FIFA’s confusing suspension of Christine Sinclair

Oct 17, 2012 by

FIFA’s confusing suspension of Christine Sinclair

FIFA’s recent decision to punish Christine Sinclair with a four game suspension for something she said to Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen after a gut wrenching semi-final loss to the United States at the London Olympic Games is both confusing and vacuous.  The details behind the rationale for the suspension have not yet been released, but are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.  When the story of Sinclair’s suspension originally became public many observers assumed it was because of an emotional post-game outburst in which she accused Pedersen of being biased in favour of the United States.  After almost single-handedly beating the US in a semi-final game in which she scored 3 goals in a 4-3 loss, Sinclair criticized the officiating post game, saying:  “We feel like we didn’t lose, we feel like it was taken from us,” and “It’s a shame in a game like that that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started.”

Sinclair’s comments were emotionally driven, astute and refreshingly honest and to most Canadian observers they reflected how a nation felt.  It was a devastating loss in which the Canadian side held the lead three times and while leading 3-2 in the final minutes of the game a very questionable call was made by Pederson which led to a game tying goal and the United States would go on to win in overtime.  Canadians felt robbed by the outcome and Sinclair’s post-game emotional response resonated across the country; however, it should also be noted that Sinclair’s comments crossed a line that sporting bodies typically tend to frown upon and punish heavily.  When it comes to publicly humiliating its officials or questioning the integrity of the game, FIFA has on obligation to protect its sport and when one of its best athletes and ambassadors accuses a referee of bias it’s understandable that FIFA take a severe approach.  A brief investigation occurred after the match and there was genuine fear among Canadian supporters that a suspension could be handed to Sinclair on the eve ofCanada’s bronze medal match with France.  But there was no punishment, presumably a stern warning was privately sent to Sinclair and the rest of the Canadian team.  FIFA seemed to make an exception and understand that Sinclair’s comments may have been inappropriate, but simply a regrettable emotional outburst that need not warrant any further punishment.  Sinclair was allowed to play against France and Canada would go on to win the bronze medal.  Although the victory may have been bittersweet to the players, and many fans, it represented the highlight of Canada’s participation in the London Olympics – at least to this observer.  Whatever controversy Sinclair had stirred with her critical comments of the officiating, seemed to wash away with a win over France and to many observers she was free of any further punishment.  Or so it seemed.

Fast forward three months later and now FIFA decides to punish Sinclair, but unbeknownst to most, it’s not because of her post game tirade, but because of something she uttered to Pedersen after the game.  This whole ordeal paints FIFA in a questionable light.  How can FIFA be viewed seriously as an organization if it takes three months to decide on the length of a suspension and without any transparency?  The optimist will point to the fact that at least she was allowed to play in the bronze medal victory and the upcoming games are all “friendlies” and won’t interfere withCanada’s World Cup qualification.  As a Canadian I’m thankful to see that the countries best player was allowed to compete and contribute to Canada’s most import victory in recent soccer history; however, as an objective observer this punishment seems inappropriate and vacuous.  If FIFA wanted to send a message, there was sufficient evidence to suspend Sinclair based on her comments alone for the bronze medal game.  If indeed she was abusive towards Pedersen post-game, it stands to reason that this further strengthens the case for justifying a suspension at the time of the incident.  But this information isn’t made public for three months and a suspension is handed out without a clear explanation.  Huh?  Is this a bush league organization or one of the world’s top sporting bodies?  It seems FIFA wanted to punish Sinclair or at least give the impression of punishment, but only when it least impacted the Canadian team.

Again as a Canadian soccer fan, I’m glad to see her absence will not affect any important games and to some observers like Toronto Star writer Cathal Kelly, FIFA is doing Canada a favour by forcing her to rest and force the team to develop its younger players.  But in the same instance, FIFA is sending conflicting messages about its governance.  The length of time to make a decision and the lack of transparency in the process is difficult to understand and raises questions about FIFA’s leadership.  This suspension can’t be taken seriously and makes FIFA ultimately appear like a wayward organization that arbitrarily meats out punishment.  If they wanted to make a point they should have punished her before the bronze medal game, that would have sent a stern message and mobilize support for its officiating.  It would have been painful to witness, but there is an argument to be made for punishing her harshly.  Instead FIFA allowed her to play and to many observers this signalled that Sinclair’s comments were being overlooked due to a combination of reasons like the emotion of the moment, the impact of her loss to Canada in the bronze medal game, and the poor officiating that led to a crushing defeat to the United States.  The confluence of factors made it difficult for FIFA to do anything at the time and they chose the safe route.  Now it appears Sinclair’s words were not enough to warrant a suspension, but instead her comments to the referee are punishable with a four game suspension.  Can anyone make sense of how FIFA allocates punishment?

As a Canadian observer and fan of the game I appreciated Sinclair’s emotional tirade after one of the most memorable performances by a Canadian soccer player.  But in the same instance, it would be understandable if she were suspended for her comments and whatever transgression she made towards Pedersen.  The problem is FIFA has sent conflicting messages about its governance and the parameters for handing out a suspension.  On the one hand they appear to want to save face and protect the integrity of the game by suspending Sinclair, but not for the reasons most would think, and in the same instance, they also want to selectively suspend Sinclair so that she can participate in meaningful games.  I’m not sure FIFA can have it both ways and it brings disrepute on an organization that should know how to better handle the difficult dilemmas sports organizations’ must face.   They should have either suspended her at the time of the infraction or within a reasonable time frame or simply let this one go based on the unique factors involved.  At the very least they should have been more informative and transparent about their process; instead we are left wondering why Christine Sinclair has been suspended at all.





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