Blatter's moralistic utterances

Sepp Blatter at a press conference. "People who live in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones is plainly a concept alien to Blatter," comments the author about the FIFA President.-AP

EVERY now and then, Sepp Blatter erupts. He seems to think it goes with the territory; with the office of President of FIFA. He isn't blessed — or should one say cursed as he himself might? — with a sense of irony, or a sense of shame. His recent highly moralistic utterances condemning supposedly foul-mouthed, overpaid young footballers could come only from a man whose undeclared philosophy is, don't do as I do, do as I tell you. If FIFA were only a beacon of light and rectitude to the rest of the world, if Blatter's own elevation to the Presidency in 1998 at the expense of the favoured Lennart Johansson were less contentious, if obscurity rather than transparency did not characterise it, perhaps such self-righteous outbursts would not seem so grotesque.

Blatter, meanwhile, is the heir, the former devoted ally, of Joao Havelange of whose machinations you can read and recoil in David Yallop's devastating exposure, How they sold the game. That people who live in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones is plainly a concept alien to Blatter, of whom an acerbic German journalist once told me in Miami of all places, "Sepp Blatter has 50 new ideas every day and 51 of them are bad."

They included such daft schemes as substituting kick ins for throw ins and enlarging the goals. Now he has erupted again. "Football is now a multi-billion pound global industry. Unfortunately the haphazard way which money has flowed into the game — reminiscent of a Wild West style of capitalism — is having some seriously harmful effects. The time has come to take action and ensure that the sport protects its roots."

But how, and given FIFA's own record across the years, is he and are they the people to do it? His target is clearly Roman Abramovich and he unquestionably has a point, but though I myself deplore the way the oligarch's money is unbalancing English football, and am aware of the bitter controversy in Russia of how the oligarchs have made their limitless money, in football terms they have done nothing which is legally wrong. Nor do I see what steps FIFA or anybody else can take to restrain them, alas.

It is when he comes so hyperbolically to the subject of players and payment that Blatter makes no sense. "Equally unacceptable are the sort of wage negotiations that can produce the spectacle of semi-educated, sometimes foul-mouthed, players on �100,000 a week holding clubs to ransom until they get, say, �120,000."

There is so much wrong with this statement, so many illogicalities and false assumptions that it is hard to know quite where to begin. Let us begin with that sublimely irrelevant phrase, semi-educated. What in the name of logic has education to do with playing football? Or for that matter with being a boxer, being a pop star, being a baseball or basketball hero? There are two quite separate postulates here. One fatuously suggests that semi-educated people are by definition not entitled to be football stars, the equally fatuous corollary of which, that educated people make the best footballers, is frankly risible. Secondly, the implication is that footballers are grotesquely overpaid.

Let us examine the first postulate. Unless one lives in a command economy, and given the collapse of Soviet Russia and the rise of capitalism of a kind in China, how many remain? Market forces tend to prevail. For the great preponderance of English football's history, they didn't. The maximum wage was imposed by the Football League until it was at last abolished in 1960. Even then clubs largely retained the whip hand, often treating their players like peons. How many major stars, over the decades, fell on hard times when they retired? The Bosman decision in 1996 at long last gave European footballers true freedom of contract. Wages, especially in England, shot up exponentially. Yet, if there is a perceived imbalance between what Premiership footballers earn and the entertainment they provide, then the historical picture was one of exploitation. The pendulum has simply swung and whether a star footballer is foul-mouthed or a plaster saint has no bearing on the matter; what of the foul-mouthed pop stars, the criminal boxing champions, the louche Hollywood screen idols?

Besides, by comparison with what some pop singers, some film stars earn, even the highest paid footballer's salary is dwarfed. Inevitably, given such young footballers earning such colossal salaries, there will be manifold temptations, much louche behaviour. No doubt to be deplored and discouraged. Hollywood, in its pre-War halcyon days, went to great lengths to protect its wayward stars from scandal; but they went on paying them. And who could have had a more turbulent private life than one of the greatest off all baseball heroes, Babe Ruth? As for Mike Tyson and Sonny Liston...

Gordon Taylor, himself the highly paid chief executive of the Pro Footballers Association, has predictably been up in arms. "It strikes me as rude and extremely offensive for someone in his position to brand players as semi-educated when they have devoted their lives to reaching the very top of their profession. I find it bizarre that the head of FIFA, an organisation, which has built its huge wealth on the back of players, is having a go at those same players. He is biting the hand that feeds them."

When Blatter declares that clubs, in the words of Shakespeare, are hanging themselves on the expectation of plenty, he has a point. But that is another, television, story.