How A Failure to Set Tone-at-the-Top Led to a Fractured Vertebra

by Thomas Fox

World Cup 2014What does ‘Tone-at-the-Top’ mean to any anti-bribery or anti-corruption program? Conversely, what if management says to do the right thing but only judges employees on their sales; what is the message that only ‘Talking The Talk’ sends; if a company fails to ‘Walk-the-Walk’ of doing business in compliance with anti-corruption laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)? Finally, how long does it take for the dissonance of telling people do to the right thing without training, communicating and then following up with them? Unfortunately these questions were answered in a very real and very ugly way in last week’s World Cup quarterfinal match between Brazil and Colombia.

For those of you who did not watch the match, Brazil lost its top player, Neymar, to a fractured vertebra, after Colombian player Juan Camilo Zúñiga kneed him in the back. As reported in the New York Times (NYT), in an article entitled “Brazil Takes a Painful Step Forward”, Andrew Keh wrote “With about five minutes left to play, the Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zúñiga went airborne on a loose ball and ended up driving his knee into the lower back of Neymar, who immediately crumpled to the turf in pain. Neymar’s teammates could be seen signaling to the bench for a substitution as a stretcher was brought onto to the field. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where a crowd of fans soon formed.” After the match was completed, “the team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar said that Neymar had sustained a fractured vertebra in his lower back. Lasmar said the injury would not require surgery, but would take three to four weeks to heal. It was a huge blow to the team, the country and the tournament. Neymar, 22, who plays for Barcelona, has had his face plastered on billboards and shown in television commercials since well before the tournament. For such a young player, he was shouldering a huge amount of responsibility.”

But this hard foul did not come out of nowhere nor did it appear that the Colombian team had targeted Brazil’s star player. This hard foul was a direct result of the failure of referee to set the proper tone against hard fouls throughout the match. Keh wrote, “There were 54 fouls called in the game, the highest total of any match in the tournament. Scolari [the Brazilian coach] acknowledged that both teams probably played with too much physicality, but he said the referee, Velasco Carballo, did not do enough to control the tenor of the game.” The Colombian coach was also critical of the referee and was quoted as saying, “We lost fluidity to the game because of that friction and intensity.”

Sam Borden, in another NYT article entitled “For Bellicose Brazil, Payback Carries Heavy Price: Loss of Neymar”, seemed to believe that it was Brazil and its tactics which may have reaped what they had sown with hard fouls against Colombian players. Nevertheless, “Soccer referees will often show yellow cards to players for “persistent infringement” of the rules, a phrase tha t generally means committing three or four serious fouls. Fernandinho [Brazilian midfielder] was called for four fouls in just the first half of the game, three of them significant hacks at Rodríguez. But Velasco Carballo gave him no penalty.”

After halftime, the referee still did not take control of the game. Borden wrote, “It was in the 57th minute, though, when the match began to boil over. The Colombians had continued to mostly sit back and take the punishment, but they were clearly infuriated when Silva crushed Ramos from behind as he went toward a ball. Velasco Carballo, again, declined to whistle a foul. The Colombians’ ire was raised even more 10 minutes later when the referee showed a yellow card to Rodríguez — who was apoplectic at the decision — for an innocuous trip that was, as Rodríguez vociferously pointed out with multiple hand gestures, a first offense compared with Fernandinho’s harrying.”

Borden leveled his most direct criticism at Carballo when he wrote the following “Velasco Carballo’s role in the ugliness cannot be minimized. A Spaniard, he is known as a high-level official, but it seemed clear that he was determined to avoid using cards to control the players. That decision backfired, particularly as it related to Fernandinho; instead of giving the players a comfort level to play more freely early on, his lenience served as an elastic band on the game, encouraging the players, especially the Brazilians, to try to see just how much contact they could get away with on Rodríguez without being punished. It was a poor miscalculation from Velasco Carballo, and one he compounded by neglecting to adjust as the game progressed. His culpability is impossible to ignore.”

Rarely do you see such a course of action or perhaps more aptly put, failure to engage in a course of action, as leading to such a catastrophic result. In any competitive match, for almost any sport, it is up to the referee to keep things from getting out of control. If they start to get to physical and play outside the rules, then it is the job of the referee to enforce penalties against the offending party or parties. Of the 54 fouls called against Brazil in its match with Colombia, 31 were against the host nation. It was only a matter of time before things got out of hand. If players are told by a referee’s action that there will be no sanctions for hard fouls that cross over the line, they will certainly get that message.

For the compliance practitioner, I do not think the lesson learned could be any clearer. Companies which continue to reward, through promotion and compensation, high producing sales people, while turning a blind eye towards their sales techniques which may be in violation of company policy or even the FCPA; will communicate that playing by the rules is not in your interest if you want to get ahead in this company. Correspondingly, if a company’s first action when an anonymous whistleblower raises an allegation is to try and find out the identity of the whistleblower, that also sends a strong message that the company will get you, one way or another.

For Brazil, the loss of its star player can certainly not help its chances going forward. For the rest of us, we will lose the sight of seeing one of the world’s greatest footballers on its greatest stage. And let’s not forget Neymar, who is the one with the fractured back.

The FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report, Episode 73-World Cup Report Part V, is now up. In this episode Mike Brown and I continue our discussion of the World Cup, FIFA, compliance and ethics, including a review of the topic of this blog. To view the episode, click here.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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