Whatever happens in the FIFA Presidential election one thing is already clear. Sepp Blatter has split Europe wide open. The most powerful and richest confederation in world football, whose leagues dominate the game and whose prize competition, the Champions League, is the greatest club competition in the world, cannot agree on a candidate to oppose the Swiss. Already 11 of the 54 national associations of UEFA are publicly pledged to three different rivals of Blatter: Michael van Praag, Louis Figo and Prince Ali. If this was a political election, and Europe a political party, we would immediately write off its chances and say Blatter has already won.
So how has this happened?
To an extent Europe was always split over Blatter. For while nobody from UEFA has ever fawned at the sight of Blatter in the way you can see delegates from other confederations do at FIFA Congresses, Blatter has always had his supporters in UEFA. He demonstrated this when he beat Lennart Johansson in 1998 and then again Issa Hayatou in 2002. Consider those victories. In 1998 Johansson was the sitting UEFA President but he did not get all of UEFA’s votes. And in 2002, immediately after being unanimously re-elected as UEFA President, he could not swing all of his own confederation behind UEFA’s favourite son Hayatou. Indeed at that 2002 UEFA Congress, held in Johansson’s home country of Sweden, Blatter proved his European support when Michel Platini, then a friend of Blatter, won election to the FIFA executive defeating Johansson’s right hand man, the Norwegian Per Omdal.
Blatter has always cultivated Europe, particularly the smaller national associations who, unlike England, Germany, Spain, Italy or France, the big beasts of the European football jungle, need money. For them the FIFA hand-outs, as for instance from the Goal Projects, are manna from heaven. Why should they bite the hand that feeds them?
Also Blatter has always benefited from what may be called the Joseph Stalin factor. As students of Soviet history will not need reminding Stalin beat of heavyweight challengers, like Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, to take over from Lenin because, as general secretary of the Soviet communist party, he could cultivate and get close to the rank and file. This was despite the fact that Trotsky and Bukharin were far greater figures both in stature and intellectual ability. In contrast Stalin was seen as an insignificant paper pusher but the Georgian’s hold on party administration gave him an advantage he used ruthlessly.
In a similar way Blatter used the fact that he was for years general secretary of FIFA and therefore in intimate contact with every national association round the world. Blatter himself has spoken of how Joao Havelange acted as the grand senior when he was President and treated Blatter as a mere minion. But a minion who runs the office, knows what he wants and has the invaluable support of Adi Dassler of Adidas, who helped make modern FIFA, can build up vast power as Blatter has done.
UEFA despite four years of discussing how to get rid of Blatter has clearly not been able to work out a strategy. Indeed Figo’s candidacy demonstrates this vividly. Figo the player needs no introduction. But when I mentioned to one FIFA executive member what he thought of Figo’s candidature he said, “I do not know who Figo is”. What he meant was he did not know what Figo’s credentials as an administrator are. And so while Figo may win the endorsement of Jose Mourinho and Ronald Koeman in FIFA politics this cuts little ice. There to win elections it is not a case of displaying the medals and awards you may have won as a player, or show video replays of your great feats on the field of play. What matters is what have you done as an administrator, how have you helped the national associations get money and enabled them to run their associations. In other words a paper pusher rather than a ball player. And if you have nothing to show on that score, which is the case with Figo, you stand no chance. So while Figo’s candidature is not the joke that David Ginola’s bookmaker stunt was, I cannot see it going anywhere.
So can nobody stop Blatter? Surely Prince Ali can? I doubt it judging from his reluctance to tell us who has signed his nominations. This suggests that, despite talk he is Platini’s man, he is fearful of being ambushed by Blatter rather than confident he can beat the Swiss.
This, of course, means another four turbulent years for FIFA-UEFA relations and the world body at logger heads with the world’s most powerful confederation. This cannot be good for football. But then if UEFA cannot get its football politics right then all the money it makes counts for little as this election is already proving.
And for UEFA the lesson is to learn from this is to understand what is called in British politics: the Dog and Duck phenomenon. This means that politicians in Westminster and their advisers and think tanks can come up with fancy ideas but the real question is what is the man sitting with his pint in the Dog and Duck pub in a small English town making of it all? Does he care? If not then all the ideas will go nowhere.
Take for instance the point made by UEFA at Sao Paulo before the FIFA Congress. This was how can Blatter as the man who runs FIFA brush off responsibility for all the scandals that have surrounded the organisation in the past few years. No CEO of a company, and FIFA is a fair sized company, would be allowed by its investors to get away with it. This is a very valid argument. But the FIFA equivalent of the Dog and the Duck, the member associations round the world, including some in Europe, clearly do not buy into this argument. UEFA grandees seeing how well the western media take an interest in their case against Blatter mistake this for world support. But that is not so. And as long as they cannot convince FIFA’s Dog and Duck clientele Blatter will reign supreme and UEFA will continue to rage against the man they would love to oust but just cannot.
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 29 books. The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose