Much focus has been given to the media briefing FIFA president Sepp Blatter gave to a handpicked assortment of journalists ahead of last Sunday’s African Cup of Nations final in South Africa. In it, he simultaneously hit out at UEFA for their mean-spirited declaration on FIFA reform but also appeared to rebuke the Swiss Law professor, Mark Pieth, who is formulating those same reforms:
‘From time to time I realized that it is a deviation of the original objective and they are not coming with solutions, not recommendations, they are coming with decisions that we have [to take] … and we must,’ Blatter said. ‘But that is not what we have asked for. We have asked to give us solutions and we bring these solutions to the (FIFA) Congress.’
Moreover there was a hint that despite previous promises that he would step down in 2015, he may be prepared to seek another term.
He said: ‘My mandate ends in 2015, if God gives me my health … I know I have to stop, but I don’t know when I will stop.’
For a man who has such a poor reputation in the English-speaking world, there are surprising number of people who read his every utterance as if he is a 21st century deity, endlessly seeking inner meaning from every word he speaks.
It’s worth dealing with some of the assumptions made after this press briefing point by point:
1/ Blatter is at war with Michel Platini
As anyone who witnessed what happened in the 2011 presidential race - or at the 2002 FIFA Congress - this is not war.
Platini is Blatter’s former protégé, of course, working as a special advisor in the first part of his FIFA presidency; Blatter also helped him ascend to the UEFA presidency six years ago. Since then their relationship has been characterised by rebukes and flattery – both in public and muttered in darkened corridors. The strains in their relationship have been much publicised of late, but in public Blatter always talks of the UEFA president as his likeliest successor.
Naturally, this is the FIFA way –Blatter talked about Bin Hammam as being ‘his brother’ not long before pressing the nuclear button on him. But if you’re going to talk about rivalry you need to bear in mind the amity, no matter how superficial it might be.
What happened at the weekend was Blatter defending FIFA’s position from UEFA’s shameful demands – as is his duty as the organisation’s president. What was he supposed to do? Roll over and let a single confederation dictate FIFA’s running?
2/ Blatter unleashed?
There are those close to the FIFA president who will tell you that his final presidential term is not about making compromises but finally fighting for what he believes in; for the betterment of FIFA and world football.
It’s true that his presidency has sometimes been defined by kowtowing to confederations and powerful rivals on the FIFA exco, while his staff battle behind the scenes. This isn’t something he needs to worry about any more; partly because he says he’s not going to stand as president again, and partly because so many of his powerful rivals are now gone.
Just over two years ago Blatter had to contend with Jack Warner at CONCACAF, Mohamed Bin Hammam at the AFC, the powerful, ambitious and outspoken FIFA vice president Chung Mong-joon, as well as his former boss’s deeply corrupt son-in-law, Ricardo Texiera. Those challenges are all gone, and although relations with UEFA can be tempestuous and CONMEBOL dances to its own tune, world football is – relatively speaking – a calmer place. The need to compromise is less acute.
As he said at the weekend:
‘I will fight for the reform of FIFA and I will fight to keep what FIFA is now, a federation of national associations and not a holding of confederations [who make decisions]. I will fight that until the last day of my mandate in 2015.’
Do we believe this? My own view is that there’s a perpetual battle between Blatter the pragmatist and Blatter the idealist. Perhaps he can err further towards his aim of making football mankind’s central cultural activity (with FIFA at the forefront of this) in the last 30 months of his presidency. Perhaps also he can salvage something of his reputation amidst the wildfire of FIFA scandal, although he is probably deeply aware that it is beyond repair in parts of the world.
3/ Blatter will go on forever
‘My mandate ends in 2015, if God gives me my health, and I know I have to stop but I don’t know when I will stop.’
This is classic Blatter, promising something and then contradicting himself within the space of the same sentence. It also shows his expertise as a politician, leaving the door ajar when it had seemed at the time of his election to be slammed shut. Perhaps over coming months it may creep slightly further open.
In the week that another elderly German speaker has resigned his job for life, my own view, shared by many FIFA watchers, is that despite his 2011 pledges, unlike the Pope we just can’t see Blatter giving up unless - like Havelange - he is forced into a corner. Or else carried out of FIFA House in a wooden box. The third way, perhaps, is that he passes down the crown to a favoured son, like Jerome Valcke or Jerome Champagne, and is kept in the loop like a Dowager Emperor.
But even some of his closest aides have hinted that he may go on beyond 2015 – and then admit that even they don’t really know what he’ll do.
Why not enjoy old age and be free of all the backbiting and squabbles and scandal? Does he fear someone discovering his secrets? Or is it the looming void that would suddenly appear when the time to go comes? FIFA is everything to Blatter. Exactly half of his 76 years have been devoted to the organisation.
In sum, this was a classic performance by the FIFA president; seeming to be outspoken, but at the same time qualifying most of his utterances. Whenever he lashes out he caresses with the same hand.
Having watched and followed Blatter for some years the realization isn’t long in coming that he should be measured in actions rather than words. At times he says something and does the complete opposite. Other times he maintains a silence and does something quite by surprise. The reality is that no one knows what will happen next, even those closest to him. We should assume nothing; there may be a few surprises still to come.