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MOSCOW: The World Cup rulings in FIFA’s disciplinary court have not always been easy to comprehend.

Sweden were slugged 70,000 Swiss francs ($70,700) for players wearing non-approved socks, and Croatia were hit with the same monetary penalty when a player took a non-sponsor’s drink onto the field.

Yet a Russia fan’s neo-Nazi banner and a Serbian World War Two-era nationalist symbol waved inside venue drew only 10,000 francs ($10,100) fines, paid by their national football bodies which are responsible for fan misconduct at games.

Commercial rules can seem to be enforced more strictly than bad behaviour, and Argentine great Diego Maradona appears to enjoy a unique code of conduct of his own.

Maradona, a paid FIFA ambassador, uses Facebook to explain away allegations of racism and offensive behaviour from the VIP seats, charges that have previously led soccer’s world governing body to ban players.

At times, the priorities and consistency in FIFA decisions can look a curious form of World Cup justice. Even before the World Cup, FIFA was criticised by the anti-discrimination group ‘Kick It Out’ for prioritising commercial gain over eliminating racism from the sport.

But sports law expert James Kitching says FIFA’s approach makes some sense, because the World Cup depends on sponsors and broadcasters paying for exclusive deals.

“A financial sanction is always heavy in a commercial case because exclusivity is something Coca-Cola or Adidas pays millions of dollars for,” Kitching, the former head of sports legal affairs at the Asian Football Confederation, said.

The $70,000 fines imposed on Sweden and Croatia followed repeated warnings from FIFA.

“It’s a sensible solution,” Kitching said of the heavy fines. “If they are not seen to protect it [sponsor exclusivity], they put everything at risk.”

FIFA has so far added up to 482,000 francs ($487,000) in fines imposed by its disciplinary committee.

A further six-figure sum must be paid by federations and players in mandatory fines for on-field conduct. Teams due to pay 15,000 francs ($15,150) for getting five yellow cards in a game, rising by 3,000 francs ($3,300) for subsequent bookings, include Argentina, Colombia and Morocco.

Argentina are set to pay the highest World Cup fine for a second straight tournament, even though they exited in the round of 16.

A 105,000 francs ($106,000) penalty was for a range of offences by fans at a demoralising 3-0 loss against Croatia, topped by several men being filmed punching and kicking a Croatia-shirted fan in a walkway from the grandstand.

Four years ago, the Argentina officials were to blame for breaking media rules by not bringing a player to mandatory pre-match press conferences at the stadium. For defying warnings and repeating the offence at four straight games, FIFA fined Argentina 300,000 francs ($303,000).

“Media obligations are part of the game,” Kitching said. “That is what broadcast rights holders are paying for this access.”

The money due to settle disciplinary cases is added to FIFA’s development budget totaling hundreds of millions each year.

Skeptics could point to the fines helping for the ‘relevant development projects’ cited by FIFA last year to explain Maradona’s new ambassador duty. It brought the often-volatile Argentine back into the fold after years of public spats with previous FIFA leaders and the consequences were easily seen in Russia.

Maradona’s double middle-finger gesture celebrating a late winning goal for Argentina against Nigeria was seen globally in the official FIFA broadcast. A similar gesture by England’s Dele Alli in a World Cup qualifying game last year led FIFA to ban him for the next qualifier.

At a short and intense World Cup finals tournament, banning players has more impact.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2018