Inside World Football
The contest to succeed Sepp Blatter could still produce surprises, not least we could have more candidates. Some Africans, aided by European advisers, are still trying to find a heavyweight African, Tokyo Sexwale is the name most often mentioned, to provide a realistic chance of the first black man occupying Blatter’s wonderful House of Football in Zurich. Prince Ali could still stand. But whatever the final list of candidates already the contour of the election is clear. This is that Michel Platini is the insider and Chung Mong-joon the outsider.
Now this may come as a surprise. After all, is Platini not the man promoted by Europeans to clean up football and provide the new, alternative, leadership that FIFA desperately needs? That Platini will be different to Blatter cannot be doubted. For a start he will discard the Imperial Presidency that Blatter has built up. The Swiss presents FIFA as the Vatican of sport and, despite not having any territory or Army, sees himself as the head of a state. Platini has no such pretensions and will not only be more softly spoken, and say less, but will be seen less.
Remember this is the player who, back in the 1980s, did not agree to move to Tottenham because the English game, unlike the Italian, did not have a break for Christmas. And this is a man, coming from France, whose cultural DNA says August is a month of holidays. Platini, whatever else he will be, will not be, like Blatter, perpetual motion and certainly not never ending sound bites.
But for all these differences with Blatter what Platini cannot shake off is the fact that he is the Dauphin who fell out with the King. Recall what Platini himself told us in May when he promoted Prince Ali as the ideal choice to replace Blatter. He described how he had worked with Blatter, then general secretary, to make 1998 a great World Cup success for France. How he had turned down Blatter’s suggestion that Platini should stand for Presidency in succession to João Havelange. How Platini persuaded Blatter that the Swiss should stand instead.
The subsequent story is well known but worth recapping. That Platini helped Blatter defeat Lennart Johansson in Paris just before the start of the 1998 World Cup. Four years later, with Johansson snapping at Blatter’s heels and making life difficult, the Swiss mounted a coup in Johansson’s own backyard in Gothenburg making sure that Platini got elected to the FIFA executive. In the process Platini defeated some of Johansson’s closest allies in UEFA. And then five years later Blatter helped Platini defeat Johansson and become UEFA President. It is since then and, in particular, the 2010 vote that decided on Qatar that has seen the Dauphin fall out with his King.
Part of the reason, or at least this is how the Blatter camp would see it, is that Platini, to quote a phrase much used by European colonial rulers, “has gone native”. For the last 40 years the story of world football has been the perpetual struggle between FIFA and UEFA with the Europeans feeling that the world’s most powerful football confederation does not control the world game. This may seem odd given that Blatter is Swiss and as European as they come, but this reflects the fact that both under Havelange and Blatter the non-European confederations have occupied a much more prominent place in world football politics than ever before. The result has been UEFA has been pushed into concentrating on club football which it dominates.
But the real split came in 2010 when Qatar was chosen. I have always believed that Blatter did not vote for Qatar. He voted for Russia 2018 which he all but said he was going to when he spoke to me some months before the vote. But I believe he wanted USA for 2020 which in his view would have made a nice pairing of two countries, who for most of the post-war world were the only two superpowers and deadly Cold War enemies, now coming together as hosts of successive World Cups. That would have given Blatter, who always projects football as going where politicians cannot, immense pleasure, one he would have seen as forming a fitting swan song to his Presidency.
Platini did not see it that way and so great was his break with Blatter that he started doing things which no high level FIFA executive has ever done before. So he is the only FIFA executive member to reveal that he voted for Qatar. I recall being in Monte Carlo two years ago when surrounded by a group of journalists he spoke about his vote for Qatar. This was the usual meeting with Platini over breakfast just before UEFA’s gala occasion: the draw for the Champions League followed by a glittering dinner. As he mingled with the press in a five star hotel, against the backdrop of luxurious yachts anchored in the harbour, he spoke very frankly of how even as he voted for Qatar he told them that they should hold the event in winter. To quote Platini: “I said to the people of Qatar, ‘Yes I will vote for you but I will do my utmost to have the Cup played in winter because you cannot have supporters, journalists, players going down there playing under temperature of 50 degrees.'”
And to those who said this made the initial vote unfair since Qatar won on the basis that it would hold the tournament in the summer Platini’s response was: “I did not know the rules. Do you think there are rules for everybody? Nobody cares about the rules. I vote for what I want.”
Indeed Platini took credit for being the only one to disclose that he had voted for Qatar as if this had put him on a higher moral plane. “I was always transparent.”
That meeting with the journalists also saw him being critical of Blatter in the way he ran the FIFA executive. The two had disagreed about using technology in football, in particular goal line technology, which is now official FIFA policy but something Platini has been very opposed to. Platini felt that Blatter did not always disclose his dealings with IFAB, the international body responsible for the rules, to the executive. Then there was talk of Platini standing for the Presidency, remember Blatter had said he would retire, and looking back it is clear those were the first shots against Blatter. But having been the Dauphin he would never raise his sword against the King and has only now emerged to claim the throne because the King is stepping down.
However, this is not how Chung Mong-joon sees himself. Observe his talk of how FIFA has been run for 40 years. That could not be more significant. That means he is not only targeting Blatter but also his mentor Havelange whose election as President in 1974 changed FIFA for ever. Chung had crossed swords with Havelange, complained that there was no transparency or democracy in FIFA and also, of course, inflicted a heavy defeat on Havelange. This was over which nation should host 2002.
Havelange was committed to Japan but when it came to the vote it was clear South Korea would win. Havelange could not bear to be defeated in the executive. He decided there would not be a vote but the two countries would jointly host, the first and only time this has happened and which caused no end of problems for FIFA.
The South Koreans always made sure they ranked ahead of Japan in the World Cup. Indeed if anyone ever wrote about the Japan-Korea World Cup they received angry letters from the South Korean Embassy, as I discovered to my cost, saying it was the Korea-Japan World Cup. And before the opening game in Seoul Chung reminded everyone of Japanese cruelty during its occupation of Korea at the beginning of the 20th century – as did many papers in Seoul – and even wrote a book about the Japan-Korea past. Indeed during 2002 he was a central player in trying to remove Blatter from the Presidency, supported by UEFA while Platini was the man beside Blatter and helped him beat Issa Hayatou. That election was held in Seoul just before the World Cup and I remember sitting with Chung and discussing FIFA’s financial affairs – this was in the wake of the ISL scandal – and how Blatter had managed or, as Chung saw it, mismanaged FIFA. So while like Platini, Chung has also served in FIFA, indeed even longer, he is no Dauphin. This was always unlikely given his background but also because he has always seen the FIFA Havelange and Blatter created as something to oppose not support.
This is not to present Chung as a white knight. He has his own establishment but it is very different to that of Platini. The Frenchman’s fight with Blatter is an internal revolt, Chung is the external enemy. And while Platini is seen as the front runner I would caution those who say Platini will win. The South Koreans have proved themselves ruthless when it comes to international sports politics and you only have to see how Pyeongchang, a totally unknown winter resort, very nearly beat Vancouver for the 2010 Games and then having lost narrowly made sure it won 2018.
Chung may not win but the outsider will provide a tough fight to the Dauphin and while Blatter may bleat that the Korean is showing disrespect his style will be to give it with both barrels to the Havelange-Blatter regime which he has always opposed.