The president of Fifa admits he may stand for re-election in 2015 and reveals concerns over the Qatar World Cup
We're in the small hours of the morning in one of Moscow's better hotels, late in the autumn of 2010. A few journalists are sharing gossip around a bottle of Chablis, of which the bar's wine list offers a bewildering selection. All of us have been invited to see at first hand how Russia is coiling the spring in its bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Fifa's decision will be made public in a few weeks' time. 'Made public', not 'made', as it's quite clear to all those who follow these sorts of things closely that a significant majority of the 22 remaining ExCo members (Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii, both of them suspected of corruption, had been suspended in November) are keen on the Russians. And the Qataris. Quite naturally the conversation drifts to the stories which shroud the process in a smog of allegations, about which most of the bidding nations seem quite happy to give 'private briefings'. No-one's found the smoking gun yet, but everybody's convinced it's been fired a few times. Quite naturally, the name of Sepp Blatter is mentioned time and again. The septuagenarian Blatter, the supreme football politician of our age, must be pulling the strings. But if there are strings to pull, they're of the kind that enabled Christopher Reeve to fly like Superman in those old pre-CGI movies. You just know the special effects squad must have used something but the editor's done a brilliant job. Superman's revving the planet faster than Sputnik, with no strings attached.
"One thing people forget, or fail to get," one of our group says, "is that, at heart, Blatter is a romantic." The natural response might be to laugh. Isn't it agreed that Joseph S Blatter is a bad thing? But we're all listening, as the man who's speaking knows him better than most — certainly better than any of us. He's worked with Blatter for over a decade; he's been party to discussions that we'd all have loved to witness and write about; we also know him to be trustworthy and sincere; he didn't ask for water when the second bottle was brought to our table. Blatter-bashers would struggle to understand how he could have served such a master for so long without becoming tainted himself. But he did, within Fifa, and wasn't. So Sepp is "a romantic", really? Our friend wasn't referring to Blatter's tenure as the President of The World Sociey of the Friends of Suspenders, a position he was elected to in 1973. The story of how the amateur Swiss footballer from Visp and one-time general secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation placed himself in the wake of João Havelange, climbed up the Fifa ladder and became the ruler of that empire in June 1998, gazumping Lennart Johansson in the process, is well-known and, at first glance, anything but 'romantic'.
But let's take a step back. Joseph Blatter joined the Fifa 'family' in 1975, as the organisation's Technical Director, becoming its General Secretary six years later. Fifa was near-bankrupt in the 1970s. Attendances were falling in almost every single domestic and international competition. Is football a better game to watch now that it was then? The change to Law 12 — a change of which Blatter had been a vocal advocate — banning keepers from handling a back-pass, was met with scepticism when it was introduced in 1992 by the International Board. Few would now question that it had a hugely positive impact on the game, perhaps more than any other such change since the 1925 modification of the offside law. Dangerous tackles from behind were made red card offences in 1998. Again, Blatter had pleaded in favour of a measure that many believed unenforceable or even detrimental to the game. They were wrong. Africa has staged a World Cup. Women's football has developed to an extent that was unthinkable when its first World Cup was held in 1991 in China. Fifa's coffers are bursting with cash — over £740m — which, no matter how questionable the manner in which these millions have been harvested and might have been misused by certain individuals, help finance thousands of grass-root schemes throughout the organisation's 209 associations. Football is objectively healthier now that it was when "the man who has fifty ideas a day, fifty-one of them bad", according to a German wit, decided to throw in his lot with the now-discredited Havelange.
