Why is it impossible to decide who is the Lionel Messi of football’s men in suits?

Forget the argument about whether Lionel Messi is the greatest player. That argument can never be resolved as it depends on a variety of factors, many of them intensely subjective.

For instance, people of my generation who were brought up on the greatness of Pele will continue to believe that while Messi is a wonderful player, even a great player, he can never dethrone Pele from his throne and be proclaimed king. Similarly, those who missed Pele and his wonderful World Cup deeds, but were introduced to football through the magic of Maradona will always believe that Messi’s fellow Argentinean is the greatest. The argument is so bedevilled by the memories we carry, and the difficulties of comparing the different ages of football, that in many ways it is doomed never to be resolved.

But if working out the greatest among those who perform with their shorts on is impossible what about football’s men in suits, I say men because despite all the talk it is still men who run the game. Surely here we can point to one figure in a suit and proclaim him the greatest.

But even for suits it is not quite so simple. That is because there are all sorts of men in suits and their functions are very different and this is, inevitably, reflected in the powers they exercise.

For many people Sepp Blatter, as President of FIFA, is naturally the most powerful man in football. In the sense that he is always ready to pontificate about the game it would be fair to say he is the most prominent. But it would be absurd to say that he is football’s equivalent of President Barack Obama. The American President has his detractors and does not enjoy unchallenged power even in his homeland, hobbled by a Congress where his Republican enemies are strong. Nevertheless, Obama can exercise the sort of control over his administration that Blatter does not have over FIFA’s machinery. Indeed Blatter has confessed as much when saying that members of his executive are elected by the various federations so he is working with a cabinet which is not answerable to him. He cannot sack any of them and would have to plot with the factions in the various federations to get rid of an executive member he did not want.

Not that Blatter is incapable of that. Indeed after his first term, when he was faced with the implacable hostility of UEFA smarting from the fact that Blatter had defeated their man Lennart Johansson, Blatter set about to do just that. This was what led to the election of Michel Platini to the FIFA executive and defeat of Johansson’s stalwarts like the Norwegian Per Omdal.

But Blatter finds it difficult to construct lasting alliances. Witness how his relationship with Platini has soured. So much so that while Blatter has finally been convinced that goal line technology should come Platini remains opposed. The result is that this overdue reform will form no part of matches controlled by UEFA.

Indeed the argument over goal line technology shows the limits of a FIFA President’s powers. Law changes in football have to be approved by the International Football Association Board, an organisation that finds decision making even more difficult than the UN Security Council. And just as the Security Council reflects the immediate post war world and can no longer claim to represent the modern world, India, Germany, Japan and Brazil are not members, so does IFAB. Besides FIFA its members are the four home nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This extremely odd membership came about as a result of the historic compromise that brought the British nations back to FIFA after the war.

This may explain why, to Platini’s fury, Blatter never discusses IFAB issues at his executive nor tells them much about what happens there. He just goes and either agrees or disagrees. This proved an extremely useful tactic when it came to introducing goal line technology for had it been debated in the executive Platini would have tried hard to squash the idea.

But what about the rich men who own football clubs? There can be little doubt that men like Roman Abramovich have had enormous influence on football, not only in the English game but in the international arena. I say this not merely because of the money Abramovich has used to transform Chelsea from a club that promised much but rarely delivered, to one of the powerhouses in English football, the only one proving a persistent threat to Manchester United. There is also the fact that he has served as a template to other rich men who see football as an entertaining toy, the likes of Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City. And such is the impact of Abramovich that it is no exaggeration to say that UEFA’s financial fair play rules were inspired by Abramovich’s actions. But powerful as Abramovich and Mansour are they are faceless men. They do not talk, do not explain why they are doing what they are doing or what their objectives are. If we are to crown Abramovich as king of football then he cannot be seen as football’s equivalent of Peter the Great but one of those dowager Chinese Empresses who pulled the strings from behind the imperial throne but were never seen in public.

Now somebody like Richard Scudamore is seen in public, although like the shrewd man he is he controls his public appearances. His success as chief executive of the Premier League over the last decade and a half cannot be doubted. But to see him as the most powerful man in football is an argument difficult to sustain. At the end of the day he is a paid employee, however well paid. He is answerable to 20 club chairmen and while he can and does make sure the club chairmen do what he wants to do, as his predecessor Peter Leaver found out, they are bosses and can always pull the rug. Such a scenario is impossible to see in the case of Scudamore but he has had his problems, think of the 39th game, and to make him the most powerful man in football is to confuse the ability to make money with executive decision making power. In that sense he has much less power to change, or even influence, football than Blatter or indeed Abramovich.

And this is the problem with the men in suits. Football has become a business yet unlike other business there is no leader who soars over the others. Politics has Obama, business has Warren Buffet whose words can move markets. Football has lots of voices but no one whose pronouncements can change things. Or certainly not very quickly.

In that sense it is easier to decide who is the greatest player than agree who is the most powerful man in a suit running the world game.


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