The Football Association's campaign to host the 2018 World Cup was yesterday caught in the middle of a row between the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, and the Premier League that has taken the gloss of Blatter's first major visit to England since the announcement of the bid.
The Premier League has banned Manchester United from displaying on their shirts a Fifa badge commemorating their victory in the Fifa Club World Cup in December, which Blatter had specifically come to Manchester to present to them. The Fifa president, who was personally invited to Old Trafford by the United director Sir Bobby Charlton, was understood to be disbelieving at the Premier League's decision.
The motif is a silver badge positioned on United's shirt between the club crest and the kit manufacturer's logo and was worn last night against Internazionale in the Champions League. A Premier League spokesman said that its board had made the decision not to allow United to wear the logo on their shirts when they play league games. "It is a competition- specific thing," he said. "When teams play in our competition they wear a Premier League badge. We wouldn't expect that Premier League badge to be worn on shirts when our teams are playing in the Champions League, the League Cup or the FA Cup."
The snub comes at a particularly delicate time in relations between English football and Blatter, who yesterday engaged in a major climbdown from his comments last week when he suggested the Premier League's pre-eminence was responsible for problems in other European leagues. The 2018 bid committee, led by chief executive Andy Anson, is understandably eager to accommodate Blatter, while the Premier League, whose officials have been overlooked for places on the committee, is less enthusiastic.
Blatter described yesterday how he first met Charlton when he played against him in a youth tournament in 1955 in Zurich. "This commemorative presentation recognises the achievement of Sir Alex Ferguson and his players and means... every time the team takes to the field, they will take that honour out with them on their shirts," Blatter said, before the Premier League told United that it would not authorise the badge.
Modifying his outspoken attack on the wealth of the Premier League when he was interviewed on BBC Radio Five Live last week, Blatter said he was a fan of English football. "English football is absolutely exceptional, it's very attractive but I don't know if it is English football," he said. "It is not only the best organised league in the world, it is the best marketed. So as a football fan I'm very happy with this. As the president of Fifa ... I have to look at the international scenery.
"What we have to realise now is that the basis of the game [the clubs] must have a regional identity [with their players] or at least a national identity. If you look at some of the big English clubs then you have to see that there is no longer a national identity or a local identity [with players]. Then something is wrong because football can no longer be the same as its origins which were to bring people together and give them something to cheer. Now it is spectacular but that is not everything."
Having attacked the role of investors in English football, Blatter then refused to condemn the Glazer family who borrowed around £660m against the value of Manchester United to buy the club in 2005. "I met the Gillett family [co-owners of Liverpool] and the owners of Manchester United. I can only thank them for putting money into football," he said. "As long as they bring money to football that is good. Perhaps it is not the right solution; in other countries, the owners of the clubs are the fans. But the system here in England allows it, and I have no problems."
Blatter claimed he would meet with the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, soon to discuss Fifa's plans for a "6+5" quota in which five players in every team must be home-grown. Fifa has conducted a legal study of how the proposed rule could be made compatible with existing labour laws. The organisation claims that England has the highest concentration of foreign players in its top flight (65.1 per cent), followed by Portugal (57.5 per cent) and Belgium (50.3 per cent).
Blatter said: "I cannot say I have a problem with the Premier League but we do have a problem with the concentration of the best players in the world in the Premier League. This is a problem. I went to Brazil and met with President Lula [Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] and he said to me, 'Please stop the exodus of Brazilian players to Europe'.
"We have to protect young players and stop international transfers of players under the age of 18 because there's a traffic of young players around the world. You cannot imagine how many players around the world are in centres, having been promised brilliant futures."
On England's potential for hosting the 2018 World Cup, Blatter said: "I must be neutral but England is a very good contender for 2018. It has a very strong bid." He defended the reputation of Nicolas Leoz, the committee member from Paraguay, who was alleged to have taken bribes from ISL, Fifa's marketing agency which collapsed in 2001 with debts of £153m. "Nicolas hasn't even been charged and wasn't mentioned in the court reports," Blatter said.