Mihir Bose: The one Blatter legacy that will live on

It is interesting that, despite all that has been written about FIFA, one issue has not been much discussed. This is how will politicians treat any future FIFA that emerges from its bribery crisis? We know how western politicians now regard FIFA. They have nothing but contempt. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has made this abundantly clear in the House of Commons.

Hugh Robertson, who was sports minister when England made its disastrous bid for the 2018 World Cup, told me: “We should not host the World Cup, or any FIFA tournament, until such time as the organisation is successfully reformed.” It should be emphasised that this seems largely a northern European and American political view. Vladimir Putin, for instance, has suggested that the ongoing investigation is all an American plot and his views are echoed by politicians in the non-western world, particularly the Sepp Blatter strongholds of Asia and Africa.

Nevertheless, given this is the greatest crisis in FIFA’s history, the question remains: will the politicians who for the last 40 years have so enthusiastically courted this organisation now stop doing so? Will they once again treat it like a voluntary trade union association, which is what it is, its trade being football? Or will they, after the crisis is resolved, continue to see it as sort of quasi state whose President is entitled to be treated much they would treat the head of a real state? Will they accept the way Blatter has always projected FIFA as the Vatican of Sport? Or, will this crisis make them copy Stalin who, when told of the Pope’s powers, witheringly asked: How many divisions does the Pope have?

And here it is worth noting that this exalted status of FIFA is very much a legacy of Joao Havelange further developed by Sepp Blatter. And, given how western politicians, particularly the British, are now expressing such contempt for FIFA , it is worth looking back on how much they fawned on FIFA and its Presidents, starting with Havelange and continuing with Blatter. This is necessary in order to come to some judgement on how FIFA’s future relationship with politicians may work out.

Here what is fascinating is that it was only when FIFA was nearly 70 years old that politicians first woke up to the power of global football. This is significant because the common view much expressed in recent weeks is that all of FIFA’s problems started when FIFA began to harvest television and sponsorship money and transform itself from a sports body to a fair sized company. Yet, politicians started courting FIFA two decades before money flowed into FIFA. And it is also significant that this courtship started not in the west but in South America, although that was, perhaps, not surprising as Uruguay staged the first World Cup in 1930 because it wanted to use sport to celebrate a political event: the centenary of the country’s first constitution.

It was the Colombians, who in 1973, started the process of treating FIFA as a state not a trade body in the hope it would get the right to host the World Cup. Seeking the 1986 World Cup, they entertained a visiting FIFA delegation lavishly and at a reception the President of Columbia, Dr Borrero, made it clear that hosting the competition would prove Colombia had arrived as a nation. Dr Borrero promised to construct new stadia and do everything to make sure Colombia was the right place for the World Cup. Colombia did win the bid but in the end failed to meet its commitments and the 1986 World Cup was given to Mexico. And this decision it could be said marked the start of the shenanigans over World Cup bids of which we have heard so much recently.

Mexico was up against a USA bid which had the support of Warner Communications, then the backers of the North American Soccer League, and was led by Henry Kissinger, one of the heavyweight politicians of our time, if also one of the most controversial. When the FIFA executive met in Stockholm, Kissinger made an hour hour-long presentation setting out how America would be a great host. In contrast, Mexico made an eight minute presentation. But it was soon evident that the presentation was just a show.

Even as Kissinger was speaking, the Mexicans were preparing to party in a Stockholm hotel in anticipation of victory. The reason? Havelange, then FIFA President, had gained the executive’s approval for Mexico at a breakfast that morning.

By the time the contest for the 1998 World Cup took place, bidding nations had begun to treat the FIFA President as if he was a head of state who had to be courted and humoured. Switzerland was so keen to host the competition that the President of the Swiss Football Association even nominated Havelange for the Nobel Peace Prize. Amazing as this suggestion was it shows that two decades later when Blatter actively worked to get the same prize, he was only following in the footsteps of his Brazilian mentor. Havelange, in return, waxed eloquent about the Swiss bid.

Switzerland’s chances blossomed as their main rival, France, initially fell out with Havelange. The then French Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, accused Havelange of bias against the French Olympic bid, Havelange also being a distinguished, and much honoured, member of the International Olympic Committee. So upset was Chirac that he even threatened to use French influence in Africa to stop the Brazilian getting re-elected. However, the French soon realised Havelange had to be wooed. By September 1991 the French Football Federation was ready to spend up to 7 million francs targeting FIFA committee members. And then came the French masterstroke: in a ceremony at the Presidential palace François Mitterrand inducted Havelange into France’s légion d’Honneur, describing him as “one of the great figures of today’s sporting world”.

Morocco, another nation in the race, got Havelange to visit Rabat and be received by King Hassan II. However, the unpredictable monarch, who had kept Queen Elizabeth waiting, also made Havelange wait, to the great fury of the man Blatter calls “Grand Senor”. The result of all this was in July 1992 France won the right to host the 1998 World Cup.

In many ways the most revealing political wooing was that by Nelson Mandela to secure South Africa the 2010 World Cup. South Africa had used Mandela for their failed 2006 bid when, thanks to Charlie Dempsey, the Scotsman from New Zealand, abstaining – having previously made a deal with the Germans – the Germans sneaked through. Now with only African nations allowed to bid for the 2010 competition, South Africa was determined to have it.

I was made vividly aware of all this on 14 May 2004, 24 hours before the FIFA executive met to vote on the 2010 bid. In those days the FIFA executive members stayed in Zurich’s Grand Dolder Hotel, which is in the hills above the headquarters of FIFA. They have since moved down to the lake front staying at the Baur au lac where, as the world now knows, Swiss police at the request of the Americans swooped on that fateful May morning, which shall always be part of FIFA history, and arrested seven FIFA officials.

