Blatter reborn

Like his predecessor, Joao Havelange, Sepp Blatter seems a Teflon figure, able to glide his way out of any and every accusation.

Prepare yourself for a shock. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s much maligned President, accused once by an ironic German journalist of having 51 bad new ideas a day, has had at last a good 52nd and even a potentially good 53rd. There are, it may be said, some sceptics, who insist that all that is motivating Blatter is his fear that the Premier League will make inroads on his own organisation. But perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt when he makes a root and branch at tack on the appalling Premiership plan to add a 39th date to their League, all matches to be played abroad.

Roger Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, could in his seeming ingenuousness hardly have been prepared for the storm which instantly broke about his head. First out of the block was none other than Michel Platini, once such a star turn with France and Juventus, now President of UEFA, the European body. He dismissed the ideas with utter scorn.

Not far behind him came the powerful President of the Asian Confederation and my old friend Sunil Gulati, now top man of the USA association, a former executive at the World Bank and a teacher at Columbia University of New York, a very far cry indeed from the deadbeats and half-educated mediocrities who used to hold his position.

Even Scudamore’s supposed friend and ally, Jerome Valcke, the top FIFA executive, lined up with Blatter against him. Yes, folks; that very same Jerome Valcke who, a few months ago, was branded a liar by a woman judge in a New York court — together with corpulent Chuck Blaser of CONCACAF — when FIFA were sued by their sponsors, Mastercard. FIFA were trying to ignore a valid contract, you may recall, and negotiate a new one with Visa. They failed and it cost them $90 million. It didn’t, however, cost Valcke anything but a very short suspension at FIFA after which he was duly promoted to his present eminent position. As they say in Sicily, one hand washed the other.

Major English clubs have already called Scudamore’s ideas risible. But who could be surprised? When the Premier League was originally founded, I christened it the ‘Greed Is Good League’ and the name has stuck. Shamefully, Graham Kelly, then the chief executive of the Football Association and formerly, please note, the chief executive of the Football League, made common cause with the then First Division clubs to start a new competition backed by huge television money, at the expense of the lesser League clubs. Whom the FA was supposed to protect, along with the game at large. And which have been suffering economically ever since. Recently implemented TV contracts have made the Premiership more vastly lucrative than ever. While once famous but less fortunate clubs see all too often ruin confronting them.

That, then, was Blatter’s 52nd idea. What of the 53rd? Well, frankly it is little more than a piece of kite flying. He insists that he can still persuade the European Union to allow football a change of rule, enabling him to oblige clubs steadily to reduce the number of foreign players they deploy, and thus raising the number of British players whom they use. A consummation devoutly to be wished, but wily old Blatter knows as well as anybody that, alas, it isn’t going to happen.

Years ago, that shrewd old operator, Italy’s Artemio Franchi, when President of FIFA, fought a brilliant campaign to keep the European Union at bay. Its laws were perfectly clear. Any subject of an EU country was allowed to work anywhere and everywhere in the Union. Franchi never had a leg to stand on, but somehow or other he kept the Union at bay for years, so that national associations were able to limit the number of foreign players whom their clubs could use. Now, we have the dismal spectacle of an Arsenal team, however accomplished and entertaining, where a British player is as rare a sight as the Abominable Snowman.

This, in turn, limits more and more the choice of whoever managed England, whether it be the inept Steve McClaren or the hugely paid Fabio Capello. A situation exacerbated by the fact that very rich clubs such as Chelsea, bankrolled not only by TV money but by the untold billions of the Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, can sign promising young English players, who are put into the reserves.

A thought that occurred to me very recently at Stamford Bridge, when playing lowly Huddersfield Town in an FA Cup tie, Chelsea gave a run out to a young winger called Scott Sinclair, who proceeded to look as bright as his brightly coloured boots; fast, elusive, daring. But what hope or chance for him when Joe Cole and France’s Malouda returned to the Chelsea wings?

I’ve had cause before to damn Scudamore’s Premiership as a tournament without a soul. He had nothing to say when Manchester City, this season, were taken over by Thaksin Shinawatra, wanted in Thailand for alleged embezzlement when head of the Government, accused by Amnesty International of imprisoning and torturing political opponents. City fans apparently now beg for his autograph. Morality goes out of the window.

As for Blatter, a devastating book ‘Foul’ by the investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, which FIFA tried unsuccessfully to ban, sets out an alarming indictment of his years at FIFA. Yet, like his predecessor, Joao Havelange, Blatter seems a Teflon figure, able to glide his way out of any and every accusation. Still, his 52nd idea isn’t bad.