The news media have a special relationship with the World Cup. As opposed to the coverage of most sporting events by most professional journalists. by and large coverage of the World Cup is traditionally biased by nation, region, political persuasion, cultural sympathy, and also by the journalist’s favorite type of soccer—attacking, possession, defensive, cunningly strategic, ad hoc, and so forth.
Note: Papa is a fan of free-flowing, attacking futbol regardless of provenance.
It is not uncommon for European-based news media to look askance at their archrival South Americans or for the reverse to occur. Similarly, the political affiliations of nations seem to seep into the coverage such as when African media from ex-Portuguese colonies (Mozambique, Angola) will see no wrong in Portugal’s actions on the turf while playing the French team, but ex-French colonies (Ivory Coast, Cameroon) will be all critical of the opponents of the national team of France.
Western and Eastern news media see things very differently, such as when Chinese media cover an Iran-USA match or a French news outlet covers a Belgium-Japan match. Finally, you can almost feel the bias of match broadcasters as they try to overcome their emotions while commenting on a match that is going poorly for their favored team, particularly at the hands of their nemesis—see any Argentine or Brazilian coverage of a match between these two nations.
It is when the news media take sides, choose to ignore facts (such as clear video replays), or ride a bias where it wishes to go rather than admit to what we all saw on our screens, that football and its fans are the victims.
“No fue penal”
When Arjen Robben took a dive against Mexico in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil the Mexican press was adamant that the dive was pure theater. The Dutch media tried to contend that there was clear impeding contact. But the Mexicans would not concede that Rafa Marquez’s boot grazed Robben’s and the Dutch would not concede that the contact was on the way up, as Robben lifted his leg, which given Marquez’s boot was already there would make the contact one of choice by Robben and certainly not an unavoidable impediment, making it a no-call.
In fact, umpteenth replays showed that what contact took place was so slight there was clearly visible space between the boots milliseconds on either side of the rub. Furthermore, the idea that such slight Mexican defender contact would have stopped the Dutch striker’s progression cold and occasioned the theatrical dive which resulted in the awarded penalty, particularly when the diver was universally known to be such, baffles the mind.
“Neymar the diver”
The European news media was nearly universally pro-Dutch in Robben’s penalty call, and the Latin American press was universally pro-Mexican on the fact that no call should have been made. Which makes the British media’s reaction to Brazilian star, Neymar, diving a great example of the levels of bias alluded to above. The two British men who covered the English-language USA broadcast of the 2018 World Cup had such a bias against Neymar, that every time the Brazilian got fouled the game play-by-play announcer and his accompanying commentator would debate whether the foul had even occurred given the recipient’s penchant for diving. It is “funny” that the exact epithet—diver—became a mantra when Neymar played but was rarely mentioned when Robben did.
Let’s look at Robben. Does he dive? Yes. Let’s look at Neymar. Does he dive? Yes. So how do you evaluate a given news media coverage as biased or unbiased? When do you give the benefit of the doubt to someone you see as a suspect player? It is actually very simple.
Here is an example of biased coverage.
Neymar was recovering from right-foot surgery when the 2018 World Cup in Russia (Europe) took place. During the Brazilian team’s very first game, against Switzerland, Neymar became the most fouled player in a single game in World Cup history—22 fouls. The vast majority of those fouls hit on his right foot. Coincidence? Those 22 fouls, of course, were the called ones, as we know several go uncalled against many a player every game.
So now, any competent news media person would be primed to keep an eye out for any fouls on Neymar since it was clearly the Swiss strategy to “test” the Brazilian’s surgically repaired foot. Right?
Two weeks later, in the Round of 16—the match at which the Mexicans always leave the cup—Brazil is pitted against Mexico. In the match, Neymar was mercilessly targeted by the Mexicans and at one point, when the Brazilian lay out of bounds with the ball next to him, the victim of an uncalled foul against him, the action stopped for the ball to be put back into play.
At that point, Mexico’s Miguel Layun can be seen walking over to where Neymar is still seated on the turf checking his clearly painful foot when the Mexican reaches out to pick up the ball, and as he does he steps on Neymar’s right foot and ankle! No one pushed Layun, he was not off balance, he did not slip, and it was no accident. It was a purposeful, unsportsmanlike attempt to injure an opponent who was down on the turf and out of bounds while the game’s action had stopped. Fortunately, the world feed caught the action in crystal clear detail, as NBC Sports reported.
And here are ESPN’s British commentators. Notice that not one of the journalists makes the case that Layun stepping on Neymar’s surgically repaired foot—while the action has stopped because the ball is out of bounds, and Neymar is lying out of bounds already the victim of an uncalled foul—is stratospherically unsportsmanlike. The focus is on how “embarrassing” Neymar’s antics were.
But here is the added and more insidious problem. The fact that the bias spreads among those who would be Brazil-haters anyway because “major media” has given them the cover (as in made it ok) to troll at their pleasure. This is CTV’s coverage of the incident.
That is the type of coverage to be wary of, it is the type of coverage that kills our sport and tarnishes the news media’s reputation. It was embarrassing to realize that ESPN bit was allowed on the air. It will be fascinating to differentiate how the two USA broadcasters of the 2022 World Cup (Fox Sports and Telemundo Deportes, the latter owned by NBC-Universal) cover it.
Photo: News Media, Shutterstock Photo ID: 179149739, by qvist.