Can it really be only 18 months ago that Sepp Blatter, the president of the sport's world governing body, Fifa, was fighting for his very football future? On the eve of the Seoul congress preceding the 2002 World Cup almost the entire British press condemned the Swiss, who faced allegations of buying votes, autocratic management and destroying documents. He had engineered the dismissal of his main accuser, the well-respected general secretary of Fifa, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, on whose report a dossier alleging corruption had been submitted to Swiss prosecutors.
In the event, notwithstanding a condemnatory speech from Adam Crozier, then chief executive of the Football Association, Blatter trounced his Cameroonian challenger Issa Hayatou. Since then he has been awarded an extra year on his term under new statutes adopted at an extraordinary congress held in Doha earlier this year. He is only due to retire or seek re-election in 2007 when he will be 70. After last week's executive committee meeting in Frankfurt he said the committee had given him a mandate to be stricter.
He has been making a lot of noise about the Rio Ferdinand case, expressing surprise that the England defender was still playing for Manchester United while his misconduct hearing was outstanding which, as everyone, including the FA, knows has dragged on for far too long. But no one can imagine that any Fifa committee can be set up to deal retrospectively with a case that is already within the jurisdiction of the FA, no matter how tardily it has been handled. That would be totally unfair and for the first time in this unfortunate business one would begin to feel sympathy for the player and those who use the phrase "hung out to dry".
Blatter himself has just changed his views on the drugs situation in football. He is being unnecessarily alarmist, and for there to be any suggestion that Ferdinand should suffer a long suspension at this stage is as ludicrous as were the words of the president of Fifa on the subject of his sudden conversion: "I thought our game was clean, it is not." Is this a preparatory strike in Blatter's campaign to reduce the size of domestic football calendars, by suggesting that players are turning to drugs to help them to cope? He places before the centenary congress next May a proposal to limit clubs to 45 domestic matches a season, which would drastically hit English football with its reliance on cup competitions.
At the same time Blatter is also presiding over the revival of the club world championship, likely to be held as a 16-team tournament in the United States in 2005, and the Confederations Cup featuring eight national teams from the different continents will also be held in 2005 in Germany as a rehearsal for the World Cup. Both tournaments no doubt featured in his election promises.
The ubiquitous Blatter has discontinued negotiations with the powerful G14 clubs - Arsenal, Manchester United, Real Madrid and co - who are seeking compensation for wages of players used by national teams. G14 are preparing to take legal action against Fifa to frustrate Blatter's aim to limit national leagues to 16 teams. Blatter retorts that as a global sporting body Fifa has no need to worry about the European Court and could seek to expel clubs or countries who resort to legal action to resolve disputes.
Fifa may indeed be on safe ground when it rules on purely sporting matters, but it may be different when it comes to commercial issues, and Blatter has conceded that he will again address the question of insurance of players while on international duty with the national associations.
There is no doubt that the Premiership remains overblown with 20 clubs and it could come down to 18 without suffering any loss of quality, but structural changes of this nature, which would benefit the top clubs and the international teams, must be phased in carefully. It is doubtful whether the inhabitants of Fifa House in Zurich have considered the implications for the Nationwide Conference, much less the Carling Cup.
Some of the European football politicians who were loudest in their condemnation of Blatter last year are still receiving their Fifa executive committee salaries and perks. Reconciliation must come easy in "the Fifa family".
As part of the centenary celebrations, for its significant part in the creation and growth of the game, the FA will host the law-making international board and the next meeting of the Fifa executive committee in London over the weekend of 28-29 February. Though Crozier has left since the FA voted against Blatter, it could be interesting to be a fly on the wall when incoming communications director Colin Gibson, who directed a venomous campaign in The Daily Mail against Blatter, first meets him.Reuse content