Evening Standard

Sepp Blatter has much to be upset about. The travel chaos caused by volcanic ash has disrupted his plans, he does not like the constant criticism he receives from the British media and he fails to understand why the English cannot get used to the fact they no longer run world sport.

But ask him about England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup and a smile comes over the face of the most powerful man in football.

“Listen, it is the easiest bid in the world,” says FIFA’s president. “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.”

We are sitting in an alcove in the main hall of Sport Accord in Dubai. It is 7.30am and the 74-year-old Swiss is getting ready to address this annual gathering of international sports administrators, which is being held in the Middle East for the first time.

Blatter’s talk to the delegates is about the changing geography of world sport. Now, stirring his coffee, he explains the changing realities of world football.

In December, Blatter will preside over the FIFA executive meeting to decide the hosts for 2018. And, although the bidders include the United States, Australia and Japan, he is convinced the World Cup will return to Europe after South Africa and Brazil.

“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.”

The European competition is England’s main worry. As Blatter puts it: “We know England can stage the World Cup. But England winning [the right to stage it] — I am not so sure.”

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

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

There has been talk that England could do a deal with the US, help Americans get 2022 in return for American help to win 2018. But Blatter cautions: “I think it is not easy to make deals and there are different interests.”

So what advice would he give Lord Triesman, the Football Association chairman? Blatter’s answer shows that, for all Triesman’s domestic problems, which have included calls for him to step aside as 2018 bid leader, in Blatter he has a friend. “I think he is clever enough and the English are gentlemen when he is present. I think he gives a good personal image of the English bid.”

This marks a sea change in relations between FIFA and the FA. Just before the 2002 World Cup Adam Crozier, then FA chief executive, publicly called for Blatter’s removal following allegations of financial irregularities. Blatter won re-election, survived the allegations and soon Crozier was out of the FA. Triesman has clearly seen building bridges with Blatter as paramount to any successful World Cup bid.

Blatter wishes he could build similar bridges with the British media. “I am always being criticised. Even when they agree and say, This is a good idea of this president,’ they add, but he had been under pressure on this or that.’ What does that mean? That means the people are looking backward not forward.”

For Blatter this failure to look forward is exemplified by the persistent criticism of the World Cup going to South Africa. “The centre of communications, definitely the print media, is London. England are candidates for 2018, they have the Olympic Games in 2012, so the media says why the hell should we go to Africa? The media is focused on the World Cups always being played in the big footballing countries. There is a kind of envy that we could do it better in Europe. I think it is old world prejudice.”

The British are not the only critics. The Germans have also been vocal but Blatter dismisses this, saying: “In Germany, the media started getting players or former players to say it is not secure.”

This led to the German parliament sending a delegation to South Africa and it concluded the country was secure.

“So now nobody speaks about security, they speak about tickets, about empty stadiums, the ambience or winter,” says Blatter.

“Let me tell you, winter in Argentina in 1978 was very cold. I remember it was my first World Cup.”

Nor is Blatter bothered by South Africa being eliminated early, “So what?,” he thunders. “The World Cup exists not because the host team are good or not good, it exists because it is the most important sports event in the world.”

Blatter accepts it is very difficult for an African country to win but would like one in the semi-final, beating Cameroon’s achievement in reaching the last eight at Italia 90. And, while he is impressed by England’s strength, he refuses to make predictions.

“Most of the teams will play a little bit more attacking football than four years ago,” he says. “This is because seven of the 10 stadia are at an altitude of more than 1000 metres. The game will be quicker and it will be good football. And the World Cup delivered by Africans will be a success.”

One reason why British media criticism gets under Blatter’s skin is he feels it is personal “They see South Africa as my project. There is a bit of jealousy.”

And, with that, he launches into his theme that the British, having lost the control of world sport, have not found a role. “Sports organisation started in Great Britain, especially in England. The leaders of sport were all British: Lord Killanin, Lord Exeter, president of the IAAF, in football Sir Stanley Rous. All these were great men of England.”

With that he spread his hands out indicating the status of these men. “You could not imagine then that one day the leadership of sport would change to Latins.”

So, is there English resentment?

“Resentment, I do not know, envy and jealously, yes.”

Many of Blatter’s critics would argue that his style of operation has played a big part in shaping his image.

As a child, he loved to be on the stage. In his 35 years in FIFA, first as general secretary and the last 12 as president, he has been the relentless football show man. His critics argue he has made the job very political, jetting round the world making deals, some of which have been questioned on various grounds including financial.

His journey to Dubai illustrated that. He stopped off in Qatar, which is bidding for 2022. Mohammed Bin Hammam, a fellow executive member and president of the Asian Football Federation, had long been a staunch ally. But they have since fallen out with talk Bin Hammam may challenge Blatter in next year’s presidential elections.

During his Qatar stopover Blatter met Hammam who said he would not stand. Blatter then made encouraging noises about how Qatar should stage the World Cup. The common assumption was that a deal had been struck.

Blatter dismisses his problems with Hammam as “based on a big misunderstanding”. As for the presidential elections, he affects a lofty disdain.

“I am not worried about them. My concern is to deliver the World Cup in South Africa and then in December the decisions for the World Cups for 2018 and 2022. I don’t need to campaign. I have spent 35 years in FIFA. Either they want me or they don’t want me.”

But if Bin Hammam is back in the fold Blatter admits he has major problems with another former ally. Four years ago, Blatter helped Michel Platini get elected as president of UEFA. Now he reveals: “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 centre on Blatter’s six plus five proposal — every team should field six homegrown players. Platini will not support it because it violates the Treaty of Rome. Blatter says it is necessary.

“The national identity of the clubs is a must,” he argues. “Also, it will give all the clubs a better chance to compete.

“In Europe, the majority of national associations only provide 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.”

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

Blatter has no doubts that the problems highlighted this season at English clubs are because of the English ownership structure. “Things at Portsmouth, Manchester United and Liverpool have gone wrong because they do not have members as owners. You take two of Spain’s big clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. They have over 100,000 members. Or take how the professional clubs are organised in Germany — 51 per cent of a club must be owned by Germans or local people.”

Blatter’s advice to the English is to follow the German model. “It is not directly under the control of the state. Football should control itself.”

Blatter, himself, shows no sign of relinquishing control over the game. South Africa may or may not be a success, England may or may not win 2018, but Blatter has every intention of going on and on.


Share |



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo