Grace Jones croons and a juggler drops his balls but Sepp show must go on
'Let's have a great time,' says Blatter, but he is the only one in party mood as the 61st Fifa Congress opens in bizarre fashion
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Wednesday 01 June 2011
It is difficult to plot while Grace Jones is sitting on your lap. The 61st Fifa Congress opened last night in the Hallenstadion, an unappealing concrete and steel conference hall safely removed from Zurich's scenic old town. "Let's have a great time together," said Sepp Blatter. We waited for the Titanic band to strike up.
"Thank you, Mr Blotter [sic]," said the host, a Swiss model and actress called Melanie Winiger. It was that sort of an evening.
Jones, billed as an "iconic figure of the Eighties", was the star attraction of the ceremony that precedes today's real business, the running of Fifa, or rather who will run Fifa. The answer will be Blatter, for a fourth term, but that will not have stopped another night of intense back-room to-ing and fro-ing. Midway through the celebrations, speculation filtered through the hall that Uefa was to use its influence to persuade Blatter to step down halfway through the four-year term; a compromise for the good of the game.
Uefa soon denied that had come from its camp, pointing out that it does not have a vote, unlike its 53 members.
Not all the 208 members who will take part in the congress were in the auditorium last night. The cavernous hall appeared around half-full for Blatter's welcome speech to what he regards as something of a family get-together. The "football family" is how Blatter likes to see Fifa. He is not a tall man and on the huge stage he appeared smaller still. The applause was limited. But appearances and all that – this is not a man ready to exit stage right.
He spoke in French, which may or may not have been a deliberate choice given that he sees many of his oft-quoted "devils" inhabiting an island on the other side of the Channel.
"We must respect our sport," said the 75-year-old. "We must all respect it. All of us have a duty to protect this sport."
He added that "we live in a disturbed world", perhaps still struggling to understand how Jack Warner – the suspended president of Concacaf who is under investigation for allegedly trying corruptly to persuade some of his members to back Mohamed Bin Hammam in the election – had earlier written a letter to his members saying back Blatter.
There is much of the past week that makes little sense, but to have Jones gyrating on stage made perfect sense to men of a certain age, a box which most of the delegates tick.
The opening act was a juggler. The presence of someone who excels at keeping a surprisingly large number of disparate objects from coming crashing to the ground may have caused some of those in the hall to reflect on what this year's congress's main task is: to elect their president. The juggler dropped his balls.
Switzerland is the home of sporting governing bodies, and after Blatter had spoken it was the turn of Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, based down the road in Lausanne. The IOC has done much over the years to improve its image, and its democracy. The process by which it chose host cities for Winter and Summer Games was radically altered in the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal, with the number of voters increased to more than a hundred – in comparison, Fifa's executive committee is 24-strong plus Blatter, although currently four of them are suspended in the wake of corruption allegations (nevertheless, all 25 are pictured in the official literature for the congress).
Rogge took to the stage and mentioned Salt Lake City, but then stepped neatly into line behind his Fifa counterpart. "Thirteen years ago we faced the same ordeal in Salt Lake City," said the Belgian. "The IOC emerged a stronger organisation from within."
The key word being "within". He went on: "I am sure Fifa can emerge stronger from within."
That is very much the theme of Blatter's re-election campaign. There is no need, he says, for revolution – we can reform Fifa from within.
Jones took the stage in a billowing black dress and headgear that would have caught Princess Beatrice's eye. "It looks like one of those things dogs wear to stop them biting people," remarked one veteran Fifa-watcher.
"So strange," she sang, "so strange." Then she descended the steps and rubbed the heads of the delegates in the front rows; for a moment she perched on a lap before returning to the stage to acknowledge the only rapturous applause of the evening.
Among her songbook is one titled "I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect for You)". She did not perform it yesterday; perhaps she is leaving it for the president of Fifa to acknowledge his election at around 3pm central European time this afternoon.
The warm snap in Zurich broke late on Monday night with a thunderstorm, a fitting backdrop to the late-night machinations. The rain continued yesterday, flooding the blue carpet that led into the hall on the outskirts of the city where the opening ceremony took place. But then it was all water off Mr Blatter's back.
Bizarrely, Fifa's Congress was serenaded into the hall by infamous singer and actress Grace Jones last night. Here's a sample of the set list she might have treated the members to:
'Send in the Clowns'
'Cry Now, Laugh Later'
'I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect for You)'
'On Your Knees'
'Don't Mess With the Messer'
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