You don’t know what to expect when you interview Sepp Blatter. For a man who wanted to be on the stage since he was a child, he has always been the sort of showman who likes to surprise his audience. A book of Blatter sayings would be an instant bestseller.
Yet what struck me when I had a long chat with him at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich last week, is that there seems little love lost between him and Michel Platini, UEFA President, often seen as his successor.
That Blatter and Platini are on opposite sides of goal-line technology is well known. But the vehemence with which he dismissed the Frenchman’s cherished idea of having an additional referee behind the goal line was striking, “If the five officials can help the referee, then this could be a solution, but if they are used as goal line judges then it is a waste of time.”
He was just as dismissive of the other idea dear to Platini – of holding the 2022 Qatar World Cup in winter. No, said the man who heads world football, “Qatar won on the basis of it being held in June/July and it cannot be changed”.
But what was striking were his words on UEFA. We had started talking of how, in his first term, having defeated Lennart Johansson, then UEFA President for the top job in world football, he faced opposition from UEFA. With the Europeans having eight members in the 24-man executive and the strongest of the confederations, this was a formidable problem. But since then Johansson has gone. Blatter helped Michel Platini get on to the UEFA executive and take over from Johansson, so you would expect FIFA and UEFA to sing from the same hymn sheet.
This does not seem to be the case when you hear what Blatter (pictured above, right, with Platini) has to say about UEFA. “I see my world, the world of football. UEFA, they only see Europe. They have the best players, not only coming from Europe, and they have the best competitions. They think they are the leaders of the world. They have a problem with me, I don’t have a problem with them. “
Blatter, despite being a Swiss, has always seen himself as a citizen of the world. This prompts the question of whether one of his problems in FIFA has been that he is running essentially a European organisation, but with a personal outlook that is non-European. So I wonder if it is possible that he felt like a non-European among the Europeans?
His response is swift, “It’s not only possible, it’s a fact.” But that, he insists, is not a problem for him, “It’s a problem for them”. Then with a laugh he adds, “Really, it’s a problem for them, they cannot understand.”
FIFA, under Blatter, has always made much of its worldwide remit, how his organisation out matches the United Nations. Even before the great man entered the room in the FIFA headquarters where we were meeting, I had seen evidence of this. There in front of me was the organisation’s world outlook, in the most dramatic form. On the table in front of me was the latest FIFA World magazine. The cover shows a cricket pitch and a batsman using his bat to cover drive a football. The headline reads: “Whole new ball game? Going in to bat for Indian football.”
With India facing England in a Test series, the talk turns to the appeal of the game in that country. As I mention to Blatter how Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest of Indians, had advised his countrymen over a century ago that they would get to god quicker if they learnt to play football, Blatter nods and says in some wonder, “I have witnessed myself one of the oldest football stadia I ever have seen in Calcutta.” Blatter sees India as “the sleeping giant” of the game and it is clear that FIFA would like nothing better than for the second most populous country in the world to take to football. Indeed, this could be his legacy. It would involve changing many things in India, not least the sporting perception of cricket being the religion of the country.
But while FIFA, which is investing huge resources into India, works on that, Blatter has to also think about the world’s perception of his own organisation. Given how buffeted it has been by various corruption issues that have arisen in the past two years, can the 76 year-old Swiss, who has been in charge of world football since 1988, really believe FIFA has got rid of the stain of corruption?
No sooner have I asked then Blatter is in his stride, “Listen, it is my duty to bring back FIFA to calm waters and we will do it. We are in the last round of our reform process, which started at the end of the Congress of 2011. We have the ethics committee in two chambers with two independent chairmen. We have the audit and compliance committee working with an independent chairman. We have now the last of these three working groups finishing its job and this is the revision of statutes. We have started the consultation with the confederations.
“We will present this to the Congress (in Mauritius in 2013) and we will be at the end of our reform process when the Congress will accept the changes of the statutes, including the members of the jurisdictional bodies. Not only the ethics committee, but also the different committees, and the board of appeal, will be elected by the congress itself in 2013 for a four-year term. And therefore the reform process, which has been initiated in 2011, according to our road map will be realised.”
There is almost a head masterly tone as Blatter goes through his litany. However, the fact remains that for this talk of changing FIFA, the organisation until two years ago was in a cosy, comfortable world of seeing no wrong. It was forced to take the reform road, not because there were reformers from within FIFA, but because of external, media, pressure. This began with under cover reporting by the Sunday Times, exposing the inner and far-from-pleasant workings of FIFA, and has now seen five of the 24 man FIFA executive members forced to leave the organisation. They have either been found guilty of taking bribes, or quit before they were found guilty. It started in November 2010 with the departure of Reynald Temarii and Amos Adamu immediately after the Sunday Times sting operation. Then, following further revelations, Mohamed Bin Hammam and Jack Warner (pictured above, right and left) departed. Ricardo Teixeira, a long time member from Brazil, has also departed
Many of the departed, like Jack Warner, Bin Hammam and Teixeira, were close allies of Blatter. So why did Blatter not recognise what was happening before the media made the world aware?
