Leading Article: Fifa saves itself from a World Cup own goal

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The Independent Online
WITH this year's World Cup barely under way, football's ruling international body has narrowly avoided scoring an astonishing own goal. Initially the Football Association International Federation (Fifa) appeared to be imposing a blanket ban on consumption of water during the games of this year's finals in the United States.

That was not without logic. Football has rules preventing players from strolling off the pitch at will. It might have been feared that players would make the most of any interruption to a match - during the stretchering-off of an injured player, for instance - to grab some swift liquid refreshment.

Fifa rightly wants to avoid the excesses of tennis matches, in which barley water and cold towels have become a something of a ritual between games. The risk is that without a clear rule, players would find it easy to spin out such delays when they want a few minutes' break. This, in turn, would disrupt the rhythm of the game, discriminate against the team that is ready to resume, and make the World Cup matches less exciting to the millions whose only chance to see them is on television at home.

A ban would have been a risky way of heading off these threats. Players are braving harsh conditions in this year's World Cup for a nakedly commercial rather than sporting reason. In order to time matches to capitalise on peak-time television viewings in Europe's early evening, they are played in the heat of the American day - when all other considerations (including the preferences of spectators at the stadium) would point to them taking place in the cooler nights.

The Republic of Ireland's team would have been particularly at risk, since its team has an energetic and fast-moving playing style. Irish footballers might not have been in serious danger of dying on the pitch - as some newspaper headlines suggested yesterday - but one or two might well have collapsed during matches.

Fifa's decision yesterday to allow players to take drinks from the touchline is a sensible compromise that should defuse what threatened to become the tournament's first diplomatic incident. Since football engages many passions and huge public interest, it is unlikely to be the last.

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