Mihir Bose: The farce of trying to change FIFA by sitting down

So UEFA will register its protest about events in FIFA by sitting down in Sao Paulo at next week’s Congress just as Sepp Blatter, as is widely expected, announces that he will stand for another term as President? My goodness what a protest. This I am sure Nyon thinks is the Lionel Messi moment for the men in suits when a wonderful shimmy delivers a beautiful, game changing goal. Don’t you believe it.

In fact when I heard about this UEFA protest against Blatter I merely flicked open my cuttings book and went back to another FIFA Congress, also in South America, Buenos Aires, when UEFA planned to show its disapproval of Blatter. The result was a humiliating defeat for UEFA as the wily old Swiss, who is a master of populist sports politics, proved just too clever for the men who run European football.

This is what happened almost exactly 13 years ago in the summer of 2001.

The background to this was the collapse of FIFA’s long standing marketing partner ISL and the many issues it had raised about the financial impact on FIFA. And this, in turn, raised questions about how Blatter was running the world body. Blatter then was in his first term, having beaten the Swedish UEFA President Lennart Johansson, Michel Platini’s predecessor, for the FIFA Presidency. The win in Paris just before the 1998 World Cup had come in very controversial circumstances, amid allegations of bribery but Blatter had loftily dismissed them. However, in the years that followed, UEFA with eight votes in the 24 man FIFA executive, remained unreconciled to Blatter and the Swiss had had to battle against his own executive where at times he was in a minority. Now, as they asked questions about ISL and FIFA’s link with the failed company, Blatter complained that UEFA had tackled him ‘from behind’. However, the problems created by the ISL collapse were so serious that it seemed that UEFA might have found the scapegoat they were looking for.

The result was in July 2001, FIFA was forced to hold an extraordinary Congress in Buenos Aires. Johansson and his UEFA colleagues were convinced they could nail Blatter and laid out a careful plan to question him in detail about FIFA’s finances. Mathieu Sprengers, the President of the Dutch Federation and Treasurer of UEFA, and widely seen as a very decent man, was detailed to make the speech. The night before Blatter tried to persuade UEFA not to bring what he felt was dirty washing into the public arena, but failed. That is when he decided on a bold counterstroke, effectively taking over the Congress and turning on his tormentors.

FIFA’s Congress requires a short welcome from the President which is followed by a roll call from those present. It is only after this that the Congress goes officially into session. The welcome speech is not meant to be more than a few words but on this occasion Blatter turned his welcome speech into a major address, throwing out a mass of figures to show the finances were healthy and FIFA would recover all the money ISL had cost the organisation. His supporters from round the world then started eulogising him starting with India. Haiti, Jamaica, Peru and Cuba joined in. Finally, Ivan Slavkov, President of the Bulgarian Football Association, who four years later would be expelled from the IOC following a BBC Panorama investigation, proposed a motion endorsing everything Blatter had said. Michel Zen-Ruffinen, the then FIFA General Secretary, protested that Congress was not in session and a vote could not be taken on the motion. But Blatter brushed it aside as if this was a mere detail. UEFA had been flattened even before it could make the charge. It was a performance that a seasoned politician would have envied.

So should we indeed see a UEFA sit-down protest in the Sao Paulo conference hall watch out for a pre-emptive Blatter strike which could rival anything we are likely to see on the pitch in the coming weeks.

I can fully understand that UEFA is serious and wants to make a statement about the governance of football. That such a statement is needed can hardly be denied given the devastating Sunday Times revelations about the events that preceded the decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup. The revelations may or may not lead to a revote on the Qatar decision but the world body cannot just brush it aside. However, to sit on your hands to indicate protest is not the way to go about it. This is just playing into Blatter’s hands. What UEFA should be doing is using the Congress and its supposed powers to register its protest.

Remember this is the highest body in FIFA. It can change the way FIFA is run. This is the one that elects the President. This is the one that will, from 2026, decide which country hosts the World Cup. If UEFA is indeed indignant then what stops it from proposing a motion of no confidence in Blatter? Now in any other assembly this is what you would have expected. You get it even in the most crusty of clubs, like the MCC, the body that gave us the game of cricket. You cannot imagine a more conservative institution than this private club, there are all sorts of dress code that you have to follow and the waiting list is so long that a 20 year wait is normal. I waited just under 20 years to get in. However even this club, which can be so sheltered from the world, has to take notice of the outside world. So back in 1968 when the MCC, which then ran English cricket, failed to select Basil D’Oliveira for that winter’s cricket tour of South Africa, once again appeasing the racist apartheid regime, members protested. A motion of no confidence was debated and while it did not succeed it brought into the open what many members felt. And it led to changes in English cricket with MCC losing its powers to run the game. Even as I write this the MCC executive is having to deal with members who do not like the club’s plans for redevelopment.

So can we expect a motion of no confidence in Blatter from the FIFA executive, or congress next week? Not a chance. For as Ebru Koksal, Board member of Galatasaray and a rare woman in world football, put it to me, football congresses are docile affairs where the executive and the leadership, let alone the President, is never questioned. “When I’m talking to people from other industries and they want to understand the governance structure, they say, ‘So okay, FIFA is the top organisation but who is auditing, checking the accounts, approving the FIFA accounts?’ The answer is the general assembly [FIFA Congress]. But the general assembly in the end actually has a financial relationship as well. They’re getting money and nobody wants to change this. I have read the minutes of the past 10 years of some of the general assemblies. We never get any opposition in the general assemblies. This is because they’re getting all the money.”

Koksal who, unlike many other football administrators, would like to see FIFA and UEFA become more accountable and transparent is not surprised that they have made few moves to do so. They haven’t because they feel they can hunker down and pretend that the world outside does not exist. And as far as the Sunday Times revelations are concerned the more they create waves in the UK, the more the global membership of FIFA will dismiss it as yet another example of the British press which cannot get over the fact that Britannia no longer rules the waves.

UEFA members may sit on their hands as the rest of the Congress lionises Blatter hoping this makes a stand. It will not change the way world football is run. For that to happen it would require FIFA’s sponsors, advertisers and television paymasters to make it clear that unless FIFA reforms they will withdraw their support – basically cut off their money supply. It is worth noting that the World Cup is the only FIFA product that makes money. FIFA runs many other world tournaments which are little noticed in the media and which makes huge losses. Without the World Cup FIFA as an organisation would struggle to exist. The IOC had to change following the Salt Lake City crisis because the sponsors started making alarming noises. So far FIFA’s money men’s silence has been resounding. Unless they open their mouths and hit FIFA in the pocket nothing will change. There is no evidence of a desire for change from within FIFA and the media cannot create one. That is the sobering truth.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose