Sepp Blatter’s weird ways attract derision yet, as Ben Lyttleton reports, the FIFA president is skilfully lining up Michel Platini to succeed him. But Lennart Johansson still hopes Franz Beckenbauer can ride to the rescue

FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s most recent interview in the Financial Times was an odd one, even by his unconventional standards. He laid into Wayne Rooney, urging his coaches to teach him some respect, and claimed that a mystery West Brom director had told him that Chelsea were too good for the Premiership. That was before he criticised the salary players were getting as “pornographic”, which is not the word most people would have chosen to use.

It was the perfect opportunity for the papers to wheel out Blatter’s previous wise words: such as when he said last year that there should be no draws, but instead a penalty shootout in the event of a tie after 90 minutes; or his idea to make goals bigger, divide matches into quarters to allow more advertising, outlaw tackles to protect skilful players, hold the World Cup every two years and get women wearing tighter kits.

Blatter has already admitted he will stand at the next FIFA presidential elections, which will be held at the 2007 congress in Zurich. They were going to be next year, but Blatter did not want to divert attention away from the 2006 World Cup.

That decision forced UEFA president Lennart Johansson to postpone the elections to replace him by 12 months too. Johansson is a vehement opponent of Blatter’s: he lost to him in the race to become FIFA president in 1998 and, before the re-election in 2002, he wrote to all 51 UEFA member associations warning of Blatter’s “increasingly hostile and confrontational approach to Europe”.

Johansson fears a scenario that sees Michel Platini, the former France captain and a member of the FIFA executive committee, becoming the next UEFA president and Blatter keeping his FIFA post. The two have been close since Platini was head of the France 98 organising committee, then successfully canvassed for African votes on Blatter’s behalf at the 2002 elections. “Platini acts for the good of football,” Blatter said. “He is daring, he takes positions: unlike many other people in top management, he has the courage to state his opinions.”

Most of these will not go down well with Europe’s top clubs: Platini wants to introduce a licence scheme whereby a financial watchdog monitors each club’s accounts; he wants to revert the Champions League to its previous knockout format; he refuses to acknowledge the G-14; he hates the idea of video technology; and he thinks national federations should have more power over clubs. His biggest hobby-horse is clubs spending beyond their means. “If you or I buy a Ferrari we can’t pay for, we go to jail,” he said. “Yet there are teams that not only take Ferraris they can’t pay for, but also get the prettiest girls. It’s not fair.”

Johansson’s favoured candidate – and the only chance he has to prevent a Blatter-Platini axis running world football – is Franz Beckenbauer. Beckenbauer’s beliefs are harder to pin down. The ultimate diplomat, he toured national associations the world over during World Cup qualification and is doing the same now, visiting every competing country before next summer. He manages to wear several hats at the same time: he is vocal in his roles as World Cup 2006 chief, Bayern Munich president and columnist with the German tabloid Bild without ever giving much away. He would certainly be less radical than Platini.

Blatter, meanwhile, has survived the corruption claims that dogged the 2002 elections, when his general secretary, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, alleged financial irregularities that could have cost FIFA more than £240 million. Blatter’s re-election in 2007 looks secure if only because he believes he has fulfilled the remit he laid out four years ago. He brought the World Cup to an African country for the first time, for 2010, and is proud of development projects such as Goal, which helps poor national associations provide pitches and equipment to players in their country.

In his first 23 years at FIFA, first as development director (1975-1981) then general secretary (1981-1998), Blatter helped president João Havelange establish marketing and TV deals for World Cups and develop international youth, futsal (indoor) and women’s competitions. Havelange remembers handing the presidency to Blatter on the day after the 1998 World Cup final. “I’ve come to say goodbye and to tell you something: you will never be the president that I was,” Havelange told him. “But only because you won’t have the general secretary that I had in you.”

For all Blatter’s ridiculous comments in the press and the whiff of scandal that follows him around, the world’s national associations look set to agree with Havelange in two years’ time and vote that the best successor to Blatter is Blatter himself. His master-plan after that is to have Platini step into the role in 2011: whether that would be after he has served four years as UEFA president remains to be seen.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month

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