Sometime later this month Michel Platini will tell his fellow UEFA bigwigs, gathered in in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s capital of charm, whether he wants to be President of FIFA. For years the Frenchman has insisted he would never enter a contest against Sepp Blatter. And until recently the confident expectation was that he would not have to. After all, has not Blatter declared that he will not stand again, once his present term finishes.
So it should be all neat and tidy. In 2015 Blatter finally leaves FIFA House and Platini, the man who Blatter had brought into football politics, helped make head of European football, stands, wins easily and then makes the short journey from Nyon to Zurich to be crowned king.
But the world, let alone the football world shaped, and some may say manipulated, by Blatter is not that simple. For a start Blatter may decide he wants another term. Although Blatter has not mentioned it I suspect the Swiss quite likes the idea of emulating his mentor Joao Havelange, who served 24 years.
The scenario for this goes as follows: FIFA follow the IOC example and allows the President to have a first term of eight years and a second term of four, instead of the present four years. Once this change is made, possibly next year, Blatter decides that he will not retire in 2015 but run again. This means he has an eight year term which takes him to 2023.
Yes, he will be quite an old man, well into his 90s but he is fit and we all know how old Chinese leaders can be. So why should the boss of world football not follow their example? What is more this will mean Blatter will have served a year longer than Havelange. And even more crucially, and this will tickle Blatter who is so aware of the need to leave a legacy, as he finally leaves FIFA House he can claim to be the greatest sport leader in history. The claim would be based on the fact that during the quarter of century of his Presidency FIFA had gone to places it had never been before. Indeed by then it would be so far ahead of the Olympic movement that it would seem football is on another planet.
By then not only will the World Cup have been to Africa but also to the Muslim world. And it is worth emphasising that given the decision to take the 2020 Olympics back to Tokyo there is no chance that by 2023 the Olympics will have been staged in either Africa or a Muslim country.
So where does this leave Platini? He may have come into UEFA as Blatter’s man but now after six years there he is very much his own man. Indeed there is now every sign that the two men are not the bosom buddies they once were. I was made very aware of this a couple of weeks ago when Platini held his usual meetings with the press during the launch of the European club season, the draw for the Champions League and Europa League and the choice of the European Player of the Year. And just as this mega launch in Monaco, which started in 1998, follows a very traditional pattern so Platini has established his own media tradition.
He holds a press conference on the morning after a gala party celebrating the launch of the season. Then following the press conference, where some important announcement is made – this year’s was about the wonder of Financial Fair Play – Platini moves to the terrace of a plush Monaco hotel. There, while breakfast is served, he mingles with the press. It is a very skilfully choreographed event, something an opera star or a ballet dancer would be proud off.
Given there are many European journalists they tend to congregate in their own respective linguistic, or if you like, national groups, the French, the Italian, the English. As they partake of the lovely croissants and sip coffee Platini appears amidst them. And while he is accompanied by a minder from UEFA’s press office, ready at hand to translate into French, Platini actually speaks in the language of the journalists, English to the British press and so on. And that is where asking him a question in English I realised the gulf between Platini and his once close ally Blatter.
The question was about hosting the 2022 Qatar World Cup in winter. Platini has always been in favour. Now Blatter, having opposed such an idea, has come out in favour, triggering all the media flurry. The issue is set to be debated by the FIFA executive. So I asked Platini whether Blatter had consulted him before making this dramatic announcement, after all its impact on Europe will be colossal. Platini smiled and said, “I did not know Mr Blatter wanted to change. He was going on his holidays. Mr Blatter when he speaks to the press, he doesn’t ask me. You know that.”
So given the two men are not close the question is does Platini’s previous statement he will not contest against Blatter still hold?
Of course, if Blatter still remains true to his promise not to run then Platini faces the prospect of having to fight his fellow Frenchman Jerome Champagne. This former diplomat who played a huge part in Blatter’s election campaigns has been working the various FIFA countries and trying to build up support. His problem may be he does not have a confederation. But then it must be said having such support did nothing for Lennart Johansson. And Champagne, a wily campaigner, must have worked out his strategy to cope with that.
Talking to people close to Platini it seems he has genuinely not made up his mind whether he wants the FIFA Presidency. It seems he does not know whether all the extra work involved in running FIFA is worth it.
Of course should he run and win, it is certain that he would change the Presidency. Blatter has made being boss of FIFA an imperial Presidency. It is like the court of Louis XV. The President is everywhere, he is the one man in constant limelight. Round him courtiers swirl round but few stay long – there are constant changes among the FIFA staff. Platini will work hard to make it more of a normal Presidency where the President is the first among equals, the most important figure in FIFA, but not an absolute monarch.
But while Platini decides he is also very aware of the increasing threat Europe faces from the rest of the world. For some time now Blatter has given signs that before he leaves the Presidency he would like to clip the wings of Europe. Europe may be the smallest continent but it dominates world football. The best players of the world come to Europe to play in the European Leagues and the Champions League, Europe provides much of the world income for football. And for all this Europe is well rewarded. It sends more than twice as many teams to the World Cup as any other continent and Europe has many more seats on the FIFA executive than any other continent.
Many in FIFA resent this and Blatter has made noises suggesting he might try and do something about it.
And this is where Platini’s nuclear bomb comes in. If there are real signs that Blatter is moving to reduce Europe’s might then the Frenchman’s option would be to target the World Cup. Remember this is the only FIFA competition that makes money. All its other world tournaments are subsidised by its World Cup income. Any threat to the World Cup would be a dagger at the very heart of FIFA’s existence.
And how can Platini threaten it? Very simple. He declares that in future Euros national teams from other continents will be invited to take part. Imagine at Euro 2016 or 2020 not only do European countries take part but Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Japan. Suddenly a European tournament becomes a world tournament. And what is more, a more exciting, more competitive world tournament than the World Cup which, because of the need to accommodate the whole world, rarely produces the calibre of football that a Euro does.
Now you will say but Platini cannot do that. Why not? The South Americans do it for their Copa America. It has regularly invited national teams from other continents. So why cannot Europe?
Now, as I said, this is Platini’s nuclear option. And with a nuclear option you do not want to use it. You want your opponent to know you have it. I have been given to understand that people very close to Platini have discussed this nuclear option. And given how Platini can take dramatic decisions, recall his out of the blue announcement that future Euros would be based not in one country but moved around several countries, a dramatic use of this option cannot be ruled out.
My strong feeling is if Blatter cuts up rough in the next year or two Platini will look at his nuclear option and then, as they say, the shit will hit the fan.