Now you may think Michel Platini can look after himself and does not need the help of others, certainly not journalists like me, who in terms of footballing skills, would not be entitled to carry his boots let alone lace them. But he might do well to consider that he needs to learn how to present his ideas better and, what is more, make sure his announcements have been preceded by proper debate so that the thinking football public, that is the only one he can influence, does not instinctively rubbish his proposals. If Platini is to be a politician he needs to learn the art of politics where politicians, or at least the experienced ones, prepare their audience for their grand ideas so well that when a new policy decision is announced the public react as if they knew this was always on the cards.
Take for instance the two great ideas Platini has come up with in his Presidency. That future Euros should not be staged in one country, or jointly as Euro 2012 was, but have matches played in various countries with a final in one country which would effectively be the home of the tournament. In that sense the Euros would become something like the FA Cup whose final venue Wembley has always been considered the home of the Cup. The only difference would be every Euros would see a new Wembley emerge.
His other great idea is that future Euros should have not just 16 but 24 teams.
Both of his ideas have met with a response almost identical to the one Kelvin McKenzie, then editor of the Sun, had when John Major contacted him on that dramatic day in 1992 when Major’s government raised interest rates three times in one day. As McKenzie himself tells the story when Major rang to ask him how he would handle the news the editor of the Sun said, “I have a bucket full of shit next to my desk Prime Minister and I shall pour it all over the story.” Major is said to have responded, “Oh, Kelvin, you are such a funny man.”
Now in Major’s case events had overtaken his government and, as we know, he never recovered. In Platini’s case it is the exact opposite. He wants to initiate change so that events do not overwhelm him.
And both his great ideas, despite the scorn they have generated in the media, generally the British media, deserve some serious examination.
It is clear that the idea of having one country stage a football tournament is one that needs to be re-examined. It is worth mentioning that the idea of such a tournament is relatively new. It started in the 30s when governments were discovering how best they could exploit football. So the first World Cup was sponsored by the government of Uruguay to celebrate the centenary of the adoption of its constitution. This was followed by dictatorships, most notably that of Benito Mussolini in Italy, realising how useful World Cups could be to promote their regimes.
In the decades since the Second World War the huge football tournaments that have been staged have been a combination of nationalism and commercialism. However as the World Cup in Brazil shows, this concept may be running out of steam. FIFA went there thinking Brazil would be the safest of bets, an emerging country keen to make its mark in the world, and a country synonymous with the game. However as the public have begun to question the merits of spending so much money just building stadiums FIFA is extremely worried that its precious World Cup may return from this journey to the home of football badly scarred.
So having a tournament that does not make quite such huge demands on the financial resources of one country makes sense. Also by taking the matches around more countries can become part of the tournament. True, it gives the tournament a touch of a travelling circus but things have to evolve. Before Jules Rimet had the idea of a World Cup, following the success of the 1924 Olympic football tournament, the idea of such a stand-alone competition had not entered anybody’s head. It is still possible to stage mega events in one country but for that you would have to be Vladimir Putin ready to spend $50 billion and create two artificial cities, as he did for the Sochi Winter Olympics. But most countries are not quite so rich or so politically driven. So nearly a century after Rimet came up with his plan, and with so much that has changed in the world since, why should football not re-examine the Frenchman’s idea?
This also applies to the proposal to have 24 teams in the Euros. The fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of communism has been endlessly analysed in terms of its impact on the wider political world. Suddenly new countries crawled out from the freezer that was the old Soviet Union blinking uncertainly in the sunshine. As recent events have shown some like Ukraine, which hosted Euro2012, are again going through the awful pangs that such sudden re-birth can lead to. Against such a background sports must take a back seat but communism’s demise also impacted hugely on European sport.
In a sense the decision to expand to 24 teams is a consequence of that. New countries want a place at the top table and as they also have a vote in the one country one vote system that we have they cannot be kept out. That, if you like, is the price of democracy.
And it is worth recalling that democracy has evolved over the years. We in Britain may be proud of living in the world’s oldest democracy but we did not start with everyone being equal, let alone having the right to vote. One person one vote did not come to this country until 1945.
Platini’s problems in dealing with these issues is that as far as the economics of the game are concerned the old world order is still intact. England, Germany, Spain, Italy and, to a certain extent, France provide much of the money and effectively control the running of the game. The new countries of Europe may desire to be at the top table but they do not have the money to afford the back tie suits these dinners demand. It is the richer countries who have to go to Moss Bros to get them the suits they need.
And as the old saying goes those with the purse pull the strings.
In other sports money power is changing and so are the sports. In cricket, for instance, with India providing 87% of world cricket’s income it is India, not the old powers England and Australia, that calls the shots.
The recent Sochi Winter Games suggested that the financial dominance the US has exercised over the Olympic Games since Los Angles in 1984 may be ending. Russia could emerge as a major financier using the economic muscle of its many enterprises, the Korean and Chinese companies are already part of the Olympic financial family.
But given that Eastern Europe will not have, at least not for many years, the economic power to challenge the hegemony that Western Europe has in football, how do you get change?
This is what Platini is wrestling with. Where he has gone wrong is not in having new ideas but not preparing the ground for them. To do that he needs to initiate a Europe-wide debate on the future course for European football. Without such debate his pronouncements appear like bolts from a clear sky and, not surprisingly, are met with scorn and anger. It also does not help that when he first got elected in 2007 he presented himself as the romantic who wanted to bring back the old European Cup that he had played in. Then in the early rounds fancied teams went to play in the backwaters of Europe and risked elimination. Platini has since discovered that it is not possible to turn the clock back but he has never explained why his idea did not work. Without such an explanation Platini gives the impression that his years in Nyon has converted him from a romantic to a cold hearted realist who accepts the first expedient idea that comes his way.
I have seen enough of Platini to remain convinced that he is still a romantic and admire his desire to innovate. But if he is to carry conviction he first needs to have a conversation with the football world about how the world has changed and why European football needs to change if it is to survive, let alone prosper. If he engages in such a conversation he may discover the football world does not always have its head buried in the sand.