Mihir Bose: So what exactly did Blatter and Platini agree on Russia 2018 and why?

Sepp Blatter’s revelation that there was a deal in the FIFA executive, and in particular with Michel Platini, to vote for Russia for the 2018 World Cup and Qatar for 2022 has raised a hue and cry that the vote was a fix with Greg Dyke demanding the return of the £21 million England spent on the bid. The assumption is that the vote was bent and therefore the election invalid.

But that would be too simplistic a conclusion. If the entire FIFA executive had decided that Russia would get 2018 then it undoubtedly raises ethical questions particularly where an election is held with the electorate a small group and the outcome decided by this group but the contesting parties are kept in the dark and allowed to campaign and spend money as if the vote is still up for grabs. However in this case what seems to have happened, as a Blatter spokesman has since clarified, is that the “big players” in the executive wanted Russia. It is inconceivable that every one of the 24 members on the executive would have wanted Russia as the executive had representatives of European countries who were also bidding for 2018. Is it to be assumed Geoff Thompson, representing the British nations on FIFA, had agreed to Russia for 2018? Thompson has never spoken, and I would suggest Dyke should have a word with his predecessor about the deal.

What I suspect happened is a cabal of Blatter, Platini, Beckenbaeur, maybe some of the Africans led by Hayatou, now acting FIFA President, and the North Americans agreed on Russia. So to see such a deal as vote fixing and then jump to the conclusion that the election may have been a fraud does not follow and also devalues the many real fraud investigations now being carried out with regards to FIFA.

As events since then have shown FIFA faces horrendous corruption issues which has seen almost half of the executive that took part in that now infamous vote in Zurich in 2010 decimated with many of them facing criminal charges and banned from football for various periods. Against this background the argument that just because before an election a deal is made by some of those who voted and this makes the election invalid must be one of the most novel ideas ever floated concerning any election. This would be the case if it could be shown that the deal was done on the basis of money passing hands. But otherwise deal making is the stuff of elections all over the place and far from being seen as underhand is actually encouraged and considered good politics.

In the lead up to the British election in 1997 there was much encouragement for what was called tactical voting where Liberal democrat voters would in certain seats vote Labour if their vote could help remove the Conservatives. Talk of tactical voting is still very common and if that is not an electoral deal then what is it? Indeed before the election Tony Blair worried that Labour, despite what the opinion polls showed, might not win and held many discussions with Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, making deals to ensure the Tories would be beaten. As it happened Tony Blair did not require Liberal Democratic support winning one of the biggest majorities in British elections. But even if he had required Liberal support it would not have made the election invalid.

It has to be said that FIFA in the way it organised the decisions for 2018 and 2022 created a huge rod for its own back and has been paying the price since then. Before the vote in 2010 FIFA made it clear that it would not allow deal making. Indeed when I spoke to Sepp Blatter in May 2010, seven months before the vote, in response to my question that there had been talk that England could do a deal with the US, to help the Americans get 2022 in return for American help to win 2018, Blatter said, “I think it is not easy to make deals and there are different interests.”

But now he has revealed that even as he spoke to me he was making a deal with Platini and other members of the executive on Russia 2018 and USA 2022. And there is also the curious alleged deal between the joint Spain-Portugal bid and Qatar over vote-swapping which was cleared by FIFA although Ángel María Villar, the Spanish member of FIFA executive, refused to give evidence to the Garcia inquiry and, as has now emerged, has since been investigated.

And it must be said that the ridiculous way FIFA went about the 2018 and 2022 vote not only sanctioned deals but actually encouraged them. FIFA worried that the South African World Cup might not be a success was persuaded by its marketing men that it should decide both the 2018 and 2022 bids at one executive session. The money men’s argument was that it would help sell television rights and FIFA thought it was a good insurance policy should the first foray into Africa not work.

On top of that FIFA allowed all bidding countries to bid for both 2018 and 2022. Indeed all the countries seeking the World Cup, including England, USA, Australia, Russia and the other European bidders did exactly that, only two countries, Indonesia and Qatar, did not bid for both. Indonesia soon dropped out but for a long period Qatar remained the odd one out. But then with no one expecting Qatar to win 2022 this was hardly commented on. Looking back now is it not interesting that Qatar always targeted only 2022 and secured it?

Indeed it is interesting to look back to June 2010 when the great and good of football assembled in South Africa. At that stage with the vote only six months away many countries were still in both races. Just before the World Cup many of the non-Europeans withdrew from 2018. But Australia still remained and so did USA. Australia dramatically announced its withdrawal from 2018, on the day of the FIFA Congress, a decision which was seen as cultivating the European vote for 2022 as it was leaving 2018 free for Europe. This is despite the fact that at that stage all the six Europeans nations, England, Russia, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal were also still in the race for 2022. However, they were expected to withdraw from 2022 having concluded that 2018 provided a European country the best chance of getting the World Cup. The question much debated in South Africa was when would USA withdraw its bid from the 2018 World Cup and concentrate on getting 2022 for the States?

