were defeated in the Grand Final easily enough by Geelong (20.13.133 to 8.4.52) — back at the Melbourne Cricket Ground after two years away interstate because of the pandemic.
Then to spoil it all, the money industry struck in the form of gambling. Four men were charged with obtaining leaked information on which player would win the balloting, to get the coveted Brownlow Medal. Police said one of the four was an AFL umpire.
A senior official said:
“...the AFL was made aware of potential suspicious activity by one of our betting agency partners.”
Betting partners? What? Will football ever be able to get free of the gambling embrace if it wants to?
Rugby league — great games versus politics and management
Rugby league likewise gives the fans a really good time but then takes it away from them because of the fear of special management on behalf of special clients — like the advertisers (including the all-pervasive online gambling outlets) and television companies.
Additionally, there is the fact of life, that the game for years has been re-balancing away from its old-time base in Sydney, with next year seeing nine Sydney clubs playing eight from elsewhere, four of those in Queensland.
That trend occasioned an air of desperation and an extra marketing drive around the State of Origin series in 2022. Certainly, the merchandising department excelled, fitting out the NSW supporters in set-piece blue uniform dress for Origin I in Sydney on 8 June. Expectations not being the real thing, an anticipated win did not come off — Queensland won 16-10.
But there was more!
Origin II was in Perth on 24 June before a militant and once-again uniformed NSW mass contingent, this time bent on victory. Would “bent” be the word? The view on that has been handed to an IA Sports Panel of Aficionados – four true sports tragics – and also the Queensland professional commentator, Paul Vautin.
Right on half time, the referee gave a rapid-fire succession of penalties or “start-agains” to NSW close on the try-line, then “sin-binned” a player for ten minutes. A try followed. It was said to be for ruck infringements. Vautin, like many, said he could not see what they were doing wrong.
The aficionados thought it was a wrong thing. Commentators, like Fox Sports, thought there’d been pressure from the NSW coach, wanting more penalties. Looked at another way, NSW won, 44-12, so Origin III in Brisbane, on 13 July, would be a sensational decider — much, much better for the marketing.
The NRL promo machine based in Sydney was pleased. ‘Cleary sublime as brilliant Blues level series in Perth,’ wrote the senior in-house NRL journalist, Martin Lenehan.
In the event, the brilliant Blues lost the third game and the series at Brisbane, 22-12.
New South Wales won the single Women’s State of Origin game, 20-14, played in Canberra on 24 June.
Grand Final — did the best teams play?
Like the AFL, the rugby league put on some actual brilliant competition in the lead-up to its NRL Grand Final in Sydney on 2 October. So it would have been also, in the Preliminary Final between the North Queensland Cowboys and Parramatta played at Townsville on 23 September; except for a forward pass seen by everybody except the hapless referee, delivering a try to Paramatta, which turned out to be their winning margin for the game, 24-20.
The aficionados considered it was a bad thing. Not that the referees were getting paid off, where they would get caught anyway; it was a matter of lack of trust — a sneaking feeling that in NSW, they’d think that an all-Sydney Grand Final, a Parramatta–Penrith derby, would go super-well with the marketing. The resulting game turned out to be not much, played on 2 October, Penrith dominating 28-12.
Disappointment at the Parramatta club this year; its NRL Women’s team also got to the Grand Final on 2 October and also lost, to Newcastle, 32-12, in Sydney.
Rugby league, finally, is running a brave campaign to internationalise itself properly by getting more teams into its World Cup and promoting their credibility. Some like Samoa are getting there, being seeded with top players from the Australian NRL. As great sentimental favourites, they lost the Cup Grand Final to the Kangaroos 30-10 at Old Trafford in England on 20 November.
Earlier, the Jillaroos won the Women’s Cup, defeating New Zealand 54-4. Plenty of opportunity for celebration in Australia. Except that, opportunity lost, the games were not on television. You could get good summaries online and highlights in the news, but you had to pay directly for full broadcasts on a streaming service. There they go again.
International — football millionaires starring and money talking
Byzantine manoeuvring, money deals and plain political thuggery meet up well within the walls of FIFA, the governing body for international soccer football. Twelve years ago it went too far, allocating the 2022 World Cup to the small but rich Arab oil state Qatar. It was to the astonishment of applicants like Australia, which spent millions of dollars on its bid and got one vote — its own.
The episode precipitated changes in the FIFA management and the chickens were coming home to roost on the eve of the competition, on 19 November, with a rain of criticism coming down on the host country. Mostly, it wasn't about the skulduggery involved in them getting the series, but abuse of foreign workers, especially several who lost their lives building stadiums for the competition, plus other rights issues in Qatar such as repression of women and gaoling of gays.
The FIFA head, Gianni Infantino, said all the worrying about rights was unfair and distracting from the football. The ”minorities” were being looked after in Qatar, just like everybody.
“I feel gay, disabled... like a woman too!” he said.
The damage was done long ago — too much business with a strong whiff of corruption about it in FIFA. It was left to the players and fans to make the best of it. Millionaire players lined up to criticise Qatar. Australia, which this year was initiating a section of promising young players, joined in with its players’ statement. Could FIFA have found a better way to extend the game in the Middle East?
We have to keep asking the question: is elite sport, over-financed, over-managed, beholden to industries like gambling, getting out of control — set to lose all focus on true sport?
See also an extended version of this article, running to Formula One racing and cricket, on Subtropic.com.au.
Among his vast journalistic experience, Dr Lee Duffield has served as ABC's European correspondent. He is also an esteemed academic.
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