Football: Blatter bows to pressure from Europe

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The Independent Online
IN A significant victory for Europe over the rest of the world, the concept of a biennial World Cup was postponed for at least 18 months yesterday in order for the radical proposal to be discussed more fully.

After meeting for almost two hours in a Geneva hotel with members of Uefa's executive committee, the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, agreed to delay a vote over arguably the most controversial innovation to hit the game in recent years.

"I have agreed not to put it to the vote at the Fifa executive committee meeting next month," Blatter said. "That means it will not go to our Congress in July either. First we must have a co-ordinated international calendar."

Blatter insisted, however, that he was not scrapping the idea. "It will not be dropped," he stressed. "What I am prepared to do is push it in the background a little. An international calendar is now top of the agenda. Without this, there would be no use in staging the World Cup every two years anyway. But this work must be done within the next 18 months. Then we can speak about having the World Cup every two years."

Blatter, who claims the idea has the support of most of Fifa's confederations, was invited to Geneva by Uefa to give them more information on an issue that first made the back pages of a Swiss newspaper earlier this year and, since then, has been fiercely debated throughout the game. His unexpected climbdown came after almost every member of Uefa's 16-man executive committee had expressed opposition to the World Cup idea.

So often surrounded by his own supporters, Blatter sat uncomfortably at a news conference among many of those who had voted against him when he campaigned for, and won, the Fifa presidency prior to last year's World Cup. Foremost among those was the head of Uefa, Lennart Johansson, Blatter's only rival for the senior post last summer.

Yesterday, at least, Johansson succeeded in striking back. With his own cohorts sitting around the same table, Johansson took the opportunity to have a dig at his superior. "I regret the way he announced it and he regrets it, too," said a straight-faced Johansson, before adding, cleverly: "But it's the sign of a great president that he's big enough to admit he made a mistake." Blatter recoiled and tried to smile sweetly.

Johansson said neither he nor his executive committee had changed their stance over a biennial World Cup. "The majority of European nations are still against it. But we have years to discuss the question before it becomes a reality and it would be wrong of me to be stubborn," he said.

With Europe contributing 80 per cent of World Cup revenue, it is inconceivable that football's biggest tournament could go ahead without its participation and Blatter clearly realises this. Yet yesterday's concession to Europe may only result in a temporary, if welcome, conciliation between two organisations constantly at each other's throats.

Asked whether Europe would be happy, some time in the future, to accept the idea of playing a World Cup every two years if its own European Championship was allowed to be staged biennially as well, the Uefa general secretary, Gerhard Aigner, said: "We have to bear in mind how much the fans can take. To have an international competition every two years in the month of June of this magnitude would be too much. We have to be careful what we are doing. Some 80 per-cent of players in the World Cup finals play in European leagues. It's our clubs and our leagues who would therefore have to pay the bill if the players become exhausted by having a World Cup every two years."