A former public relations man, whose father once told him he would never earn his living in football, sits in his plush office in Zurich – safe in the knowledge he is the most powerful man in the game. Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA – football’s governing body – speaks to Mohammed Bhana about the beautiful game and his plans for the future.
I certainly did not expect Sepp Blatter,the eighth president of FIFA, an outspoken man born in Visp near the Swiss Alps, who succeeded Brazilian Joao Havelenge in June 1998, to crack a joke. Well, not straight away. “Who do I think will win the next FIFA World Cup?” asks Mr Blatter effusively. Then he adds, “That’s simple - the team that scores more goals in the final! [Laughs] Ok, I’m joking. I would say the simple truth is that the gap between the traditional powers and “smaller” footballing nations has narrowed so much that on any day, any team could beat any other team. This is one of the beautiful aspects of national team football.” Maybe this was his way of making me feel at ease.
However, Blatter manages to regain his composure and soon enough the conversation is in full flow.
It might be important for him to start on a happy note, though, for not all that surrounds his office has him smiling. Allegations of corruption have blighted him in the past, for example. But Mr Blatter claims he is ‘very concerned’ about the state of football today. He initiated a project for the FIFA Congress to create a Task Force: ‘For the Good of the Game’, comprising of three working groups (for financial matters, political matters and competitions) to actively seek solutions to challenges, although corruption doesn't top his list.
“In general, I think there is too much football on TV. There are also many pressing and unpleasant issues that also must be dealt with, including corruption, racism, betting and doping. These are major problems we face,” said Blatter.
The most powerful man in football also claims to be concerned with the tempestuous issue of foreign ownership in football and the economic downturn.
Sounding suitably presidential, he said, “What motivates owners of top football clubs, and are these people genuinely interested in the game of football?
“What if they lose interest in the clubs and leave? What happens to the clubs then? Certain questions need to be answered. There is always a danger that these people will just one day leave even though English football in particular is very attractive to investors.”
What to do, though? “Something is wrong and I don’t know how it can be stopped,” he said.
"Buying a football club is a major attraction. However, control of football's finances is paramount in the face of the difficult financial situation.”
It's true: football is an open game. Nowadays, you see players from all backgrounds gracing the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A week in week out and they certainly use large numbers of foreign players thanks to rules on free movement of labour within the 27-nation bloc.
However, Blatter would like to see a certain rule in force by 2012. The Swiss president wants to introduce a rule that would ensure every team would have at least six players on the field who are eligible to play for the national team of the country where their club is based. Although, this would mean a total of five foreign players could take the field, there would be no limit on the potential number under contract at a club.
But what's the role for lawmakers here? When asked about his plan for national quotas for players in European club teams, Blatter snapped, "Football can govern itself." So, it's FIFA-led, then.
Claiming that such quotas were good for strengthening the teams' national identity and the growth of local talent, he said: "You cannot compare footballers with normal workers."
This reminded me of the infamous ‘Slave’ comment attributed to Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Oddly, Blatter denied ever making his infamous Ronaldo comparison.
He said: “My comment was distorted. I never said that he (Ronaldo) is a slave.
"I specifically mentioned slavery because European clubs are trying to get 13, 14 and 15 years old boys and bring them to the big clubs - this is modern slavery."
As Blatter regains his presidential posture, I ask him if 'positive integration’ rather than positive discrimination will help football retain its universal appeal.
He adds, “The beautiful game is not just a sport of 22 players on the field, but an incredibly valuable tool for social integration. In the UK I am sure the member associations will ensure the likes of Asian players will play football at a high level. At a business level you have many successful entrepreneurs from the Asian community, people like Afzal Kahn, owner of the F1 number plate and a bespoke vehicle brand which has many footballers who buy their products so maybe they can help in promoting the game to the community.”
Blatter believes faith and religious diversity are encompassed in the promotion of the positive values associated with football from all over the world from "England to Spain to India and Iran".
He said, “It is very important that football can see beyond religion. But FIFA does not just ignore its impact. For example, Doctor Yacine Zerguini, an eminent specialist at the FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Centre, has been conducting ongoing research on the effects of observing Ramadan for Muslim players that has been very positive,” said Mr Blatter.
I ask Mr Blatter whether he feels FIFA is morally obligated to act quickly to discipline teams if their fans are guilty of racist chanting. He admits previous penalties for racist or discriminatory incidents around the world were far too lenient, and acknowledges that FIFA is obliged to take action in a global context. “I am pleased to report to you that we now have strict and more unified regulations that everyone in the football family is required to follow, including suspensions, point deductions and disqualification for teams, to punish such incidents," he added.
"Now that we have the instruments, together, the football family can work to combat racism and discrimination. However, it is important to remember that it is the member associations themselves who bear the primary responsibility of the implementation of the new regulations within their jurisdiction."
Mr Blatter singled out Liverpool’s ‘never say die’ attitude as an inspiration to millions of fans and players worldwide after their impressive victory against Real Madrid. He said, “Bravo Liverpool! Impressive as ever. Liverpool showed the same ‘never say die’ attitude we all saw in Istanbul."
Blatter feels that one day a World Cup could be held in an Asian country, adding, "The FIFA World Youth Championship in the United Arab Emirates was a tremendous success, so I have no doubts that we will see many FIFA competitions in the many diverse associations in the future."
He went on to cite the example of Russian football as an ideal model for developing football countries to follow. He said, “It’s very interesting that in Russia you will see some fantastic football players because of the organisation and new structure.
“Now that they have a professional structure, many more young players will develop. In general it is very good that Russia becomes powerful country in the world football. It should be this way because in the past they have had some great teams and other countries can learn from them.”
The Swiss native feels it is important to distinguish between the sporting context of football, which the world governing body FIFA can and should influence, and the cultural context surrounding the game and clubs within each respective association. “Of course," he went on, "how fans and players celebrate a win, for example, in England as compared to Saudi Arabia are as similar in as many ways as they are different. Thus each association and club has to deal with the special circumstances of incorporating diversity in their own way and there is no single rule or guide with which FIFA can instruct its member associations.”
“We have developed football and taken it to the world. Now it is our obligation to use football to help build a better future for us all,” he concluded. And with that, we were done.