So, yes, perhaps the arch-manoeuverer, the political virtuoso who is always one step ahead of his adversaries, is also a 'romantic', if only for his capacity to turn the conviction that he is acting for the good of the game into a formidable weapon in the fight to gain and hold onto power. Those who dismiss Blatter as an out-of-touch, quasi-senile buffoon because of his suggestions that women footballers should wear "tighter shorts" (January 2004) and gay fans "should refrain from sexual activity" when they attend the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (January 20101) make a mistake that has proven fatal to many of his former rivals: they underestimate him. Meeting the Fifa president face-to-face for the first time, as I did for this interview, conducted on the occasion of the International Football Arena in Zurich2, I was struck — as many others before me have been — by the agility of his mind, his personal charm and his ability to suggest one thing while saying quite another. As is the rule on such occasions, a list of topics (Brazil 2014, Qatar 2022, financial fair-play) had been agreed upon before I could be led into the inner sanctum of Fifa's headquarters, which can only be accessed once your guide's fingerprints have been scanned by a laser beam. Joseph Blatter, the romantic schemer, the man who put chips into footballs, is clearly in favour of cutting-edge technology.
Mr President, Brazil 2014 is now a year and a half away and there are still many doubts as to whether the country will be ready to welcome the World Cup...
...and we'll have had the Confederations Cup by then.
...Do you share any of these doubts?
Listen, as in every process of organising a World Cup which I have lived through for a number of years, there are always delays in the building work. But, ultimately, all the games take place. So, in my case, it is not necessary to be pessimistic and say, "They won't be able to do it." If Brazil, the sixth largest economic power in the world, with its 200 million inhabitants, a footballing nation par excellence, were unable to deliver a World Cup... they'll do it. Yes, there are delays, there's a bit of this, a bit of that. But you've got to say that the political organisation of Brazil plays a role in this. You've got a central government, but this central government has delegated the mission to organise this World Cup to the governors of the various provinces, and within those provinces, you've got the cities, and, naturally, politically speaking, the system isn't the same everywhere, which creates interferences and delays from time to time. I assure you, in the end, everything will be fine even if, as I have seen it with my own eyes before — in Portugal, at the 2004 Euro — you've still got to apply a lick of paint on the opening day of the competition.
The difference, this time, is that there are a number of important, powerful people within Brazil who are openly critical of the whole process, especially as far as the financing is concerned, people who think this money would be better used in other fields. Can this not have an adverse effect on what is happening there?
I am in regular touch with the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. She delegated all her powers [in this matter] to her sports minister, Mr Aldo Rebelo. We at Fifa have asked our general secretary Jérôme Valcke and his staff to take care of all the administrative details. Now, as you know, Brazil is going through a very dynamic phase of economic development... and social development too. When you've got a big event like [the World Cup], people say, "Yes, football's fantastic," but others add, "We've also got another big event to take care of!" The Olympic Games, of course. They take place in a single city, of course, but they affect the country as a whole. Brazil "saw big." And Brazil has to digest it.
Didn't Brazil see too big?
I don't think so. It's a great country. I'm certain Brazil will be able to deliver a great World Cup. You'll see. As soon as we play the Confederations Cup there [from 15 to 30 June 2013], things are going to move, things are going to get hot! Not like in other countries where football isn't anchored as deeply as it is there in the people. Everyone's a footballer in Brazil. We're going back to the essence of football. Of course, the English will tell you (adopting a mock British accent), "We are the country of Association Football," but Brazil hasn't won five World Cups by chance. They last had a chance to organise it in 1950. Three generations ago. It is only fair that they get a chance to do it again. Brazil will deliver.
Going beyond 2014 and looking ahead to 2022, we've recently heard a number of officials — your Fifa vice-president Michel Platini among others — recommending that the Qatar World Cup should be held in winter, more precisely in November and December 2022, in order not to clash with the Winter Olympics. Are you open to this switch? Would you be in favour of it?
The World Cup is going round the world. We'll be in Russia in 2018, as no eastern European country has ever hosted a World Cup, and the last major global event to take place there was the 1980 Olympics. Then Qatar. Good. The basic conditions — not just for Qatar, but for all the candidates — were the same. It means that the Fifa World Cup is played in June and July. That's the basic condition. And it is on this basic condition that the Executive Committee took the decision to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Now, naturally, a bit late perhaps, we realise... we already knew that it gets very hot in Qatar at this time of the year. The other candidates had battled for their bids on the basis of a World Cup that would be played in June and July. Now, who can change that? Firstly, it is not us, Fifa, who are going to take the initiative to do so, even if eminent... or important members of our Executive Committee3 have expressed themselves [in favour of a winter World Cup]. The basis remains the same: June, July. If someone wants to change that, the request must come from Qatar. Qatar should present a request to Fifa — which Qatar hasn't done yet. No discussion has been held. Voilà. And if you changed something, what would the reaction of the other candidates be? They'd say, "If the basic condition is changed, what's going on, what's happening now?" That's one thing. The other thing is the international schedule — even though, with all parties in agreement, an international schedule can be changed.
