Michel D’Hooghe, for all his quarter of a century on the FIFA executive, has never courted publicity, unlike his soundbite-savvy president Sepp Blatter. But now the 66-year-old retired Belgian doctor, who has shaped FIFA’s medical department and is proud of their doping controls, is upset about the slur on his reputation.
We are in Monaco and D’Hooghe, having just emerged from a swim at his hotel, wants to talk about a painting he received from the Russians before his fellow executive members chose them as hosts for the 2018 World Cup.
The implication by a Sunday newspaper was that this was yet another case of vote buying in a world body which seem to produce corruption scandals almost every day. Before the Belgian explains for the first time why the inference is false, he recounts a story of an earlier bid involving Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister in 2000, and Nelson Mandela.
The vote to decide the 2006 World Cup hosts is about to begin. England, South Africa, Germany and Morocco are all bidding and, as the voting papers are distributed, D’Hooghe’s mobile phone rings. The caller is Verhofstadt, who tells him that he has had Mandela on the phone that morning asking for Belgium’s support. Verhofstadt reminds D’Hooghe that Belgium has strong economic and commercial links with South Africa and that he would like him to vote for the rainbow nation.
“I said,” recalls D’Hooghe, “Now you tell me. It’s a bit late. In any case, all the European FIFA executive members met last night and agreed to support Germany.”
For D’Hooghe, this illustrates that he cannot be influenced, let alone bought. And, turning to the story about the Russian painting, he says: “It is absolutely not true that I received some Russian art in exchange for my promise to vote for Russia.
“First of all, I never voted for Russia. In both rounds, I supported the Belgium/Holland bid. Secondly, I never promised I would vote for Russia.
“And, thirdly, I did not receive any valuable Russian art. I had refused to visit Russia and that is why [former Soviet Union manager turned 2018 lobbyist] Vyacheslav Koloskov came to my home town of Bruges.
“Ever since I got on the executive in 1988 I have never visited a bidding country. When you accept such invitations you are pampered. I also refused England’s invitations.
“I have known Koloskov for many years, he was on the executive with me. He presented Russia’s candidature, I presented ours and it was a very friendly talk. At the end, he gave me a parcel saying this is a personal gift from his wife and him to my wife and me.
“Our wives are born the same month of the same year, they are close friends. So what am I to do, not take it?
“I come home, open the package and see there’s a little painting. I ask my secretary, ‘Can you take it?’ She looks at it, makes a face, and says, ‘I will if you have nothing better for me.’
“I asked a Russian art expert in Bruges to come and see it and he started laughing and said, ‘This is worth absolutely nothing.’ So I put it in my attic where I have many souvenirs. Come to Bruges and I will show you.”
However, he only informed FIFA of the gift after the story appeared and then had another expert valuation.
“The expert said, ‘No financial, no material value, unknown painter, it is worth nothing.’”
However, he is not suing the Sunday Times. “And then we are in court for three years paying lawyers,” he argues. “No, the best thing is to destroy the painting.”
D’Hooghe agrees that FIFA’s corruption scandal has done much to destroy FIFA’s reputation. Since last October four executive members – Reynald Temarii, Amos Adamu, Mohammed bin Hammam and Jack Warner – have left in shame. “It is true these are bad days for FIFA,” admits D’Hooghe.
The Belgian sat next to Bin Hammam for years at FIFA executive meetings – “People say ‘Oh you must know that this guy was corrupt.’ No, excuse me, he will not come to tell me.”
As for Temarii and Adamu, exposed by the Sunday Times investigation into World Cup vote buying, D’Hooghe adds: “They may have been fellow committee members but I don’t know them any better than I know you!”
D’Hooghe is remarkably confident that, when the FIFA executive meets next month, Blatter will come up with plans that show the world body can be reformed. “He has to present definite changes, certainly go for complete transparency, stricter control of everything. Then we will have to judge if it goes far enough. He will do it.”
The world may not share the Belgian’s faith in Blatter but D’Hooghe’s confidence stems from this being the Swiss’s last term. “He is intelligent enough to know that he can now make the most of these four years to do the job.”
Then, contrasting Blatter with his fellow Belgian, Jacques Rogge, who heads the International Olympic Committee, D’Hooghe says: “Jacques is one of my best friends, we did our medical specialisation together and played in the same football team. But he tries to keep his distance, to be the supervising person. Sepp is more the guy who tries to be in the middle of the problems.”
What may force Blatter to reform, reveals D’ Hooghe, is the heat on the Fifa boss from UEFA. He adds: “UEFA people are expecting something.
The pressure to reform is more from UEFA than any other confederation. It is again a matter of culture.”
He is also quick to deny that Blatter influenced the 2018 decision against England. The bid team have always believed that, just before the vote took place, Blatter warned his executive about the English media.
The result – England got only two votes. “No. He did not say anything. It was like the Papal conclave in Rome, very quiet. We had to give up our mobile telephones at the entrance.”
But, for all his talk of the cultural bonds linking England and Belgium, this country is not high in D’Hooghe’s estimation. He has not read the highly critical report on FIFA’s World Cup bidding process by the House of Commons Select Committee.
As for the allegations against his fellow executive members by Lord Triesman, the former Football Association chairman, the Belgian says wearily: “Yes, I know Lord Triesman. I have learned one thing in life – never judge people if you don’t know 100 per cent of the facts.”
Nor was D’Hooghe impressed that at June’s FIFA Congress England wanted the presidential elections to be postponed in the light of the corruption scandals and with Blatter the only candidate. He adds: “Let’s say, generally, it was not very much appreciated. England still think they are the centre of the world. They are not any more.”
D’Hooghe will not reveal how he voted on the 2022 bid which saw Qatar win but says the decision is in line with the strategy that FIFA followed since 2002, going to parts of the world where the World Cup has never been.
The thought does make him smile and he adds: “That’s why now I think in 2026 perhaps we have to go to the moon!”