As he prepares to show his face on FIFA duty for the first time outside Switzerland since the sky came crashing down on his scandal-tarnished organisation, Sepp Blatter could be forgiven for enjoying a wry smile on the flight to St Petersburg for the 2018 World Cup draw.
Blatter may have been battered from pillar to post in recent months and be on the final stretch of his long and bumpy marathon as FIFA president yet even now, the canny old fox has managed to score a significant political victory over his critics.
Fresh details have emerged about how the veteran Swiss somehow secured another seven months in charge despite heavy resistence from European members of his executive committee.
Insideworldfootball has learned that while UEFA ideally wanted a mid-December date for finally getting rid of him (an option scuppered by the FIFA Club World Cup), they and others on the exco were prepared, when they met on Monday, to accept early January as a compromise.
It seemed the logical time, when FIFA’s bigwigs had to be in Zurich anyway for the annual Ballon d’Or celebrations. But Blatter had other ideas in his effort to buy as much time as possible – courtesy of Africa, which has long been his most loyal support base.
Out of the blue, FIFA’s senior vice president Issa Hayatou, head of African football, suddenly threw a spanner in the works. January, he told exco members, would not be possible. His continent had to play the African Nations Championship.
The what? You might well ask.
For those unfamiliar with the event, the tournament Hayatou was referring to was not the prestigious African Cup of Nations but a second-tier biennial competition exclusively for home-based African players competing in their domestic leagues. In others words, none of the household names who play in Europe. Next year the 16-nation tournament takes place in Rwanda between January 16 and February 7. Suddenly it has taken on additional significance.
“It was the first time anyone had been told about this and Blatter immediately seized on it,” one high-ranking official who attended the exco meeting told me. “Europe and Asia thought they had the election stitched up for January. Then Hayatou said he couldn’t come in January. There was a brief silence before Hayatou was asked when this tournament finished. Everyone was a bit taken aback.”
A set-up? Make up your own minds. Certainly, there are those who feel that the election to replace Blatter could easily have been held before the January 16 start of said African Nations Championship – and also question why the election has been slated for fully two weeks after it ends.
To their collective annoyance, Blatter seized his moment to grab an unexpected lifeline to prolong his reign and stay on several weeks longer than most had anticipated. No wonder he looked so unfazed at the subsequent press conference, that is once he had recovered from being showered with fake banknotes.
He knows that after presiding over some of the darkest days in FIFA’s history he will now be able to play a role in the implementation of much-needed reforms and vacate his chair proclaiming he had done his best to clean up his organisation, notwithstanding the fact that anti-corruption campaigners are vehemently pushing for the governance agenda to be led by an external, non-footballing figure of global stature and be entirely separate from the election process.
Speaking of which, although it is early days, all the conjecture about Michel Platini only goes to show how fast political allegiances can switch.
Cast your mind back to May when Platini and most of UEFA chose to endorse Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein, Blatter’s only challenger. At the same time, Prince Ali’s own Asian confederation refused to support him and instead backed Blatter.
Now fast forward just seven weeks. The landscape might have changed radically but having snubbed UEFA-backed Prince Ali last time, Asia, we are told, will support Platini himself this time. Conversely, after embracing a candidate Asia rejected, UEFA are suddenly best friends with the sheikhs. How on earth does that work?
The answer, perhaps, lies with vested interests. Platini was seen locked in conversation with senior Asian and CONCACAF officials following Monday’s exco meeting. The Frenchman had also “put himself about”, as one insider expressed it, during the previous 48 hours in Zurich rather than just hang out, as the younger generation might say, with his European buddies. “There was a lot of cosy-ing going on between Asia and Europe,” said the afore-mentioned source. “Certainly Platini was acting like a man who is going to stand.”
It’s all about politics in which, of course, there is little loyalty and even less predictability. When it would have been a hard if not impossible struggle to win, Platini wasn’t interested. Now that he apparently wants the job, it is all about currying favour with the kingmakers.
What people say in this kind of environment is often the opposite to what they think. Figuring out who to believe is like trying to discover the proverbial needle in a haystack. The only certainty is that few things are certain. Blatter is finally standing down. That we know. No more u-turns. An election to replace him will be held on February 26, we know that too. Otherwise the next few months is all about jostling for position. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Here we go again…
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org