When Sepp Blatter praised FIFA’s ship for emerging from troubled waters as the waves lapped gently against the shores of Mauritius last week, cynical heads turned away in barely suppressed mirth. “How many times have we heard that before?” was their silent refrain.
As self-proclaimed “captain” of that ship, Blatter was in congratulatory mood as he cajoled his audience to show their appreciation of past misdemeanours being replaced by a new era of transparency with a collective round of applause.
It was pretty cringing stuff but another indication of the ability of football’s great survivor and master manipulator to work a room. It was also, even more significantly, a show of defiance, a statement of intent by Blatter to distance himself from the old regime, many of whose corrupt powerbrokers had virtually brought FIFA to its knees.
Some might argue, justifiably or not, that at one time or another during his 15-year presidency, Blatter had relied on the support of some of those very same people. In other words, that just as he is captain of the ship now, so he was also back then.
But the veteran Swiss is nothing if not the canniest of operators. He was not prepared to let the scandals and turmoil of the past overshadow an occasion he had been waiting for ever since launching his two-year road map to reform with a package of measures designed to show the world that FIFA had finally turned the corner.
Not everyone in the audience was convinced by his rhetoric, however. Mark Pieth, the governance expert originally appointed by FIFA to make recommendations for change, took the podium to explain in no uncertain terms that it was only the beginning in terms of transparency and credibility.
Pieth, courageous or foolhardy depending on your point of view, steadfastly stuck to his guns as he outlined not only what FIFA had achieved so far but also, crucially, what it hadn’t. In terms of stealing Blatter’s thunder, it was as close as you could get and the President was clearly not amused.
Pieth, for all his frankness, is starting to resemble an unpopular dinner guest who embarrasses the host and is in danger of outstaying his welcome. Blatter may not say so publicly but it’s a safe bet to assume he would not be displeased to see the back of his compatriot who is not afraid to tell it like it is, not least with his description of FIFA as a supertanker which, far from being steered into calmer waters, is chugging its way along with all manner of baggage on board.
Much of that baggage is typically unsavoury FIFA politics. Member nations may have approved, almost unanimously, a ground-breaking set of reform measures that will hopefully make the organisation more accountable for its actions but the future, to use the same maritime metaphor as both Blatter and Pieth, appears far from plain sailing.
With presidential elections scheduled for 2015, Blatter and his possible successor, UEFA’s Michel Platini, seem to be increasingly at loggerheads. Indeed many of their tit-for-tat barbs were played out in the full glare of publicity in Mauritius, not least over age and term limits which Platini wanted on the agenda but which was, as expected, withdrawn until next year’s Congress with the support of two-thirds of FIFA’s executive committee.
“We need to produce something that is intelligent,” Blatter told a post-Congress press conference without pointing the finger at anyone specifically but with pinpoint astuteness. When I asked him to comment on the suggestion that his opposition to age and term limits was viewed in some quarters as a cynical ploy to serve his own ends, his reply was equally telling. “Let me throw the question back to you,” he answered with barely disguised resentment at being perceived as the trouble-maker. “Why are they (UEFA) trying to do what they are doing and have an age limit only for the President? I don’t know why.”
Trying to gain the moral high ground, it has to be said, isn’t solely the territory of Blatter and Platini. Take Wolfgang Nierbach’s snappy intervention during the business end of the Congress. The views of the head of the German FA on age and term limits contrasted starkly with the long-winded ramblings of his predecessor, Theo Zwanziger, the man charged by FIFA with fine-tuning the final draft of reform measures. “FIFA is all of us,” declared Niersbach. “We all are FIFA, not only the executive committee in Zurich alone.”
Throw in the fact that FIFA doesn’t have a clue what happens to the two co-opted women’s positions when they come to the end of their one-year terms this time next year and you get some idea of why critics believe world football’s governing body has made little headway when it comes to one crucial element of the entire process: public perception.
The very fact that the Congress itself was staged at great expense on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, a crazy venue logistically for 209 federations to convene (well 208 in fact), hardly helped alter the public perception of FIFA as a self-serving body.
Let us be in no doubt that FIFA – and to be fair Blatter personally – have come a long way in two years in terms of restoring some kind of credible governance. That much was underlined by audit and compliance committee chairman Domenico Scala who, in a briefing with reporters, presented a convincing case for having tightened up financial controls.
But outstanding issues like age and term limits, salary declarations and proper integrity checks for senior appointees remain unresolved. Unless FIFA tackles these properly, as well as somehow bringing a halt to all the political point-scoring, it may never truly be able to move on and be treated with the respect it craves by the public at large.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of insideworldfootball and was at the FIFA Congress in Mauritius last week.