Some leagues are completely opposed to this, however. Wouldn't that create a political storm? Wouldn't that be detrimental to football?
I can tell you that Qatar hasn't finished being a subject of preoccupation in the football world.
Should Qatar 2022's Supreme Committee turn to you and say, "Mr Blatter, we've gone deeper into air-cooling technologies, and we really think it'd be better if the tournament was played in November and December," would these words find a sympathetic ear — or would you tell them, "Perhaps it'd be better to reconsider the bid from A to Z?" What would Australia say, or the USA?
Or Japan, or Korea! Listen. If I had to govern the football world with 'ifs'...[laughs] In any case, I cannot give a personal answer. I have to abide by the decisions that have been made by Fifa. It is my duty, my responsibility and my right to defend Fifa's principles. And one of these principles was: June, July.
In what respect would a summer World Cup in Qatar represent a step forward for football?
The important thing for me was that the World Cup should travel round the world. I remember how, when South Africa was chosen to host the 2010 World Cup, I had told the crown prince of Saudi Arabia — who was a passionate supporter of Morocco — that, for me, Africa lies south, not north of the Sahara. He replied, "Mr President, I invite you to think, one day, about the Arab world, and give it the World Cup." That is the case with Qatar. It is the realisation of what I'd said in June 1998, when I was elected president of Fifa. I'd been asked, "What is your programme?" and I'd said, "To give the World Cup to Africa and to go round the world with the competition," so that it wouldn't remain the privilege of Europe and the Americas. We're now facing a problem. But perhaps it's a false problem and the technology [to cool stadiums] will be there in 2022. As Fifa president, I repeat: June, July.
Wouldn't the Americans, the Australians, the Japanese and the Koreans turn against Fifa if it was decided to switch the tournament to winter? Wouldn't that be a plain breach of tender?
In any case, it wouldn't improve Fifa's reputation, I can tell you that.
...which Fifa could do without — which leads me to the question: now that a new Ethics Committee has been named, are you satisfied with the progress that's been made in terms of governance?
We're in the last bend before the last straight. We initiated the reform in 2011 and we have a road map that leads to the 2013 congress [which will be held in Mauritius from 30 May]. The Ethics Committee now consists of two entities, each of which has a completely independent chairman. That's done. What's left to do is to elect the members of the tribunals, which we'll do at this Congress. We'll do the same thing for the Disciplinary and Appeals Committees, in order to have complete separation of powers within Fifa. Second, the Audit and Control Committee, which is an internal FIFA organisation — but with an independently-chosen president — has been set up. Third, there are the statutory changes, which we're now in the process of identifying in consultation with the national associations. We'll have their feedback in February, their answer to questions like: "Should the ExCo be chosen by the Fifa congress, or by the confederations? Should there be an age limit? Should there be a limit to the number of terms that can be served?" All of this is supervised by the Independent Governance Committee which is presided over by Dr Mark Pieth, whose work will be concluded in 2013. This means that we now have safeguards in place — off the pitch. But that's not enough. Fifa, that's 300 million people. You can't have a single tribunal for 300 million people. It only means something if it goes down to the 209 national associations and the six confederations. The system can only work that way. At Fifa level, on 1 June, it'll be done. And then we'll get on with the electoral campaign for 2015 [laughs]. I'll be able to say, "My Fifa is now in calm waters, I can leave the boat in two years' time."
Are you really counting yourself out for the 2015 election?
You're in very good health, you...
Never say never?
