[OUTLOOK]The World Cup fixed? Fiddlesticks!

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[OUTLOOK]The World Cup fixed? Fiddlesticks!

Checked my answering machine. "You are the most naive, naive, naive person in the world if you tell me that this tournament is not fixed," said the message from a Romanian friend.

Turned on the computer. A French lawyer informed me via e-mail that her colleagues "say that the World Cup is fixed and that the goal of this is to develop a taste for soccer in emerging markets [Asia and North America]."

She added, "I can't really see any other explanation."

Went to the local pizzeria. "Corruption," whispered the Italian owner, his voice hoarse from screaming at the television.

What are all these Europeans so upset about? By now it is common knowledge that this World Cup has been a surprising one. Defending champions France, co-favorites Argentina, presumed contenders Croatia and Portugal were all gone in three games. Unheralded teams such as Sene-gal, Turkey, the United States and South Korea made the quarterfinals. The latter team, in particular, struck a number of blows to the traditional hierarchy, none of which resounded louder than its extra-time defeat of Italy.

Being notorious sore losers (and, occasionally, sore winners) the Italian nation unsurprisingly decided that it had been robbed rather than beaten. What was surprising was seeing other European nations jump onto the bandwagon. The French, still reeling from their historic humbling, nodded and, like my lawyer friend, said that they could see no "other explanation." The irony is that these same French had decried the "cynicism" that met its 3-0 rout of Brazil in the 1998 final.

The Spaniards, made jolly by having qualified for the quarter-finals when so many of their traditional rivals had not, chided the Italians for their complaints. This lesson in fair play was soon forgotten as they fell in turn to Korea. "I'm sad because we lost unfairly," said coach Jos?Antonio Camacho afterward.

This much is true: The referees have made a troubling number of bad calls. Italy deserved to have at least four goals credited that were not, including one in the loss to Korea. The game has become too fast, the players too devious, for one man to oversee. Eventually the executives at FIFA, the sport's governing body, will be forced to confront this problem by instituting some form of instant-replay system.

Until then, though, all teams will be more or less equally blessed and cursed by the occasional moment of refereeing ineptitude. The American team, of all people, showed their grasp of this concept by keeping conspicuously quiet about an uncalled handball that prevented them from equalizing in their quarterfinal defeat to Germany. They had been beneficiaries of another uncalled handball in their earlier win over Mexico.

The theory stated earlier, that the tournament has been rigged to help soccer develop in "emerging markets," is ludicrous. Far more money is to be made in Europe and South America, where the locals are already enamored with the game, than in Asia or North America, where even the successes of this year will take decades to truly show.

The referees have their faults, and a few of them may even be corrupt. But crookedness on the scale suggested by the European coaches and players, press and fans, is simply impossible. The World Cup is the world's biggest sporting event, with thousands of people involved in one way or another in each fixture. And yet even in this information age, in which someone always knows something, no one has come forth with anything more than a misplaced sense of entitlement.

The truth, plain to all but the most nationalistic of fans, is that the teams that advanced far into this tournament were those that played the games on the pitch, not on paper. Of the four semifinalists, two were originally deemed to be inexperienced and tactically impoverished (South Korea and Turkey); the other two (Brazil and Germany) were labeled as being far past their prime and years away from any rebirth. Yet by now each has shown it deserves to be here. European newspapers disagree, and have made it clear that nothing could be worse than a Turkey-South Korea final.

To them, I have but one thing to say: Welcome to soccer in the 21st century.


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The writer is an essayist and photographer based in New York

by John Abt

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