FIFA is slowly overhauling itself, and the new regime are showing worrying signs about their plans for the world game

By the time you read this, FIFA’s congress will have elected João Havelange’s successor as president of world football’s governing body. Whether the winner is former chief executive and secretary-general Sepp Blatter, or Lennart Johansson, the head of UEFA, they will inherit an organisation changed out of all recognition since Havelange ousted sleepy old Stanley Rous in 1974.

However questionable his motives may have been, it’s hard to deny that Havelange has presided over a spectacular rebalancing of the game’s power centres. At that 1974 World Cup in Germany, Haiti, Zaire and Australia managed one point between them, scored just two goals and let in 33. The idea that the representation of countries outside Europe and South America would rise to 12 under Havelange, and that all of them would come to the tournament with a reasonable expectation of avoiding humiliation, would have seemed fantastical.

Nurturing the game in Africa and Asia is still often derided as “pandering to the Third World lobby” by some who perhaps subconsciously yearn for the days when Britain’s amateur administrators remained in charge off the pitch, even long after our claims to dominance on it had been exposed. Even commentators like Brian Glanville, with an honourable record of paying attention to the outside world, regularly bemoan the expansion of the World Cup, even though it is only by adding more teams that it has become a truly global event.

At the same time, of course, the football world has become one of the key marketplaces for companies such as Nike and Coca-Cola, often with unedifying results. But it would be hard to imagine how the furious development of the game to so many countries, at all age levels and among women as well as men, could have been funded without substantial private sector involvement.

How will Blatter or Johansson deal with this legacy? In some respects, it’s hard to see how they will effect such dramatic changes as Havelange. The World Cup has already been to North America, will go to Asia in 2002 and perhaps to Africa in 2006 (more likely if Blatter wins). The biggest battleground, particularly within Europe, is likely to be over the ever-increasing strains between clubs and national teams. In countries where the clubs have effectively hijacked the national federation by entwining them in a league run by the clubs themselves (England and Scotland, for example), the demands for fewer national team calls on the players are likely to become shriller by the day. It’s not too hard to imagine the day when the bigger clubs would agree to a point-blank refusal to release their players for non-essential internationals, rather than pretending they are injured.

The clubs themselves, of course, are keen to play as many games as possible, but neither Johansson nor Blatter is blameless in allowing this stand-off to develop. Johansson has presided over the monstrosity of the Champions League and the expansion of the Inter Toto into a qualifying tournament for the UEFA Cup, while also clogging up European qualifying groups with countries like Liechtenstein and Andorra. Blatter, meanwhile, has been partly responsible for developing the Under-17 world championships, the World Youth Cup and the nonsensical Confederations Cup.

Perhaps what is most required of FIFA’s new boss is a willingness to consolidate and rationalise the structure of world football, and to limit the demands on the players. But after two decades of headlong expansion, it may be difficult for football’s intoxicated rulers to see that boundaries should be drawn. Blatter, in particular, has shown a disturbing desire to tinker not just with competition formats, but also with the rules of the game on more than one occasion in the past.

The new FIFA president should look to strengthen the grass roots of the game in both its traditional homes and newer outposts. It’s a platitude mouthed by both candidates, but one that is hard for a naturally autocratic organisation to put into practice, especially from the comfortable vantage point of Zurich. Yet there are countries under FIFA’s umbrella where footballers are more credible politicians than anyone in the government and where the game’s international bodies can have a significant economic impact.

FIFA can’t solve the problems of George Weah’s Liberia, or Georgi Kinkladze’s Georgia, but at least it can help to create small oases of normality without a huge financial cost. If that thought were to intrude occasionally into the mind of Sepp or Lennart as they furrow their brows over the tackle from behind or the importance of players tucking in their shirts properly, it would be start.

From WSC 137 July 1998. What was happening this month

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