Indeed once Australia withdrew rumours swept Sandton, the once exclusive white suburb now dominated by the huge statue of Nelson Mandela, where the good and great of football had gathered, that USA was about to pull out. I wrote then in an Insideworldfootball column that such talk was not unusual as, “why bother with 2018 when everyone knows that the entire FIFA executive is agreed that 2018 must come back to Europe?” Observe I said the entire executive but did not specify a European country as there could not be, and there was not, unanimity in the executive on one European candidate. My conclusion was reached on talking to executive members some of whom did say it should go to Russia.

I speculated that the USA would follow the Aussies but not straight away. “The Americans,” I wrote, “will withdraw to concentrate on 2022 but that will not be until October. That month the FIFA executive meet to decide the mechanics of the voting system.”

This was not a trivial issue for FIFA’s voting system is not quite as set in concrete and rigorous as that of the IOC. Back when Korea and Japan were bidding for 2002 and it looked as if Korea might win. Joao Havelange, then President, having promised Japan the competition, decided there would not be a vote. The result was both countries shared the World Cup and Havelange justified it by saying it was necessary to save the face of the loser.

In an IOC vote on bidding cities the IOC member from the country bidding cannot vote until his or her city is eliminated, there are no such restrictions in FIFA.

In South Africa in 2010 there was much discussion as to how exactly the vote would be conducted. Normally, for such votes FIFA executive members are given a card with the names of the countries bidding. But with two bids being voted on at one meeting, the bidding countries did not know whether the executive would be given one card or two? And how exactly was the vote to take place? Would they first fill in the card for 2018, then get another card and vote immediately on 2022 without knowing the result for 2018? Or would the result for 2018 be declared before the executive voted on 2022? Also what would the FIFA executive members be told about 2018? That a particular continent had won? Or the name of the country? Were they also to given the details of the vote?

Trivial as these details may seem they mattered because as such sporting elections have shown they can decide contests. In an IOC vote members are told which city has been eliminated but not the voting figures. This makes it more difficult to switch votes with confidence between various rounds. This may explain why when London won the 2012 Olympics, in the vote held in Singapore in 2005, Madrid’s vote went down between the rounds when you would expect it to go up, much to the amazement of Juan Antonio Samaranch. Samaranch, to his dying day, remained convinced that had Madrid not Paris got into the playoff with London, Madrid would have won and London, too, feared Madrid. Indeed the calculation by Keith Mills, one of the key players in the London bid, showed London beating Paris but losing to Madrid. The shout of joy that went up in the British camp when Madrid got eliminated was one of relief. And who is to say this happened because some Madrid supporters not knowing the exact figures pressed the wrong button in the round which eliminated them?

My theory with the World Cup bids was that with the USA bid committee led by former President Bill Clinton, the Yanks would know a thing or two about deals. They would look closely at the voting procedure FIFA decided and then make their announcement that they were concentrating on 2022.

At that stage it was universally believed that America would go into any deal knowing it had three solid CONCACAF votes. At the CONCACAF Congress held in Johannesburg, the English presentation led by David Dein, who opened the batting followed by Andy Anson, the bid leader, was by common consent the best. The CONCACAF delegates I met were positively drooling about it, far better than a poor Russian presentation and an even poorer Spain-Portuguese one. But at the end of it Jack Warner, CONCACAF’s then supreme leader, said that their three votes were for the USA. It has since been suggested that behind the closed doors of FIFA House in Zurich in December he actually voted for Qatar. Then I felt that in October 2010 once the voting system was known America could look at its options and make a deal with the strongest European challenger.

This is how I saw it. Let us say that by October 2010 one of the European bidders was in the lead with six votes. The Americans could say to the strongest European, “we give you our three, which takes you to nine and in an almost impregnable position (just short of the majority) and you give us your six which makes us very strong for 2022”. And once the deal was done USA would withdraw saying how it welcomed 2018 coming back to the old world all the time confident that 2022 was going to the new world.

I was writing this against a background of much talk of a European-USA deal for a long time. Platini had discussed it with Sunil Gulati, President of the US Soccer Federation, with Gulati, I am told, coming away with the impression that Platini would support USA if Gulati supported Europe. Since this was a one-to-one chat with no one present there was no record but my information from well informed UEFA sources was that is what took place between the two men. This was also something that Lord Triesman who had been chairman of the FA, was working on hoping to persuade Platini that Europe’s best chance of getting 2018 was England as England was the strongest of the Europeans.

