Mihir Bose: FIFA and football could learn about democracy from the Olympics

During the London Olympics last year much was made about how much football could learn from the Olympics. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, speaking at Wembley just before Team GB played Brazil, was asked whether the world’s most popular game could learn from the world’s greatest sporting event.

“Absolutely,” he answered, “At the beginning of the game, [the behaviour] is okay in football. But, at the end, we still have problems to bring the players together. [This is] because the losing team will not come to shake hands because they have lost. This is a pity. In the other games which I have witnessed in these Olympics, at the end of the match they are all coming together.”

Blatter did not offer any solution but during 2012 football drew some comfort from the fact that the matches were touched by the much talked about Olympic magic, at least in the behaviour of the fans. So the GB v Brazil not only attracted the largest crowd for a women’s match in this country – 70,000 – but there was no segregation. And many in the crowd even had a drink in their hands as they watched, something that would be impossible in any non-Olympic football match. Some even cheered the opposition.

To expect such behaviour when the season started was always going to be a fantasy. But that a year later Olympics should again be providing football lessons, this time in democracy and how to plan for and conduct elections, is surprising. This thought is particularly striking as I write this from St. Petersburg where Sport Accord is holding its annual convention. Billed as the conference “where sport meets” this event is also the place where cities bidding for the Olympics have a dress rehearsal before the final vote takes place. This time the competition could break new ground should Istanbul stage 2020 as it will be the first Muslim county to do so.

However, what has made everyone very excited is the fact that with Jacques Rogge retiring and the Presidency of the International Olympic Committee up for grabs, no less than six IOC members have decided to stand. What makes this notable is that for a long time the feeling was vice President Thomas Bach of Germany, who seems to have spent all his life preparing for this job, was a shoo-in to succeed Rogge. So much so that not long ago the confident prediction was he might be unopposed. But as we gathered in St. Petersburg the candidates kept popping up.

Former pole vault great Sergei Bubka announced he would run. Before that Swiss lawyer, and international rowing federation head, Denis Oswald had decided he would quite like to be President as had Ng Ser Miang of Singapore, finance commission chairman Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico and amateur boxing association chief C.K. Wu of Taiwan.

This is a record field for the IOC Presidency race. Normally the European domination of the IOC means if the continent unites behind one candidate he, or she, is almost certain to win. But with Europe divided this does open the door for a non-European to sneak in. Should that happen that would be only the second time in IOC history, the election of the American Avery Brundage being the other occasion, that a non-European heads the world’s most powerful sports movement.

Bach still remains favourite but it is interesting to talk to Olympic insiders and discover that one reason Oswald has decided to stand is the feeling that the Olympic Presidency, and all that it stands for, should not be another prize going to Germany. Surely, runs the argument, with Germany dictating terms in Europe on economic and other issues, and winning the Champions League as well, it already has enough trophies for its increasingly crowded trophy room.

Interestingly, the presence of Oswald in the IOC ballot due in Buenos Aires in September means that, at least, in the first round Blatter, who as FIFA President is an IOC member, will not be able to vote. This is because under IOC rules, while Oswald despite being Swiss can vote for himself, his fellow Swiss members cannot. Blatter and the other Swiss members will only be able to vote if and when Oswald is eliminated.

But what about Blatter and his own FIFA Presidency? In theory there should not be any doubt about this. For after all has not Blatter said that this will be his last term and he will have gone when his terms ends in 2015? But since he made that declaration he has been making noises suggesting he might change his mind. So back in November when I spoke to him and asked him whether he would stand again he both said no and suggested he might carry on.

Initially he said “I will not stand again. I have to finish. I have to put it into my mind that you cannot be eternal.” But then he added, as if he could not contemplate leaving FIFA House, “There may be circumstances that I’m still there and nobody will take on FIFA. I don’t know.”

Now when Blatter said this would be his last term the feeling was that the man ready to take over from him was Michel Platini. This was the man Blatter had brought into FIFA, helped get him elected President of UEFA and the Frenchman seemed his only possible successor. He was considered as much the natural successor as Bach was to Rogge at the IOC. Platini, so ran the argument, only had to ask and the job would be his.

But in recent months there has been plenty of evidence that Blatter no longer sees Platini as his chosen son. There are differences over goal line techonology, over the world cup in Qatar in 2022, Platini having supported it, Blatter having opposed it, and also the general Blatter feeling that Platini is like all other UEFA presidents. Platini, says those close to Blatter, is too much the man of Europe, the most powerful federation in football, and not the sort of world figure Blatter has always presented himself as.

And for his part Platini gives the impression he can do without FIFA. He is clearly enjoying running UEFA. He may have every now and again to spend some time trying to persuade the English he is not their enemy. But that is a minor irritation. UEFA Champions league is a sort of midweek European league, the big clubs are happy about what they earn from it and how it is run. And as the Champions League Final showed, not only can it provide good football but UEFA can organise these events in great style, complete with match day facilities right down to having excellent match programmes.

So why bother to leave UEFA to run FIFA which can at times be a bit of an unruly, it not totally unmanageable, rabble. Far from being a cohesive football family, as it claims to be, it is more like the general assembly of the United Nations where chaos rules.

Now in such a situation you would expect other candidates to emerge. But there is no sign that anyone wants to boss the most powerful body in football. FIFA does not seem to have the desire for democratic contests that infuse the IOC. So while the IOC gives the impression that it welcomes elections and can stage a free and fair fight, FIFA gives the impression that it is more like a court. It is waiting on its feudal monarch Blatter to give the nod. And until he does nobody will make a move.

Elections can be fraught and divisive but to avoid them on that basis is not good for the growth of an organisation and its sustained progress. The IOC understands this. FIFA, for all its talk of democracy, does not appear to.

What a pity.

Mihir Bose’s 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