The row that has erupted over FIFA’s handling of the much trumpeted Michael Garcia report on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup means we are once again seeing a re-run of what is now sports oldest soap opera: how shall we reform FIFA? It is not often that bad movies get so many repeat showings, even on a dank, dull, evening in Bognor. But then this is FIFA – an organisation where the past is not a foreign country but one that is always being revisited.
And it is no surprise that some of the suggestions for change are also some very old and very corny ideas. They have had much publicity but you can be sure it will not lead to any material change in how the house of football in Zurich is run. So we have had letters from FA chairman Greg Dyke to each of the FIFA executive members demanding that FIFA publish the Garcia report in full.
For Dyke to write such a letter is astounding. The FIFA executive has no power over the report as it has been prepared by the ethics committee, a body which is at arms length from the executive. In fact in that sense the ethics committee is not much different from the FA’s own disciplinary body which sanctions misdemeanours in English football. That body, as the FA always reminds us, is very distinct from the FA board let alone the FA council. Totally separate, totally independent, we kept being told. Any attempt to get the FA board or council to intervene is always rejected on the grounds that this would violate how the FA operates. So how can the FIFA executive intervene in a body over which it is not supposed to have any control? I would be surprised if Dyke did not know this. I suspect he and the FA hierarchy felt that he had to write this letter to show he was making a response and, probably, comforted himself with the thought that it would prove a great sound byte. It has. But it will lead to nothing.
In some ways more interesting was an idea floated by his predecessor, David Bernstein. This was that UEFA should now consider leaving FIFA. Bernstein admitted that England on its own could not think of quitting as it had often done for most of the first half of the last century. This was because then it was not reconciled to the creation of such a body by the Frenchman, Jules Rimet.
Now what Bernstein is proposing is that the FA should try, “to encourage other nations within UEFA” to consider quitting. “There are 54 countries within UEFA. There’s Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Holland – all powerful. You can’t hold a serious World Cup without them. They have the power to influence if they have the will.”
However even he admits, “there are some who would definitely be on side, others may be not”. And that is the problem. UEFA is the most powerful confederation in football, has the most money, can exercise the greatest clout. But despite what its leaders may say it is not united. When it comes down to it Blatter can ride a coach and horses right through UEFA. And he has done, quite often in the past.
Recall 1998 when UEFA put up its beloved President Lennart Johansson against Blatter for the FIFA Presidency. The Swede was not only beaten but did not even get all of UEFA’s 54 votes. Indeed even England did not back the leader of their confederation but voted for Blatter. That was in the hope it would help England get the 2006 World Cup and we all know what happened to that England bid. In the words of Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel, it was “another fine mess”.
This lack of UEFA unity when it comes to Blatter was repeated in 2002 when UEFA united behind Issa Hayatou but could not deliver Europe, Hayatou could not even deliver his own continent, Africa, and Blatter was literally crowned King again.
Since then all the evidence is that a good many nations in UEFA, particularly the smaller countries many in Eastern Europe, but even some British home nations, look on Blatter very benevolently. They would have no desire to rock the boat and quit FIFA.
There is a possible solution and this is what was described to me as UEFA’s nuclear option. I wrote about it more than a year ago in these columns and it is worth recalling what I said then. This would mean that Michel Platini would declare that in future Euros national teams from other continents will be invited to take part. Imagine at Euro 2020 not only do European countries take part but Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Japan. Suddenly a European tournament becomes a world tournament. And what is more an exciting, more competitive world tournament than the World Cup which, because of the need to accommodate the whole world, rarely produces the calibre of football that a Euro does.
Now you will say, Platini cannot do that. Why not? The South Americans do it for their Copa America. It has regularly invited national teams from other continents. So why cannot Europe? In 2016 it is even being played in the US with five teams from CONCACAF.
This would indeed be the nuclear option for Platini and UEFA know that the World Cup is the only FIFA competition that makes money. All its other world tournaments are subsidised by its World Cup income. Any threat to the World Cup would be a dagger aimed at the very heart of FIFA’s existence.
It is interesting that Bernstein, while not going into the details I had outlined, made reference to such an idea. Bernstein no longer wields power but he is a former FA chairman and for him to suggest this does provide some indication as to how some minds are working.
But this still leaves the wider issue of what Europe does with the rest of the world. For here the simple, if harsh, fact is that very few nations see the way Blatter has run FIFA as in any way reprehensible. You only had to be at the FIFA Congress in Sao Paulo just before the World Cup and listen to the drooling speeches in praise of Blatter to realise that FIFA Congresses are sports equivalents of the old Soviet Congresses. The leader is always right and he must always be honoured. This explains why a Blatter re-election is such a foregone conclusion.
So how could this change? There is one possible solution and I know it sounds very left field but it is worth considering. This is that the European dissenters tried to recruit the Qataris on their side. Absurd you say. But look at it this way. In everything else other than football Qatar is honoured and courted. If proof was needed this came in Tuesday’s Financial Times. That paper, like the entire British press, has been very critical of the way FIFA has handled the decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup.
Yet what should lead its front page? Why a story about how the Qatar royal family are keen to invest heavily “in regenerating projects being planned around the hubs of the proposed HS2 high-speed rail line, with billions of pounds of investment being discussed”. According to the paper the Emir of Qatar on a recent visit to the UK had told the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, of his desire “to take advantage of projects that have sprung up as a result of the £50 billion rail venture, which will run from London to Birmingham, then Leeds and Manchester.” This desire for Qatari money comes on top of the continuing property investment by the Qataris in London. They already own Harrods and Chelsea Barracks and might soon add Songbird estates, the group which owns London’s Canary Wharf, to this portfolio.
And, of course, we have the huge Qatari investment in horse racing. Qatari money has created the QIPCO British Championships Series seen as the saviour of flat racing and which, a month ago, saw the QIPCO British Champions’ Day, the richest day in racing. Then at Ascot the Queen graced the occasion along with several leading members of the Qatari royal family. All this shows that in every other walk of life, from rail to property to horse racing, Qatar is welcome, even courted. Yet in football it is a pariah. And it has become a pariah because of the wretched way FIFA handled the bidding for the World Cup.
So what can Qatar do about it? Could it be persuaded to join the FIFA dissenters and demand wholesale reform of FIFA so this stain from its reputation is removed? It is a thought but while I do not see it happening this is a more likely way out of this mess then the solutions that have been currently proposed.
The fact is, whether we like it or not, that old saying of Voltaire about God applies to FIFA. So just as the great French philosopher observed that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him, then we have to say if FIFA did not exist then we would surely have had to invent it. You need some organisation to run world football. Yes it needs change but to do that Europe, which is the only continent really demanding change, must discard that sense of superiority that comes so naturally to the continent and realise it has to co-opt the world. Unless it does FIFA will not change and this endless, and now quite tiresome, soap opera of who will reform FIFA will continue to run and run
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