| Diego Maradona suffered from drug problems at the end of his career
As the World Cup gathers pace, unfashionable issues such as governance, structure, commercialisation and doping drop off the top of the agenda.
Here and now is about Germany’s porous defence, England’s heatstroke, Trinidad’s energy, Holland’s potential. Yet, behind the scenes, battle lines are being drawn for one of the most significant conflicts in world sport.
Provocation was delivered in front of delegates and officials from 199 football associations plus a smattering of journalists.
Football’s governing body, Fifa, has just become the envy of the rest of world sport ' not for the billions it generates through the World Cup, not the length and breadth of its worldwide reach, but for undermining the authority of the World Anti Doping Authority (Wada).
There is nothing, it appears, which the king of sports and its leader, Sepp Blatter, cannot achieve.
This has been a bad month for Wada and its Canadian leader, Dick Pound, who uses the anti-doping authority as a power base after being beaten by Jacques Rogge last election time for leadership of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
First, Wada was roundly attacked for misusing its power in the French-inspired pursuit of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. That took a chip out of Wada and Pound’s credibility and authority. But even worse for Wada were the revelations of how it has been nailed to the floor by world football.
Almost unnoticed football has driven a coach and horses through the penal element of the anti-drugs code. The entire credibility of many Olympic sports may be at stake in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps not before the Games go to Beijing in two years’ time but very possible before the party rolls on to London in 2012.
The story is easily told.
Governments of most of the world’s major nations signed up to Wada and its insistence that doping has no place in sport. So did most major sports.
All accepted the principle of a minimum two-year ban for any athlete who tested positive to the presence in his or her body of an illegal, performance-enhancing substance.
Two years in all circumstances, no matter how that substance may have found its way into the athlete’s system: whether directly deliberately or on a doctor’s innocently-mistaken prescription.
That may sound tough but it was meant to be tough: to enforce “clean” sport through fear of the consequences of dope-taking, if nothing else.
So far, so good.
The one sport which delayed signing up to Wada was football, represented by Fifa. World football, arrogant perhaps, would not countenance any other authority dictating events in its own back yard.
Without signing up to Wada, football could not continue to participate in the Olympic Games since the IOC has long been a signatory to the code.
Blatter, however, insisted that a two-year initial suspension was too much in a sport whose players enjoy only a comparatively short career. Thus, for the past two years, Fifa and Wada have danced warily around each other.
But the closer the sport moved towards Beijing, the pressure for settlement grew. Fifa and Wada even took the issue to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne and both claimed to have been vindicated by a split-way verdict.
Fifa sat back on its hill overlooking Zurich in a position of ever-increasing strength. Wada needed football on board for the sake of its own credibility; the IOC needed football, with its significant crowd-pulling capacity, in Beijing. Blatter knew he could afford to play a waiting game.
Eventually, in secret, the heads of the legal departments of Fifa and Wada came together. The outcome has been almost total capitulation by Wada because it has had to concede to football the right of “individual case management”.
This means that football, unlike other sports, has been granted the licence to judge each case on its subjectively assessed circumstances.
Punishments for misuse of a “social” drug start with a mere caution while Fifa has also won the right to halve the prescribed punishments if a player can prove “no significant fault or negligence”.
That means a two-year ban could be cut to one year for a first offender. Wada’s ultimate sanction of a life ban could be cut to eight years.
The conundrum is this: doping is not as dangerous an issue in football as in other sporting disciplines. No drug has been concocted which can make a World Cup superstar pass the ball more accurately, tackle more effectively, read the game more intelligently, save a shot more athletically.
By contrast, drugs do make a difference to boxers, weightlifters, cyclists, oarsmen and sprinters: remember Ben Johnson, to name but one in a litany of gold-medal cheats'
Presumably, other sports will now clamour for identical relaxations of the Wada code as have been granted to football. How can Wada resist' And then, what will be the point of Wada'
A victory for football and the World Cup may come at a terrible cost to the credibility of other sports and the Olympic Games.