Football World Cup: Blatter combines a safe pair of hands with inspiration

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The Independent Online
Billions watched him on television but the only thing most knew about the man conducting the World Cup draw was that he wants to ban tackling. He does not, but Fifa's general secretary does have a purge planned for the summer. Glenn Moore, in Marseilles, listened to the thoughts of one of the most influential men in world football.

There were some jeers when he stepped on stage but mostly puzzlement among the 38,000 spectators at the Stade Velodrome and the billions watching around the globe. Who was this little, balding man? Why was he running the World Cup draw instead of Franz Beckenbauer, Michel Platini or one of the other luminaries involved in Marseilles on Thursday night.

The man was Sepp Blatter, the 62-year-old general secretary of Fifa, the game's world governing body. At that moment he looked just like the "Swiss watchmaker" his friend and boss, Joao Havelange, had affectionately called him the previous day.

An hour later Blatter had the audience and viewers eating out of his hand. The draw had been conducted immaculately with just the right amount of restrained showmanship. A smile here, a gesture there, a telling pause every now and again as he held a nation's footballing fate in his hand before revealing it to the cameras.

Thursday night was Blatter's 25th draw - "my silver jubilee", he said - but he was not doing it, as so often happens, out of egotism. As one veteran of these affairs said: "He does it because it is so complicated he can't trust anyone else not to cock it up."

The draws, however, are a small part of his work. In his day job Blatter, who is effectively chief executive, provides much of the perspiration that keeps the game functioning and some of the inspiration behind its continued development.

It is fashionable to knock Fifa, as it is all sports bureaucracies. But compare football's relatively smooth progress towards world domination to the mess that cricket, both rugby codes, athletics and many other sports continually find themselves in.

The game is now truly global - "we have 198 members", he notes - and, while Havelange has been the driving force behind football's development outside the traditional Europe-South America axis, Blatter has often been the executor. This aspect was his first job at Fifa after Havelange, soon after his own election as president, had spotted him working for Swiss Timing - though not as a watchmaker - at the Munich Olympics.

In England it is Fifa's tinkering with the laws, or rather, as Blatter says, "their interpretation", which has been noticed. After initial reservations they have generally been for the good but recently it seemed he was going too far. "Blatter wants to outlaw tackling" went the headlines. Does he?

"Football is incredibly popular and sometimes it is a victim of its popularity," he said after we met in Marseilles. "The important thing is we get people to talk about football but sometimes they get the wrong interpretation. This was literally a mistranslation due to there being two words for tackle in German. The point I was trying to make was that we have banned the tackle from behind but people are still making dangerous tackles and we must tighten the regulations on that."

The inspiration for this, incidentally, comes not from Blatter but from Platini. "In Italy in 1991 Michel said in the task force [a body set up by Blatter to consider ways of improving the game] we should ban tackling. Everyone thought `you can't do that'. He was pretty radical at the time but as the game has got faster we have seen more tackles from behind and that is what Michel was really on about. It is not just to prevent ball players like Platini himself - or Marco van Basten whose career was ended by such tackles - but also the ordinary Saturday afternoon player who gets crunched by people coming in from behind, or from the side, with feet in the air."

This initiative was successfully brought in before the 1994 World Cup. So what will referees, at their March get-together, be told to crack down on next summer?

"There will be a lot of emphasis on the distance of the wall at a free- kick. There is no point talking about giving referees laser zappers shining on the ground and the referee saying `get back to there' because players won't take any notice. Then what, does the referee zap them off at the knee? The law is there, they should be 9.15 metres from the ball and if they don't get back it is in the referees' power to give the nearest guy a yellow card - all they have to do is implement it. The World Cup is the shop window, if you can get the referees to apply the laws of the game strictly in it, referees and players at lower levels will accept that is the way to do it."

This will, inevitably, lead to a rash of yellow cards and dismissals of players collecting two yellows. Two possible disciplinary adjustments, rugby league's sin-bin and hockey's use of three cards to similar effect, have both been rejected partly on administrative grounds: "We have enough people coming and going as it is, with three substitutes in each side."

"The referee should not have a soft option," Blatter adds. "He should be strong enough to say `that's a yellow or that's a red'. There is a large body of thought that thinks the main problem is the yellow card - a lot of referees go for yellow when they know, in their heart of hearts, they should be showing a red."

The use of video to assist referees, which is supported by Platini, is rejected until it is perfect - and then only for assessing whether the ball has gone over the line. The principle of professional referees - though not to the extent it is their sole livelihood - receives favour, the idea of two referees does not.

On to another bugbear, the ever- expanding fixture list. "The quickest and easiest way to reduce the pressure on players remains reducing the top division by two clubs - that immediately cuts out four matches a season. Obviously the clubs are not too keen as it will have a commercial impact but we should not kid ourselves. Most clubs, when they get an opportunity for a few free days, go off and play a friendly somewhere."

Clubs, especially in Europe, are growing in wealth and, subsequently, power. The prospect of Fifa struggling to retain both control and the primacy of international football is a real one.

"We need to maintain an equilibrium. You only have to look at Euro 96 or a World Cup, the whole country is united behind one team. National teams are and always will be essential to the football landscape.

"Football has become very attractive to people who have never been involved in it. Bureaucrats and businessman think they can get a higher profile for themselves by getting involved, and one of the big problems in football is not the game itself but the people on its periphery.

"They are there because their wallet is in football and, in many cases, they are smarter than those who are there because their heart is in football."

Blatter, while influential, is technically just one of Fifa's 60 salaried employees (average age 35). While he influences and executes policy, Havelange, as president, shapes it. The 81-year-old Brazilian retires next summer and, this week, annointed Blatter his preferred successor with the words: "If my friend wins [the election] I would shake his hand. If he lost I would weep."

Very touching, but Blatter has yet to indicate he even wants the post - Lennart Johansson, the president of European football's governing body, Uefa, is the only declared candidate. Will Blatter stand? He gives a classic politician's answer which reveals nothing but, so long as he feels he can work with Johansson, Blatter will probably be happy enough to keep juggling the balls he already has in his grasp. Football can be grateful he appears to possess a safe pair of hands.