Words of Welcome

Shortly before Christmas two years ago, a letter landed on the desk of our then Minister of Culture, Mrs. Elsebeth Nielsen. It was no Christmas Card.

Dear Minister, Distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, Ladies and Gentlemen

Shortly before Christmas two years ago, a letter landed on the desk of our then Minister of Culture, Mrs. Elsebeth Nielsen. It was no Christmas Card, as you can see, but a three-and-a-half page long correction of some critical remarks Mrs. Nielsen had made at a conference called "Play the game".

According to media reports, the minister had criticised international sports organisations for their lack of democracy and ethics and for their narrow commitment to commercialising sport.

One of the final points the sender of this letter made, was that the minister had judged sports organisations by unreasonably high standards.

Sport "is not a product, but, unfortunately, reflects the evolution of the society in which we live and is subject to the excesses of that society. How can it possibly remain immune from them?".

An interesting question, indeed.

If there are bad practices in sport, is sport itself to blame? Or has sport simply fallen victim to the big, bad world?

Unfortunately, that question was not raised at "Play the game 2000", because the letter writer had rejected our invitation then. And nor will he and nor will any of his representatives come to raise questions, much less answer them this year either, because Joseph S. Blatter - the president of FIFA and author of the letter - is no great friend of public debate.

Maybe understandable for a man who, accused of massive mismanagement and corruption, is now tired of defending himself against the allegations.

Indeed, the atmoshere in the soccer debate is sometimes poisoned.

Let me give you an example: The day we started the 2000 edition of Play the game, we discovered by sheer coincidence a little yellow note under the name badge of one of our speakers, a well-known FIFA critic.

The note communicated a concise and clear message: "We are watching you".

Four little words, no signature.

So I must agree with Blatter when he complains about the political climate.

But what about his opponents?

Where are the people, who, outraged by the mismanagement and corruption that they related to his name, were forced to call the police in May this year?

They, too, prefer to remain silent. Of the speakers who had decided to come here and tell you about FIFA, three have backed out over the last six weeks - the latest regret note arrived on Friday. 

Unforeseen circumstances, conflicting career interests, important business meetings...

Moreover, I can no longer count the speakers who said no to our invitation in the first place.

It seemed as if these four days between the 10th and 14th of November were the busiest in the life of the European soccer organisation UEFA.

Surprisingly, the UEFA leaders did find the time to visit Copenhagen three days ago where according to the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet they had lunch and dinner for well over 500 dollars per head.

I must confess that Play the game cannot afford to offer such treats. But let me play fair: I don't think that this is the reason why so many European soccer leaders have declined our invitation.

The real answer slipped out of UEFA communication director Mike Lee, when I asked him 10 days ago if there was any chance of his political bosses changing their agendas.

No, he said, "It's a decision in principle".

So the people who recently launched the most serious charges of financial irregularities and crime in the history of sport, are now guided by a principle of silence.

I do wonder if the leaders of UEFA and their sister organisations in Asia and Africa are aware of the responsability they assume by keeping quiet. Is a crime undone if we do mention it?

I would have asked Mike Lee in passing what noble principle prevented his colleagues from attending the conference, but he seemed busy ending our conversation.

So let me ask the questions here:

Could it be the principle of collective responsibility and democracy?

The leaderships of FIFA and UEFA gain their credibility, authority and political strength because they represent millions and millions of football players. In theory at least, their power and position depend on the vote of millions of soccer lovers.

Is it a healthy democratic principle to keep your voters in the dark about charges of corruption and mismanagement, size XXL?

I assume that UEFA has changed their principles lately. Maybe the principle of accountability has been replaced by "don't-count-on-my-ability"?

And the principle of transparency is maybe substituted by the principle of invisibility?

Soccer is not the only sport where serious questions have been answered with silence.

Look at the programme for the next few days and you will find it focuses almost exclusively on issues which have and continue to remain neglected by the sports establishment.

Doping, sexual harassment, the role of women in sport, political use and abuse of sports events, you name it are all issues which have been repressed, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, by players, trainers, sponsors, agents, managers, club owners, leaders at all levels. And last, but not least, by the media.

But why is it so important to break that silence? Why can\'t we be satisfied with Sepp Blatters idea that sport would be much better off if it was not a part of such an ugly world?

The answer is simple. 

The world is influencing sport, yes, but sport also has an enormous influence on deciding what kind of world we are going to inhabit.

For one thing, the sports industry is a huge economic force with a direct bearing on our daily lives. The annual turn over of the sports goods industry alone is worth an estimated 600 billion dollars. Shouldn't journalists be monitoring such an industry?

The sports media industry is no less impressive. Maybe smaller in economic terms, but with a tremendous power in the overwhelming production of images and pictures. Think about how many lessons in ideals and ethics we are all exposed to the moment we turn on our TV sets.

Can we rightly claim that our sense of whats good and bad is in no way deafened by the growing cynicism in top sport?

And thirdly and most importantly, the influence of sport on society stems from places where journalists never go. The daily life on the sports field, where we as adults, youngsters or children shape each other in playful encounters. Of all of sports' impacts I think that the effect it has on the upbringing of our children is by far the greatest. The norms and ideals they learn when playing with each other and when studying what the grown-up trainers teach them, either by their word or by their example, will mark them for a lifetime.

The question is not whether sport will leave a mark on us. But rather what sort of mark? Sport can bring out the best and worse in us. It can work potentially to strengthen democracy, and yet it is much loved by dictatorships. It can build strong communities, and it can just as easily split them into pieces. 

Sport can create dignified human beings, and it can create narrow-minded ego-trippers.

Sport is not good or bad by itself, it is as good or bad as we make it. 

And that is why we cannot afford to remain silent. We must have a continuous and open dialogue about what sport stands for and who it is for.

As journalists, we are responsible for establishing and qualifying such dialogue about good and bad. This responsibility is not a burden, it is similar to an unopened gift. 

Unfortunately a majority of sports journalists are still watching this gift with some scepticism and have not dared to open it yet. There could be some dangerous things inside!

But don't worry, the gift only holds a great potiential for journalists. The number of ideas, angles and stories will surprise you whichever side of sports' influence you choose to deal with: The political, the financial or the cultural.

The idea of "Play the game" is to further dialogue, fuel debate and sometimes confrontations about what is good and bad in sport and in society. This requires that we all live up to the spirit of the expression "Play the game" which in English means "Play fair, play by the rules".

After all, the one sitting next to you may hold the bit of information or the viewpoint that could make your understanding of sport a little bit better.

If playing by the rules, we may beat the world record set at Play the game 2000 - where I believe we had the most varied, most sincere and most fruitful public debate on world sport ever. 

With the colourful and committed crowd I can see from here I fear that this record is already in danger.

Lets get on with the dialogue -- let's Play the Game!

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