When back in 1992 Bill Clinton launched his campaign for the US Presidency his campaign team told the workers forget all the other slogans, remember: It is the economy, stupid.
Much the same can be said of the spat between FIFA and UEFA over the World Cup in Brazil. There can be little doubt that concern about protecting FIFA’s money lies at the heart of the attack on UEFA launched by Jerome Valcke, the FIFA general secretary. This followed critical comments by a senior UEFA official about the choice of a single nation as a world cup host.
But before I explain why, let me record my astonishment about the nature of the attack by Valcke. This marks a very new development in the much talked about family of football. Not that the FIFA-UEFA battle is new, let alone earth shattering news.
For much of the last two decades UEFA has been in a state of war with FIFA resenting the control of Sepp Blatter’s mentor, Joao Havelange. This battle, the great cold war of football, became quite a hot war when, in 1998, Lennart Johansson challenged Blatter for the Presidency of FIFA. And despite his defeat UEFA never reconciled itself to Blatter’s victory. After four years of much internal sniping it all came out in the open when UEFA got behind Issa Hayatou in a disastrous attempt to unseat Blatter in 2002.
I vividly recall the bitter battles that preceded that election in Seoul, the many late night FIFA executive committee meetings in Zurich and also the extraordinary Congress in Buenos Aires where you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Yet what is important to note is that publicly these mighty leaders of world football behaved as they really believed in the football family which they so lyrically waxed about. Privately, of course, they would be scathing about each other.
Blatter, himself, confessed to me how executive members from UEFA had always been hostile to him and despite his winning the election never allowed him to function effectively as President. Given UEFA has eight votes in the 24 man executive this was, it must be said, a major problem for Blatter. However, all this was behind closed doors. In front of the cameras it was as if nothing was wrong, the family was all united in love and tenderness.
And even when public criticisms were made they were couched in the most soothing language. So Adam Crozier, then chief executive of the FA, while criticising Blatter at Seoul was the soul of moderation compared to the outburst of Valcke against UEFA. Indeed, when at Seoul the then head of football of the Republic of Ireland made some less than flattering comments about Blatter’s management of FIFA. He prefaced his remarks by quoting from film The Godfather to the effect that there was nothing personal in the attack on Blatter, it was merely business. In other words, what was being done was for the good of the football family.
Now contrast those battles with the language used by the UEFA official that so provoked Valcke’s fury. The UEFA official’s comment was that the mass demonstrations sweeping through Brazil proved that single-nation hosting was too great a burden on the population. It was, he said, “absurd in this day and age to ask for huge capital investment for a tournament that lasts three weeks and leaves no legacy. There are things that cannot be done any more in the 21st century. You cannot ask for scant resources to be used just for entertainment. It’s unacceptable.”
So the question is why have the gloves come off?
Clearly part of the reason is the fall out between Blatter and Michel Platini, UEFA President, signifying yet again that Blatter, who once promoted Platini as his successor, has long gone off the idea. Now he sees the Frenchman as a rival and what is more Blatter, like Mrs Thatcher, wants “to go on and on”. He clearly has no desire to give up the Presidency let alone to a protégé he now distrusts.
But there is more to it then that. In making such a comment the UEFA official has plunged a dagger to the very heart of FIFA’s operations, in effect questioning the very existence of the world body.
For the fact is without the World Cup FIFA would be bankrupt. The World Cup is the only football produce of FIFA that makes money. Havelange’s FIFA, guided by Horst Dassler, decided that it must expand the number of tournaments in its portfolio. The result is it now runs a whole gamut of them ranging from tournaments for youth to women. But none of them make money.
Imagine a company that manufactures a whole range of brands of which only one makes money. Would it not do everything to protect that brand? This is what FIFA does and has always done.
Indeed it is to make sure its precious World Cup brand was protected that it took the ridiculous decision to choose two World Cups, 2018 and 2002, at a single meeting of FIFA’s executive. FIFA executive members have told me that the decision to bundle the two World Cup votes was taken before the 2010 South African World Cup. FIFA then was extremely nervous that, for all the public talk of winning with Africa, South Africa might, as the critics feared, prove a huge failure.
Also FIFA marketing men had negotiated deals with television companies and sponsors for two World Cups. They liked the idea of being able to plan so far ahead and not have to worry about which country might suddenly pop up as the winner. It was money that dictated that decision, one that might still come back to haunt FIFA.
In contrast, while UEFA also has loss making tournaments, the recent Under-21 championships in Israel was hardly a money spinner, it has two tournaments which make money, the Champions League and the Euros. And unlike the World Cup which comes every four years, the Champions League is a year round money spinner. The Champions League also effectively subsidies the Europa League but that is not as much of a drain as the FIFA non-World Cup tournaments.
FIFA is well aware that it needs the World Cup to be a success because this money also goes a long way to keeping world football alive, funding any number of associations round the world.
And this is where we have an irony. For while most of these associations are in Africa, Asia and South America, there are also European football associations grateful for the FIFA money through the Goal Project. This includes not only Eastern European countries but also the British home nations like Wales and Northern Ireland. So while UEFA has a strong group of western European countries who would not be affected if the World Cup folded up, indeed some of the leagues in these countries would welcome that, there are others in Eastern Europe, and even the home nations, who would be horrified.
And they I am sure have watched this spat between Valcke and UEFA and are not only wondering what it is all about but are firmly behind Valcke. So perhaps UEFA should be careful it is not alienating some of its own associations.
And that is why I said it is money, stupid. But then that is modern football.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. Now a freelance journalist his latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose