Question: what kind of a man talks about football one day being played on other planets and the World Cup giving way to an Interplanetary Cup?
There are two answers: a man who is out of touch, or one who is highly confident because he knows he is going to come out ahead.
Sepp Blatter was predictably mocked on social media when he raised the possibility of interplanetary football at yesterday’s Fifa Congress. But his comments betrayed something else about his state of mind. He is unworried not because he is removed from reality, but because he understands realpolitik all too well.
The bottom line is that Blatter holds all the cards.
Three years ago he said he would not stand for re-election in 2015. His potential challengers, including Michel Platini, the Uefa president, took it as a kind of peace offering.
Maybe they should have got that pledge in writing, because the Swiss is still around and will probably be around through to 2019 and perhaps beyond.
If Blatter’s change of heart wasn’t enough to stop Platini running, the documents leaked to The Sunday Times finished the job, weakening him further. They revealed that Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari former head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the man who stood against Blatter for the Fifa presidency in 2011, made a series of payments to a whole gaggle of FA heads, mostly from Africa, and mostly in a very loose, informal way.
The inference drawn by many — though, as yet, unproven — is that Bin Hammam’s generosity wasn’t just about his bid for the presidency, but also about the Qatar 2022 bid. And, of course, Platini, whose naivety borders on the unbelievable sometimes, is also the only ExCo member to have admitted voting for Qatar. He’s also the guy whose son works for a sportswear company owned by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI). (The fact that Platini Jr worked for Paris Saint-Germain before they were bought by QSI isn’t often mentioned.)
We don’t know who leaked the documents to The Sunday Times. But they ended up weakening Blatter’s opponents. And the vast majority of them involve AFC correspondence. It was Blatter who ordered Fifa to investigate Bin Hammam’s dealings as head of the AFC back in 2012, which resulted in the latter’s lifetime ban. And they happened to be leaked on the eve of a Fifa Congress.
How to reconcile this with what happened on Monday, when Blatter backed the African confederation’s resolution that described the British media’s reporting on Qatar 2022 as a “racist attack”?
Easy. Because he is brilliant in a political, House of Cards kind of way. The Qatar 2022 revelations benefited him first and foremost, but that doesn’t stop him from blasting them as “an attempt to destroy us” to seek favour with the African delegates.
That’s the way of Fifa and politics. Today Blatter can stand side by side with Issa Hayatou, the Confederation of African Football president, and back his allegations of racism. Twelve years ago Hayatou nearly attacked him physically at the Fifa Congress after Blatter refused to hand the floor to the late David Will, who was supposedly going to ask pointed questions about financial transparency under his regime.
What emerges is a Teflon figure, who redefines “bouncebackability” and forms and breaks alliances, depending on the shifting winds.
Given the present climate and make-up of the ExCo, there’s a good chance we’ll get a new host for 2022. One whom Blatter backs, like, say, the United States or Australia. Or he could use the threat of a revolt to keep the Qataris onside and persuade them to throw their support behind him. Or, indeed, he could come up with something else entirely.
Like letting the Qataris keep part of 2022 and spreading the rest of the World Cup around the region. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, maybe even Iran and Iraq. He would go down in history as the man who took the World Cup to the Arab world, he could wax lyrical about football bringing peace to the region. Fantasy akin to his dream of an Interplanetary World Cup? Maybe. But this is Blatter we’re talking about. The man to whom nothing sticks and who usually gets his way.