Sepp Blatter may have been ousted from the corrupt and labyrinthine bureaucracy he constructed out of the billions of dollars that FIFA funnels in from the world’s love of soccer, but lest you worry that the organization isn’t as perplexingly, exasperatingly stupid as before, we have the case of Liverpool, the Cameroon national team, and Joël Matip to disabuse you of any notion of progress.
Matip, a German-born 25-year-old center back who has represented Cameroon—his soccer-playing father’s country of birth and the team he represented internationally himself—on the international level, has been a revelation after joining Liverpool on a free transfer from Schalke this summer. Despite being the best central defender for the resurgent Reds, Matip has not played a game for his club for over a month.
Matip’s absence from the pitches of England is in large part due to Cameroon’s participation in the Africa Cup of Nations, Africa’s premier continental international competition—basically their equivalent to the Euros or the Copa América. The problem with all this being that Matip isn’t actually with the Cameroon squad down in Gabon for the Cup of Nations, seeing as he retired from international play in 2015. Regardless of that fact, because Cameroon attempted to call Matip into their squad for the Cup of Nations, Matip is not allowed to play for Liverpool for the duration of that tournament.
The start of this kerfuffle dates back to early December. That was when Cameroon included Matip in their 35-man preliminary Cup of Nations roster. Matip—who again hadn’t been called up by or played for Cameroon since September of 2015—said he would not attend the tourney, explaining he still had no intention of playing for Cameroon after the “bad experience” he had with the coaching staff last time he played internationally.
Matip was one of seven players on that 35-man list who refused the call-up. This did not please Cameroon’s coach, who spoke in strong terms about how he would not take this lightly:
Cameroon coach Hugo Broos said: “These players have put personal interest above those of the national team and the federation reserves the right to take action against the players in accordance with Fifa regulations.”
At the time, this sounded more like an idle threat than an actual plan to take punitive action against Matip and his reluctant compatriots. Cameroon eventually did not name Matip to the final 23-man roster that would actually consist of their Cup of Nations squad, and that was believed to be that. Matip would spend the month of January when the Cup of Nations was to be held with his club, helping Liverpool continue on their surprise title charge, and all would be well.
It has since turned out that Cameroon were not so accommodating of Matip’s wishes. The Cameroon soccer federation complained to FIFA about Matip’s snub, and so FIFA took action—sort of. Here’s the relevant FIFA rule dealing with players who refuse a call-up:
A player who has been called up by his association for one of its representative teams is, unless otherwise agreed by the relevant association, not entitled to play for the club with which he is registered during the period for which he has been released or should have been released pursuant to the provisions of this annexe. This restriction on playing for the club shall, moreover, be prolonged by five days in the event that the player, for whatsoever reason, did not wish to or was unable to comply with the call-up.
Thus because Matip—who, again, had not been called into the Cameroon set-up in over a year and had said he had retirement from international play—had been named in Cameroon’s preliminary Cup of Nations squad, he would not be permitted to play with Liverpool for the duration of the Cup of Nations. And as FIFA’s rules on this topic explain, any club match a call-up-deserter plays in would be officially treated as a loss, no matter the actual outcome. This, it should be obvious, is very, very dumb.
Now, I said FIFA “sort of” took action a couple paragraphs up for a reason. FIFA didn’t and still hasn’t exactly clarified the situation. Liverpool were concerned about Matip’s status after Cameroon’s statements, so they held Matip out of a couple Premier League matches as a precautionary measure while they sought to clear things up.
As Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp has since said in a press conference on the topic yesterday, during which he demonstrated a heroic restraint to prevent himself from repeatedly slamming his head against the desk in front of him in frustration with it all, even this hasn’t been as simple as it should be. Liverpool have had problems contacting the relevant authorities in FIFA to determine in a retired international can really be forced to sit out a month of the season because of the unilateral actions of a vindictive national federation, and also have not gotten far when attempting to contact the president of Cameroon’s federation to see if they’ve tweaked Matip enough this month and will now issue an official letter releasing him from his Cup of Nations duties and will allow him to slot back into Liverpool’s defense.
When Liverpool originally asked FIFA to address the matter, FIFA simply referred the club back to the above-quoted rule. At one point Liverpool were so annoyed with FIFA’s hesitance to make a timely ruling that they thought about including Matip in their F.A. Cup replay match today in order to force FIFA’s hand. Today’s official F.A. Cup squad, however, did not include Matip. FIFA has since set Friday as the date when it will hear the case, but even that ruling might take a week or more to get a definitive answer to a question that appears to have such a common-sense solution.
After pouring over the rulebook, it does appear that Liverpool have found the critical clause proving that technically Cameroon are on the right side of the rules. The problem, it seems, is that Matip never notified Cameroon of his intention to retire from international matches in writing, which is apparently the only method that forces a national federation to recognize that a player no longer wants to play on the international stage. Matip did not write Cameroon a letter explaining this, and thus Cameroon are able to bone him like this out of spite.
The worst part about this rule is how evil it is. It is obviously meant to ensure that the world’s best, most valuable soccer players, most of them making enormous sums of money at club level, can be compelled to show up for the national team’s games rather than, say, heed the warnings of their full-time employer and skip out on a midseason international tournament to do the job they get paid for. Most elite players are happy to compete internationally for the prestige and glory, and they also stand to make a pretty decent amount of money for their troubles if they play for the best/richest national teams. However, these international win bonuses and the like pale in comparison to the millions most make with their clubs, and FIFA has slanted the rules to favor the national federations and international competitions from which it gets so much of its support and revenue.
So while it is in FIFA’s self-interest to set up the rules like this, it still is crazy how situations like Matip’s can arise. It’s probably a safe bet that forcing Matip to sit out games for Liverpool isn’t going to make him any more willing to suit up for Cameroon in the future, so all their doing is screwing him out of games and money because they’re mad and they can. And Matip isn’t the only Cameroonian player affected. Current Schalke player Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting is in the same boat, unable to play for his club because he didn’t join the national squad.
All that’s really been accomplished here is that the Cameroon soccer federation has outed themselves to the world as assholes, and that FIFA is still as lazy and dumb as ever. Well, at least the World Cup is still goo—god-fucking-dammit.