No, this is not a joke question but a very serious one. The jokey part of it is that once on the afternoon of May 29 in Zurich, the national associations re-elect Sepp Blatter for a fifth term as President, the 78 year old will cavort on stage possibly with a football as he acknowledges the hosannas of his followers like a medieval monarch. He has done that in the past and, as in 2002, he may be joined by his grandchildren. But the serious question is what sort of punishment does Blatter have in mind for UEFA for daring to challenge him?
That there will be some punishment cannot be doubted. This election will mark the third time he has taken on UEFA and beaten them and we need to look at what happened after each of those elections to see what might happen.
In 1998 UEFA were very confident that Lennart Johansson, their much loved President, would defeat Blatter and end the long and unworthy reign of, as they saw it, the Brazilian usurper Joao Havelange. But for all the qualities the Swede had, and he had many, winning sporting elections was not one of them. And in Blatter he had an opponent who had learnt the arts of sports politics at the hands of Havelange and Horst Dassler, and was just too clever. A lot of noise was made of all sorts of dirty tricks and allegations of underhand payments to Africans in a Paris hotel the night before the vote but nothing emerged. I recall how after the election I asked Blatter about this and he brushed me aside saying the referee has blown the whistle, the match is over.
But the match was not over as events within a few weeks of the election proved. Quite out of the blue a proposal for a European Super League emerged called Project Parsifal. It was named after Wagner’s last opera, first performed in 1882 at Bayreuth with a set featuring the temple of the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail Media Partners promised the top clubs was a midweek league and it rocked UEFA to its foundations.
It is an interesting reflection on how club power has changed that the first meeting of the breakaway clubs in a London lawyer’s office had three Italian clubs, the two Milan clubs and Juventus, Ajax from Holland, Paris St. Germain and Marseille from France, Borussia Dortmund from Germany and from England, Manchester United and Arsenal. Liverpool joined later but then there would have been no question of Chelsea and Manchester City being considered eligible, indeed City then were struggling to hold their place in what is the second division of English football.
So serious was this breakaway threat that for the first time in their history UEFA came and spoke to the clubs. Before that if the clubs wanted to speak to UEFA they were always told to go through the national associations. I recall Peter Robinson, the legendary chief executive of Liverpool, telling me how astonished he was that UEFA had finally agreed to meet the clubs. But UEFA knew how high the stakes were and had to act. It meant the entire reshaping of European tournaments and the model of European football we now have.
The then general secretary of UEFA Gerard Aigner would later call this the plan from the boys from the tennis club in Milan, and there was some talk that Silvio Berlusconi was behind it, some of them had worked for him. No evidence has ever merged that Blatter instigated the Milan tennis boys but there can be no doubt that Blatter purred in delight as UEFA shook and surrendered to the clubs.
The second battle in 2002, when UEFA put up Issa Hayatou as their candidate for President against Blatter, saw the Swiss launch an amazing counter attack going to Johansson’s home country, where UEFA were holding their Congress, and unseating some of Johansson’s best friends and having his own men, including Michel Platini, elected to the FIFA executive.
Now it will be argued that this third battle (he was re-elected unopposed in 2006 and 2010) is against a completely changed scenario. The great Blatter lieutenants like Jack Warner and Mohammed Bin Hammam, who played such prominent parts in his election victories in 1998 and 2002, have gone fatally scarred in the wake of the enormous corruption scandal that has engulfed the organisation since 2010. FIFA and its doings are no longer back page news as it was during the previous two contests between Blatter and UEFA, but front page news and all tied up with question of holding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Platini, like many other potential successors of Blatter, has not only broken with him but can present himself as the knight in shining armour who is rescuing FIFA from worldwide censure. And unlike 1998 UEFA has good relations with the clubs. UEFA’s candidate may lose but there is nothing Blatter can do to touch Platini or UEFA.
That is where Blatter may prove us wrong. For there is the question of how many places Europe has in the World Cup. All the other confederations have always resented the fact that European has far more teams in the World Cup than any other confederation: 13 in Brazil out of the 32 with all other confederations, including Comnebol, having less than half that number. For all that Europe’s performance and its economic clout justify such dominance, other confederations want more.
And while Platini is pledged to protect Europe’s position he may find that when the FIFA executive have its extraordinary meeting the morning after the election he is in a minority. He will be surrounded by members from the other confederations all of whom have backed Blatter. These confederations have also been electing new members to sit on the FIFA executive and given how enthusiastically they have backed Blatter at their Congresses it may be assumed these new members will be fervent Blatter supporters. For them a Blatter victory means clipping Platini’s powers and where to do it best than by making sure Europe’s historic dominance of World Cup places is if not eliminated at least reduced.
This is where Blatter’s revenge on Platini and UEFA will come and, as in 1998 and 2002, the Presidential elections will not mean the end of hostilities but the start of another round in the on-going, and never ending battle, between FIFA and UEFA.
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