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Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Des Van Rooyen. Picture Credit: Gallo Images
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By unknown | Dec 22, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

BRUSSELS - Sport's major governing bodies were increasingly busy off the field of play in 2008, crossing swords with lawmakers, notably in Europe, over issues ranging from foreign quotas and corruption to finances and human rights.

BRUSSELS - Sport's major governing bodies were increasingly busy off the field of play in 2008, crossing swords with lawmakers, notably in Europe, over issues ranging from foreign quotas and corruption to finances and human rights.

"Specificity" became part of the sporting dictionary and a watchword for organisations, including the International Olympic Committee and soccer's world governing body Fifa, determined to keep a tight grip on their games and resist interference by politicians.

Tensions between governments and sports leaders reached a climax midway through the year as heads of state and leading lawmakers threatened to boycott the Olympics over Beijing's human rights record.

A number of high-profile athletes, actors and activists such as film director Steven Spielberg joined the condemnation of China's crackdown in Tibet and Myanmar and Beijing's policy towards Sudan's Darfur region.

"Sports and politics don't mix," 2004 Olympic tennis champion Justine Henin said ahead of the Games, but others disagreed, leading to wide-scale protests as the Olympic torch made its journey around the world.

In the end, most politicians' bark turned out to be worse than their bite as leaders including US president George Bush and French president Nicolas Sarkozy - holder of the European Union's rotating presidency - concluded that sport "should not be used as a weapon" and attended the opening ceremony.

British premier Gordon Brown, German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Parliament president Hans-Gert Poettering quietly stuck to their guns and did not make the trip to Beijing.

The battle of wits between sports and politics reached another crescendo in September when soccer's governing bodies threatened to suspended the Polish FA, putting Poland's co-hosting of Euro 2012 with Ukraine in doubt.

Fifa and UEFA - whose rules oppose government interference - were angry that Warsaw's government had suspended the head of the Polish FA over allegations of corruption without their consent.

Minutes before a midday deadline, a compromise was reached, but the events only served to weaken Poland's and Ukraine's already brittle agreement with UEFA to stage its showpiece event in four years' time.

Both nations were repeatedly warned by UEFA during the year to speed up their troubled preparations or risk being stripped of the right to host the tournament. That warning still holds for 2009.

Another threat looming large next year is potential court action by the European Commission over Fifa president Sepp Blatter's proposed curbs on the number of foreign players at clubs, known as "6+5" and backed by the IOC.

The EU executive says Blatter's plans contravene the 27-nation bloc's strict laws on the free movement of workers and has led to a stand-off between Brussels and Zurich, similar to one before the so-called Bosman ruling.

The 1995 decision by the European Court of Justice, named after Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman, allowed sports professionals to change clubs freely much to Fifa's anger and left an indelible mark on the beautiful game.

"Fifa is at a crossroads. I hope they take the right road, otherwise we could end up with Bosman II," EU employment commissioner Vladimir Spidla told Reuters this month.

Spidla's decision to back UEFA's "homegrown player" rule - setting a quota of locally-trained players without discrimination on nationality - highlighted the growing divisions between Fifa and its European partner and more significantly between Blatter and UEFA chief Michel Platini.

Blatter, who says UEFA's rule does not go far enough, and Platini showed a united front in public but cracks began to show.

The more moderate Platini has made many friends in the EU and advised Blatter not to pursue 6+5. But the Fifa boss became increasingly unhappy with the former French international's growing popularity and UEFA's growing power and bank balance.

"They both love the game but differ greatly on how it should be run," one senior UEFA official said.

Blatter and Platini did manage to agree on one issue - the need to warn the increasingly rich and powerful English Premier League about its behaviour. Both clashed with London over subjects such as multi-millionaire club owners and excessive foreign players.

They also vetoed league chief Richard Scudamore's plan to play an extra game in Asia.

Racism, violence, doping and how to deal with a biting credit crunch were also debated between sports bodies and lawmakers in 2008. - Reuters


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