FIFA, Football, Sepp Blatter

My time with Sepp Blatter, something rotten in the state of Switzerland circa 2002

Not by @SimonCocking

A true story by James Ironbird.

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FIFA

There’s been a riot in the house of football this week. After several decades at the helm, Sepp Blatter has finally been forced to step down as an FBI led criminal prosecution starts to bite. What’s been remarkable is how quickly FIFA’s house of cards has collapsed on itself.

There have been allegations and evidence piling up for years as to how corrupt the organization was. The destinations of World Cup’s, multi billion dollar events, have been in the hands of an untouchable few who have sold their bidding votes for as little as a few hundred thousand dollars. Dubious men, with no footballing pedigree or affinity, just shrewd operators from failed states who could sniff out the easy money.

So all this attention on Blatter had me reminiscing on my own meeting with the Godfather of Football in the FIFA HQ, in Zurich back in 2002.

It was January – the snow lay deep and crisp and even on the Swiss capital’s streets. My first time in Switzerland and it felt as though someone had turned down both the colour and the volume settings. The city was pretty and ordered but the grey hues and muffled street sounds made me feel like we were under water as the taxi drove us up to fortress FIFA – a shiny glass and steel modern structure that sits on a hill overlooking Zurich – it seemed a place of austerity and sterility.

Blatter is a squat roly poly, huffing and puffing type. He bustled into the room, slouched posture, rarely looking up and started off by berating me as a member of the British Press. You English and your warmongering and negativity. England had just beaten Germany 5-1 and the tabloids back home had screamed headlines like BLITZKREIG!

I said I was there with the Times, not one of the tabloids, but it was clear Blatter had a great deal of contempt for the Brits. I’d been excited at the prospect of the interview and had a great set of well-researched questions to put to Football’s most important man. But it rapidly became apparent that Blatter wasn’t simply not interested, but that he in fact, knew nothing at all about football.

We were there to talk about the World Cup 2002 being played in Asia for the first time. Traditionally the world most watched sporting spectacle would alternate every 4 years between Europe and the Americas – and this year it was to be held jointly in South Korea and Japan. So Co-hosted for the first time, and also the first in Asia. A lot of groundbreaking, and my opening question was about what other changes we could expect.

Typically new footballing rules would be introduced first at world cups and then would permeate to the respective national leagues around the world. They were usually subtle changes but ones that would have a big effect on the game. Outlawing the back pass – to make teams play less defensively. Playing with multiple balls – so if one went into the crowd another would be used – speeded up play. A scoreboard to show all how many minutes of injury time would be played. All rule changes that debuted in recent world cups – I asked him what subtle new changes would happen this time. Sepp thought for a while then his face lit up – “there will be more singing in this world cup”.

As the questions continued I was increasingly disheartened for myself to realize that all my careful planning for the meeting had been a waste of time – as he batted my questions away with glib political answers – “we are building a house of football, and the fans will be the windows” – but also depressed for football itself – a sport I love – that such a terribly disinterested glib politician should be running it.

The problem with FIFA is, just like the International Olympic Committee, that the organization was set up over a hundred years ago when there was no money in sport. There are no checks and balances or transparency as the committee members elected themselves and were accountable to no one for how the money the organization makes is spent. In the last 30 years as the commercialization of the game has gone into the stratosphere suddenly there are many millions if not billions of dollars flowing through FIFA’s doors and only a handful of unaccountable and unscrupulous characters regulating what is being done with that bullion.

Afterwards we had lunch in the FIFA restaurant and were joined by Jerome Valcke and Jerome Champagne – both of whom are now appearing in the press. The restaurant was a huge bright space. Elegant with white tablecloths and a stiff atmosphere, immaculate waiters stood to attention. A wall of glass gave us a panoramic view of the forest and snow and Zurich far below. Everything picture perfect in this bright, clean, sterile, ivory tower.

They gave me the endorsement letter I needed to get my own Times project up and running, and with that in hand I headed off to the African Cup of Nations that was about to kick off in Mali.

A week later I was in the Mali capital of Bamako – one of the poorest cities on earth. Dirt baked streets lined with bags and bags of pungent rubbish. The sun beating down, the goats would wander in and out of people’s shanty dwellings and all the taxis and combi buses were adorned with images of Osama Bin Laden and the twin towers ablaze (this was just 6 months after 9/11 after all). The only tarmacked road in the entire city was one that had just been finished and led from the airport to the national stadium. It was said the construction of that new road had bankrupted the country.

It’s odd that contemporary Mali should be so poor when Timbuktu had once been the center of the world. A place of religion and learning, scholars and wealth, and its King Mansa Musa – had in 1325, been the richest man in the whole world.

But if history teaches us anything it is that Empires rise and eventually fall – isn’t that so Sepp.

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