Blatter’s response is, “What should I recognise before? I am the President of FIFA. We have started all our, let’s say, efforts to clarify what happened in FIFA when we came to the decision to have the World Cup for two consecutive times in focus and we have realised that something was wrong there. And now the executive committee, if you look at the composition at that time and the composition now, then you will see that five of the members are not any longer there, they are out of FIFA. So there has been action taken and I am working for the FIFA, for people that are now in FIFA. And after the congress in 2013, then they can start the campaign for the FIFA Presidency. Because the new FIFA statutes will then be well installed and then I’ll be a happy man to give FIFA to my successor whoever those they want to be.”
Blatter then went on to talk about press speculation, particularly in the British and German press, about himself. “There have been some people, they were advocating for years and years I was on a payroll somewhere. Now they have realised that I was not on a payroll, even the federal court in Switzerland said no, Blatter has never been in a payroll.”
Blatter’s defence is interesting. This suggests that FIFA’s corruption issues relate to the two World Cup bids. Yet media talk of FIFA corruption started long before the vote on two World Cups in 2010. Indeed, it started soon after the collapse of ISL, FIFA’s marketing partner in the early years of this century. Blatter also neatly skates over the fact that for several years the organisation resisted release of court documents relating to ISL. The court documents, originally declared sealed and confidential by the Zug cantonal court, were finally released in May this year, in large part due to media pressure, as the court acknowledged. It showed ex-FIFA president João Havelange (pictured above, right, with Blatter), the man who was Blatter’s mentor, and his former son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, had received almost 22 million Swiss francs (today around £9 million/$14 million/€11 million) between 1992 and 2000 from ISL. Teixeira was shown to have received, in today’s money, the equivalent of $13 million (£8 million/€10 million) between 1992-1997, while Havelange received, in present day terms, 1.5 million Swiss francs (£1 million/$1.6 million/€1.2 million) in 1997. The bribes had been paid to them at a time when such payments were not illegal in Switzerland. However, both men had sought for years to prevent release of the ISL file. The closure of that file had been ordered in Zug, where ISL was based, in exchange for the repayment into court of the sums listed. FIFA was a party to opposing the release of ISL documents.
So while Blatter is right to stress that he was falsely accused of being on the ISL payroll, the fact was that the organisation had fought for many years in the courts, not to release the damaging ISL papers. But when I ask whether the release of the papers give the impression that while he, personally, had nothing to hide, his organisations had something to hide, Blatter, keeping a very straight face answers, “Yeah, but when we started the reform, I said now be open.”
He is much more forthcoming when explaining the problems faced by FIFA in going from an organisation which did not have much money to one which is now quite a sizeable corporate body.
“We have had let’s say, a problem of growth. We were growing too fast and by growing too fast we had to have good administration, it needs a good internal management. I was betrayed by both of the secretary generals I have had in the first phase and in the second phase. And it’s only now in the third phase I have at least now the manager who is a manager, who knows how to manage an organisation. And so therefore, there was, I agree, that in the first years of my tenure of office, the transition from a small, let’s say, a club, a transition from a club to a corporate company. [This was] done so fast that not all parameters were met. But now they are met.”
And Blatter would now like his critics, particularly his critics in the British media, to look at this new FIFA that he says is emerging, “You know, your colleagues of the English press, they should have a view what has happened in FIFA in the past. And when we had the crisis, I have realised that there is a crisis, I went in and we are going to solve this crisis. And I’m working for that very hard and it’s right for me. It’s of tremendous importance that we bring to an end this reform, and not in 10 years.”
By then Blatter should long have departed from FIFA, as his term ends in 2015. But will he have gone? This is where he provides the most tantalising hint, “I will not stand again. I have to finish. I have to put it into my mind that you cannot be eternal.” But then, as if realising that this might be too revolutionary an idea, Blatter adds, “There may be circumstances that I’m still there and nobody will take on FIFA. I don’t know.”
Mihir Bose is one of the world’s most astute observers on politics in sport, particularly football. He wrote formerly for The Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph and was the BBC’s head sports editor. Most recently, he published The Game Changer: How the English Premier League came to dominate the world. Marshall Cavendish £14.99
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