To return to May 2004. I was just outside a third third-floor suite in the Grand Dolder where Mandela and many of the top brass of FIFA were staying. As I waited I saw Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, then President of South Africa, emerge from their suite in the company of Jack Warner, then a FIFA Vice vice-President and a key player in the bidding. The South Africans faced a huge problem.

Warner, having for so long been warm to South Africa, had turned hostile. A few weeks before, I had met him in London and he was scathing about the South Africans and expressed much admiration for the Moroccan bid. He was so hostile to South Africa he was even refusing to return calls from the South African bid team. Everyone knew how crucial Warner was. He controlled three votes on the twenty-four man executive and could swing the election.

South Africa had sent Bishop Desmond Tutu to Trinidad, to hold a special mass to humour him. But even that had not quite done the trick. With a day to go the trump card had to be played and Mandela and Mbeki flew into Zurich to meet Warner. What these men discussed has never been revealed, but I caught up with Warner in the corridor immediately after the meeting. When I asked him who was going to win, Morocco or South Africa, he said, “Who knows, anything can happen.” Then he gave a big smile, suggesting that the Mandela trump card had worked.

Until that moment the Moroccans were very sure that they had secured Warner’s votes. They had spent millions on their campaign, employing so many experts from all over the world that theirs was almost an “outsourced” bid. It was difficult to find a Moroccan in the bid team. The Moroccan bid prediction was that they would beat South Africa by 14 votes to 10.

But, the next day, it was South Africa who won 14-–10. It was very clear for whom Warner and his colleagues had voted. The Moroccans were very furious with Warner. But that afternoon, as the South Africans held a celebratory lunch at the Grand Dolder, Mandela duly raised a glass to his new friends. Since then, of course, all sorts of allegations have been made about how the South Africans bribed Warner. Nothing has been proved and I am not for one moment suggesting that in that Grand Dolder Hotel room Mandela gave Warner a brown envelope filled with South African Rands. Not in the least.

But that the man the world rightly regarded as the nearest to a modern-day Gandhi, was forced to ‘schmooze’ Warner shows that, when your country wants the World Cup, even the greatest in the world have to take any road they can. And if this means the lowest of low roads, making deals with FIFA executive members, however dubious they may be, then it has to be done.

This was certainly what British politicians were prepared to do when England was bidding for the 2018 World Cup. The bid itself, let us recall, was a political initiative which was, in all but name, launched not by the FA but in Downing Street by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a committed football fan.

As Robertson told me, “It was slightly ill-starred from the beginning because Gordon Brown decided unilaterally to launch the bid. So I think the timing of the launch wasn’t the time that the FA wanted. Brown made them do it rather earlier then they would have wanted because that sorted the government’s political communications grid at the time. And the early bid board was packed with Labour party supporters and there wasn’t much effort to make it a cross party thing. So it had a pretty party political feel to it and the thing was done on a slightly one-sided basis unlike the 2012 Olympics when Tessa Jowell [the Olympics minister] kept me in the loop.”

However, consider what happened when Brown’s successor David Cameron, whose football knowledge may not be as great as Brown’s – he confused Aston Villa with West Ham during the election – reacted when he realised that the economy was not the only Brown legacy he had to deal with, so was the World Cup bid. Let us hear what he said when he held a reception for Blatter at Downing Street:

“One of the first things I did when I became Prime Minister was to call you to reconfirm the new government’s full support for England 2018 and since then we have been involved on a daily basis strengthening it wherever possible. The government may have changed, but our commitment to hosting the World Cup has not changed. Mr. President, you have done a huge amount for football during your whole life. The decisions you have made have been instrumental in taking the game to new heights, breaking boundaries and reaching new people, culminating in what we were just discussing together – bringing that hugely successful World Cup to Africa just a few months ago. It was an inspirational thing to see. It will have had a transformational effect, not just in South Africa but right across that continent, country after country. In 50 days time, you and the FIFA executive will make another crucial decision, deciding who hosts the 2018 World Cup. I hope you see that England has got what it takes to host the greatest tournament on earth. I hope you can see how much our country wants this.”

Cameron may now brush aside such fawning comments as the result of not having been well informed by the FA. Yet, even as he spoke, members of the England bid team were well aware that FIFA executive members had asked for favours in exchange for votes. Indeed Lord Triesman, then the Football Association chairman, who had to resign when a private conversation alleging corruption was leaked, later testified to a House of Commons committee about the various favours FIFA members wanted. It also emerged that the bid’s chief executive Andy Anson, in a private briefing with journalists, had said votes could be bought. But with England still hopeful of winning the bid it was clearly felt all this could not be disclosed. Indeed when there was unfavourable media publicity about FIFA the bid leadership criticised it as unhelpful to England’s chances. For the bid this was war, albeit without weapons, and the British press was expected to line up behind the bid, not create trouble.

Now in the wake of the FIFA scandal it is all very well to denounce Blatter as the devil incarnate. But given in 2010 the British government decided to sup with the devil because they wanted the prize the devil could give them can we be sure that once the crisis has blown over we will not see the British government behave the same way with whoever succeeds Blatter? I am not so sure. This can only happen if FIFA returns to its pre-1973 state of being a trade organisation that runs a trade called football. But since that is impossible politicians will still come calling on the FIFA President whoever takes over from Blatter. This means Blatter will go but the organisation’s relationship with politicians, which Blatter did so much to create, will remain the same. It may well prove Blatter’s greatest, perhaps, his only legacy.

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