Never say never again? Well, there'll be candidates. I'm sure of that. I'll have been at Fifa for 38 years in February. We've created a Fifa that is about democracy — all the associations have one vote, the small ones like the big ones — and solidarity. The World Cup must remain the number one competition, because it is our only source of money and, with that money, we can develop football in the whole world. It's been accepted now. But there is now a trend, by which clubs think that they're more important than the rest of the world, than the national teams... but that's not true. Ask any citizen of any country how important he thinks his national team is. Solidarity between clubs and national teams is essential. Fifa stands for discipline, respect, fair-play, not just on the field of play, but in our society as well.
As you mention fair-play, how do you view the 'Platini reform' and the introduction of FFP by Uefa? Could the regulations that are phased in in Europe serve as a model for other confederations, in Asia, for example, where the problem of 'financial doping' is just as acute as it is in Uefa countries?
I must say that, within Fifa, financial fair-play is already safeguarded by our Audit and Control Committee. Each [national] association must exert that control. I'd say that the phrase "financial fair-play" has a pleasant ring to it... but I don't know if there's fair-play in financial matters. In financial matters, it's about the bottom line, profit and loss. Simply call it "audit and control", and you've got it. For the whole world. And it might be a bit simpler to say, audit and control, rather than [respect] fair-play. In "fair-play", there is the word "play". And you shouldn't play with finances. Those who do are gamblers.
When you see what's happening at PSG, and sovereign funds — Qatar, in this case — which are willing to commit unbelievable amounts of money to football, how do you react as a football man and as president of Fifa? Can it work?
As long as you've got serious investors who wish to put money into football, I applaud. It proves that football is attractive. What upsets me, what I find scandalous is when clubs accept fools. We've seen that in England with Portsmouth, we've also seen that in Switzerland. Three clubs have fallen into that trap and succumbed, Neuchâtel-Xamax among them4, of which I am still the honorary president. But as long as you've got investors who are paying the players...You also pay the great stars of cinema and theatre, the singers who give four or five concerts a year and are paid huge amounts of money. Why shouldn't footballers be paid, players who put on a show twice a week for thousands in the stands and millions on television? If it's done seriously, I find nothing shocking about that, either as a football man or as Fifa president. What happens is that you've got clubs which are more popular than others, because they've got the better players, and the others say, "Why not us?" But go back fifty years. Look at the great leagues. The Italian one, for example. Fifty years ago, who was playing for the title? Inter, Milan, Juve. In England, it was between the Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London clubs. What's changed? Same in Spain and Germany. As the saying goes, "You only lend money to the rich." So, if [new] investors can pull a league up, it's a good thing, I think. What matters is financial equilibrium, audit and control.
But people in France will tell you that it is impossible for a PSG to balance its accounts in the short or medium term. They'll never recoup their investment.
This investment is never rewarded. You have investors, like the Americans in the Premier League, who provide bank guarantees. You have patrons like Abramovich, who give their money to their clubs. You've got Qatar, which is one family [the al-Thani dynasty]. If they put money into football... I haven't got anything against it. How long they'll put money into football is another matter. Will they carry on or not?
So this new money, going into new clubs, disturbing the established order, can be a good thing?
Yes, of course. As long as these investors are serious. Look at Switzerland again. Lausanne, Servette... what happened is that it was not properly controlled by the league or the association. As to PSG, if they've got the money, what's the problem?
One last question: we remember your reaction at the 2010 World Cup, when Frank Lampard scored a 'ghost goal' against Germany, and you said, "I never want to see that again." Fifa has now completed extensive tests of goal-line technology — but how do you reconcile Fifa's promotion of technology with Uefa's reluctance to embrace it?
It's not Uefa which has a different view. It is Monsieur Platini. It is not Uefa. If you go to the associations which compose Uefa, or ask the professional leagues, you'll see what they say. That — that is a Michel Platini idea, Platini who, for a reason... has put it in his head that he didn't want technology on the goal-line, because if you put it on the goal-line, tomorrow you'll use it for off-side decisions, and so on. That's him. When the majority of fans, leagues — and referees — thank Fifa for introducing goal-line technology, that's not very positive for the development of football.