And at this stage Platini was very worried that with all the bidding countries allowed to bid for both 2018 and 2022, and with six European countries bidding badly splitting the European vote, Europe might lose out on both 2018 and 2022.This would hardly have done much for the man who leads Europe as it would mean no World Cup in Europe for 20 years, Germany having held the last one in 2006.

The USA certainly used the South African World Cup to make its public presence felt. Before they left the States the entire bid team, including the US players, were at the White House, with Obama next to Clinton, rare in the US for an ex-President to be seen with a current one except on formal occasions like funerals.

Blatter was entertained at the White House by Obama. Then in South Africa Joe Biden, the vice President, had a good pow-wow with Blatter. Later on Clinton came to South Africa as did Henry Kissinger and Spike Lee, the Americans combining power and Hollywood glamour.

In many ways the USA’s pitch was similar to that of England: after all the excitement of South Africa, new continent and all that, come back to safety, security and well organised events that will also be very profitable. And the more problems the South Africans had, in transport, with reports of stewards walking away from the sites, the more attractive USA became compared to its 2022 opponents where Qatar was already making most of the running.

I concluded by saying, “At the end of the day the winners in 2018 and 2002 will depend on deals made after FIFA announces in October the voting procedure. And the Americans will do all the running on this.”

And as for Blatter supporting Russia that is hardly a secret. A month before the South African World Cup he was in the Gulf meeting Bin Hammam repairing a relationship that had gone sour. He was also as ever talking at a sports conference and when I asked him about England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup a smile came over his face and he said, “Listen it is the easiest bid in the world. They have the football already organised. They have everything. England has no problem in delivering a World Cup. The other bidders must convince the executive committee. England does not have to convince us.”

So, Mr President, I asked, did that make England a shoo-in for 2018?

We were sitting in an alcove in the main hall of Sport Accord in Dubai. It was 7.30am and the then 74 year old Swiss was getting ready to address this annual gathering of international sports administrators, which was being held in the Middle East for the first time. Blatter’s talk to the delegates was about the changing geography of world sports and how England had not reconciled itself to the fact that it had lost power and the Latins had taken over. Now, stirring his coffee, he explained to me the changing realities of world football.

With many non-European countries still bidding for 2018 the question in Dubai was would 2018 see the World Cup return to Europe? Blatter was convinced that the World Cup would return to Europe after South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014.

“I think for 2018 it will be a European candidate. But apart from England you have the bid from Spain and Portugal, the small but very pleasant bid of the Netherlands and Belgium, and big Russia also wants to come in.”

Then turning to England Blatter said, “We know England can stage the World Cup. But England winning [the right to stage it] – I am not so sure.”

Spain and Portugal, said Blatter, have stadiums to match England. As for Russia he said, with a note of awe, “I was there recently and what they presented is remarkable. Russia is a not a country but a continent and Russia has big plans to expand.”

Blatter would not say how he would vote but there was more than a hint that, for all the excellence of the English bid, Russia’s plans would prove attractive to his fellow members on the 24-man executive.

I suspect Blatter’s talks with Platini, Beckenbaeur and the other big boys of FIFA began with making sure 2018 came to Europe and then they agreed on where in Europe it should go and settled on Russia.

Here it is also worth looking back at what was the state of relationship between Blatter and Platini in May 2010.

In 2007 Blatter had helped Michel Platini get elected as President of UEFA. Now he revealed to me: “Platini and I do not have the same view about football. The basic difference is that he is very much linked with the European Union and I am of the opinion that the European Union has too much say in sport. If all the regional political organisations interfered in international sport like the EU, sports would be impossible.”

The Blatter-Platini differences centred round Blatter’s six plus five proposal – every team should field six home grown players. Platini did not support it because it violated the Treaty of Rome. Blatter told me it was necessary because, “The national identity of the clubs is a must. Also it will give all the clubs a better chance to compete. In Europe the majority of national associations are only providers of players to the rich clubs. This helps their national sides. They get players who are more experienced, better coached. This means weak European national teams do not exist now. Almost any European nation can beat everybody. But, in club football, clubs from more than half the associations have no chance of entering the so-called Champions League, not even the Europa League.”

Six plus five Blatter said will also correct an imbalance in world football.

“Europe is drawing away resources from all the other continents, Africa and South America, recruiting players at a very young age. We have taken the first step through the protection of the young players, no transfers until the age of 18. The ultimate solution would be implementation of the six plus five rule.”

But, while he disagreed with Platini on this, he praised him for tackling the enormous debts of European clubs through the financial fair play proposals. “It is insane if you spend more money than you have.”

Of course since then much water has flown under the bridges of the Seine, making Blatter and Platini sworn enemies. But when they did the deal over Russia that was not the case. This is not to say this was a good deal or at all justified and there could be potential ethical issues but to consider the deal without looking at the broader picture means rushing to conclusions that are both wrong and unhelpful.

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. His most recent books are The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World and Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose