Michel D’Hooghe, the long standing FIFA executive member, should have every reason to feel happy. The man who chaired the Belgian football federation for many years, and led the country’s joint bid with the Netherlands for the 2018 World Cup, will travel to Brazil confident that this is the best Belgium side for more than a quarter of a century. “We have,” he tells me “the best generation after the generation of 86,” the one whose deeds in Mexico are still talked about in his country. And he readily thanks the Premier League for giving some of his country’s top players, the likes of Eden Hazard, Jan Vertoghen, Mousa Dembélé, a chance to parade their skills. Yet as our conversation develops it emerges that D’Hooghe is actually very angry and his anger is directed at another famous British institution.
I am speaking to him just as he has come back from Kazakhstan, where he had been attending a UEFA executive committee meeting. Our talk is delayed by an hour and he quickly says sorry, “I apologise for keeping you waiting. I was at my hairdresser. I came home from Kazakhstan and my wife said, ‘You are not to be looked at. Go quickly to your hairdresser.'”
It is after this jocular reference that I realise why D’Hooghe is so angry and who his anger is directed at. It is at the British media for the way it has reacted to UEFA’s decision to have a new Nations League which will replace friendly matches and provide four extra spots for the 2020 European championships. The English press has always found it difficult to accept sporting changes and not just in football. But even by such standards to call Michael Platini, UEFA President, an idiot and not just any old idiot but “The Unstoppable Idiot”, as Martin Samuel did in the Daily Mail last Friday, was taking public discourse to a level that it has rarely reached before.
And it is when I put the Daily Mail opinion to D’Hooghe that this normally very even tempered man explodes. “Specialists of the Daily Mail who treat Platini as an idiot must then treat the 54 nations of Europe as idiots. This was a large, a very large, consultation of all the European national associations. So this was not the idea of Michel Platini. This was an idea that emerged some months ago and was studied by a commission. Then the 54 national associations supported it. It is a real shame they treat Michel Platini as an idiot. How can they call Platini an idiot? Have they been to meetings with Platini? Did they know that Platini himself took such a decision? As I have told you it was a unanimous decision of 54 countries. So don’t you find it a scandal they should say that? I think it is a real scandal. But then I am not surprised by the British press.”
However, even if you do not adopt Samuel’s strident tones, there are serious questions to be asked about the wisdom of expanding the 16-team Euros into a 24-team competition. This means allowing minnows easy passage into what has generally been regarded as the best international football tournament. And it raises the natural suspicion that this is being done not to improve the football on the field of play but for wider football political reasons: perhaps to win more votes and shore up support during elections?
But D’Hooghe will not entertain that there is any merit in such thoughts and presents a very robust defence of expanding the Euros to 24.
“Do you really think,” he asks me, “that there is such a big difference in quality between team No 17 and team No 24? That is really a bit pretentious of the guys who think that. I would say in Europe we have a situation where close to 30 teams can be competitive on a high level. That is why I say it would be a good thing to expand the Euros to 24 teams. I would not say all 30 teams are equal to Spain. But then England is not the equal of Spain. 30 teams can play honourably against Spain even without having many chances to win. And play football at a high level.”
For D’Hooghe the expansion of the Euros is part of the essential evolution of the game. Not just in Europe but all over the world.
“The time,” he tells me “of the World Cup going from the Americas to Europe and back to the Americas every four years is over [This is what happened from the start of the tournament in 1930 to 2002, when it went to Asia for the first time]. It is the logic of the evolution of the world and the evolution of football. I hope in the long term it will go to China and India. I accept it means Belgium may never have the World Cup. I could accept that as I am modest man and I live in a modest, small, little country.”
D’Hooghe can also point to the fact that football can accept change and his own profession of medicine proves that. Back in 1974, when he started his career as a young doctor, football neither had any awareness, nor much interest, in medical science. Yet we are speaking shortly after he has attended a Congress in Milan where there were 2, 200 medical doctors with, as he puts it, “concentrated interest in football. I was emotional. Football medicine is fantastic.”
The chairman of FIFA’s Medical Commission is well aware that the World Cup in Brazil will have much use for medical expertise. This is because the standard of the competition will depend on how fit the players are and whether they have arrived in Samba land fully recovered from a long, hard season. “I don’t know,” says D’Hooghe, “whether Brazil will be the World Cup of fatigue. That is what Beckenbaeur called the World Cup in Japan and Korea but that was also more because of the atmospheric conditions. It depends on how the players will be prepared for the World Cup. If they arrive in a very bad state, and they don’t take care to have a good recuperation period, then it could be a World Cup of fatigue. But I hope with modern techniques and modern medical methods that we will have a good World Cup. I hope we will have good matches.”
This does mean that given we have not had good World Cup matches, let alone great ones, since France 1998, there is a lot riding on Brazil.
But even if the football is good D’Hooghe is all too aware that the atmosphere has been soured by the protests that marked last year’s Confederation Cup and is almost certain to resurface at the World Cup. The protestors anger maybe directed at the billions being spent on stadia and sports facilities but for D’ Hooghe it shows how the Brazilians just do not understand why the World Cup is taking place in their country.
“It was not FIFA that decided to go to Brazil. It was Brazil sitting on its knees asking to hold the World Cup, it was Brazil sitting on its knees asking to organise the Olympics. I was in Brazil when Brazil was designated as the organisers of the Olympic Games. It was an incredible fiesta. We have the feeling in FIFA that we were invited by Brazil to go to the World Cup. I was very surprised by what I saw during the Confederation Cup. It is completely contrary to the normal attitude. Normally when you have the World Cup you provide great hospitality to the people who are coming. You are happy that they’re there. You’re happy they responded positively to your invitation. I have nowadays the feeling that Brazil having invited us very cordially to their country treat us very badly, why is that?”
But could this not be because FIFA, for whom the World Cup is their only profitable venture, make exorbitant demands of host countries? Many in South Africa felt that by hosting the World Cup they had in fact been invaded by a country called FIFA. But when I make this point D’Hooghe laughs and says, “Invasion by FIFA? Why did Brazil agree to organise it? They knew the conditions before they submitted their candidature.”
What D’Hooghe is prepared to concede is that the problems the World Cup has generated in Brazil should prompt a rethink about the staging of such mega events. “World Cups are moments of importance for a country. When I was in Cape Town during the South African World Cup I had lunch with the Lord Mayor and he said to me, ‘This World Cup takes my city and the Cape 20 years forward.’ He thought of his new airport, new hotels and new highways. This is absolutely a positive aspect about hosting the World Cup. Where we have to be careful is we have to take care about what happens after the World Cup and after the Olympic Games. That we do not build infrastructure for which we have no more use afterwards. This has been the case in World Cups and has also been the case in many Olympic Games. For future World Cups and Olympics the absolute condition must be that if we organise something it must have a future after the organisation of the event.”
That would be a huge change and it is a change that goes beyond football and involves politicians. And such policy U-turns are not easy to agree let alone implement. By comparison football changes, even the creation of this new Nations League, is very small beer indeed.