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Gordon Campbell: the World Cup and the media

Gordon Campbell on the World Cup, and the media’s buy-in to the national mood of elation

Well, New Zealand made a splash in the Fifa World Cup coverage yesterday – and I don’t mean via the draw with Italy. No, the Guardian was reporting how New Zealand is being cited as a justification for the bizarre and draconian decision to criminally prosecute the Dutch women who dressed in orange to promote a non-Fifa sponsored beer company. Potentially, the Dutch women could be facing a six-month jail sentence, and New Zealand is being cited by Fifa as a justification. That’s thanks to the ridiculous major events law that then –Sports Minister Trevor Mallard got passed a few years ago, to protect the commercialization of rugby at our own World Cup. Here’s what the Guardian said yesterday:

Placed on South Africa's statute book in 2006 was something called the 2010 Fifa World Cup South Africa Special Measures Act. The women in orange are accused of contravening two sections of this law, namely the parts that prohibit "unauthorised commercial activities inside an exclusion zone" and "enter[ing] into a designated area while in unauthorised possession of a commercial object".

What is so radical about the legislation, though, is the fact that it makes such activity a criminal rather than civil offence. Not only does this arguably debase what it is to be a crime, but it contravenes rights enshrined in South Africa's constitution. In March, Fifa successfully pursued a low- cost airline for using pictures of footballs, vuvuzelas, and stadiums in its advertising, causing a South African legal expert to voice amazement at the "excesses" of the World Cup legislation, and to lament the choice the government made "to placate Fifa" at the expense of freedom of expression.

Fifa praises South Africa for adopting this draconian stance – as well it might. It's all very pour encourager les autres. Yet, when it is pointed out that even the Chinese government stopped short of actually criminalising this kind of marketing intrusion at the Beijing games, a Fifa spokesman declares that similar legislation is in place in New Zealand ready for next year's Rugby World Cup.

Fantastic…so, New Zealand is leading the race to the bottom here. We are actually being worse than the autocratic regime in China, when it comes to policing the freedom of expression of our citizens in order to ensure that the IRB can gouge the maximum commercial gains possible from our national game. As with Fifa and South Africa, it is the host nation that provides the infrastructure – and in our case, runs the event at a loss – while the Fifas and the IRBs rake off billions from commercial franchises and media coverage rights.

In South Africa, Fifa has apparently guaranteed South Africa a profit of $80 million dollars from a World Cup that will provide Fifa with a $3.2 billion dollar profit.

Obviously, this is mere crumbs from the table for South Africa. Yet has New Zealand even sought, let alone gained any such guarantee about the bottom line for the Rugby World Cup from the IRB? If not, why not? And if so, why are we accepting and budgeting for a loss?

Oh, the Italy vs New Zealand game itself? The Hollywoods being thrown on both sides were pretty apt, because the match unfolded like a Rocky film, with us in the Stallone role of the plucky underdog. Still on our feet at the final whistle, despite the best efforts of those poncy, posturing, dirty playing Italians and an allegedly biased and impressionable Guatemalan referee. Heroic defender, All Whites captain and objective observer Ryan Nelsen was certainly given a lot of space here to bag the referee:

But Nelsen says the Guatemalan referee got sucked in by an Italian dive when Tommy Smith was judged to have pulled down Daniele de Rossi in the box. He says it was a ridiculous decision and even the Italians could not believe a penalty was given.

"It wasn't a goal," Nelsen said after the game. "It was a ridiculous call and I think the guys will be disappointed that we ended up drawing because it was a dodgy goal."

In the wake of this game, the Otago Daily Times seriously pondered whether our entire national identity may have changed.

One can understand why sports fans might have seen it in those terms, but the collusion of the media in this fairytale – and I don’t mean that in a good way – was astonishing. Yes the world media did find the draw “stunning” and “amazing”. The Guardian and other outlets did however also raise the question in two separate articles that Shane Smeltz may well have been offside – though it also felt this was borderline – and that the New Zealanders had several times in the first 25 minutes been elbowing their opponents in what we tend to call ‘physical” play, when we do it. This from the Guardian’s live coverage of the game:

14 min Fallon is booked for putting an arm into Cannavaro's face. He'd eased one into Zambrotta's earlier, and the Italian complaints may have got him booked. Not that he can really complain….

19 min Italy are having all the ball, as you'd expect, but they've only really created chances from set pieces so far. This couldn't happen, surely?

20 min Cannavaro is down after taking an elbow from Killen in the breadbasket. It wasn't a full elbow, but he definitely looked for him and New Zealand have been pretty physical. More of the same please. There's not nearly enough thuggery in football any more.

As for the Italian penalty and the decision by the ref? As this video shows, there was a foul by New Zealand – and yes, the Italians did then make a meal of it, but that doesn’t negate the fact a foul was committed, leaving the referee no option. Penalties are awarded for fouls, not for the quality of the acting afterwards. Shirt pulling, like being offside or being pregnant, is not something that you can do only a little bit.

The result of Rory Fallon’s… errr… physical game (and yellow card) was that New Zealand then had to carry him as something of a passenger for much of the second half, lest he incur a red card and be out for the Paraguay game. The interesting outcome of the media’s patriotic decision to buy into – and not report objectively on – the mood of national elation was that a good deal of what was actually being said and written about the game overseas went unreported here. Any info that contradicted the heroic narrative was either downplayed, or ignored.

Especially interesting, given that coach Rikki Herbert all but conceded the Smeltz’offside, in this ‘you win some, you lose some’ comment carried by CBS Sports:

He [Ricki Herbert] revealed that he was concerned that the attention that referee Carlos Batres was paying to Fallon might see the big man sent off and that's why he was substituted despite a robust performance."That's why I took him off. I thought he was getting a raw deal from the ref and I wanted to save his tournament," he said. Meanwhile, Herbert said he hadn't formed an opinion on whether Smeltz's goal was off-side, or if Daniele De Rossi has dived for the Italian penalty.

"Sometimes you get the luck and sometimes you don't," he said.

Any New Zealanders still feeling hard done (by the ref, or by the Italian histrionics) should spare a thought for Chile. Not only is Chile playing some of the most exciting football of the competition, it does not qualify even after winning two games already and needs to win a third – against Spain ! – to progress. New Zealand, on the other hand, will get through if it wins only one game.

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