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September 26, 2017

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The shady underside of the world's favorite game

By the time you read this, the four-year wait will finally be over for tens of millions of soccer fans worldwide with the 2014 World Cup kicking off to great fanfare in Brazil.

The one-month international soccer tournament is one of the most popular sporting events in the world, with key matches such as the final attracting hundreds of millions of viewers. It rivals the Summer Olympics in terms of viewership, which is quite a feat considering that only 32 nations take part in the tournament and the world's two most populous countries (China and India) are not among them, most of the time.

The World Cup's success as an international brand is all the more evident in nations with less of a soccer culture, such as Taiwan. While the nation's sports fans regard baseball as the "national ballgame" and closely follow basketball games in the U.S., every four years a substantial number of them will rediscover their soccer spirit and join the global party. People sacrifice sleep to watch live broadcasts of players mostly only recently known to them playing a game they are unfamiliar with in stadiums half a world away. Come the World Cup and Taiwan's "one day fans and pundits" (who seem to acquire a passion and knowledge of soccer overnight) pop up like mushrooms, explaining the complex science of the offside rule to the uninitiated.

The success of the World Cup comes almost despite, rather than because of, the supervision of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Described by the Financial Times as "a governance disaster that is also one of the most successful multinational enterprises on earth," FIFA is widely criticized for its cronyism and its failure to bring changes. Despite the extraordinary importance of goals in soccer games (because there are so few of them), the ruling body only introduced goal-line technology in this World Cup. The technology, which uses sensors to aid referees in deciding whether a ball crosses the goal line, came years after the tennis grand-slam tournament the Australian Open first used the "Hawk-eye" technology in challenges to line calls. It also came after numerous calls over controversial non-goals in previous world cups, including the famous mistaken ruling out of an England goal against Germany in the 2010 World Cup. FIFA later apologized to the defeated England for disallowing the goal, which would have leveled the score at 2-2.

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