It is indeed a funny old game. How else to describe the scene of the most powerful man in world football, Fifa President Sepp Blatter, standing in the wood-panelled debating chamber of the Oxford Union and stroking an imaginary pussy cat as a portrait of Benazir Bhutto, one of the many former presidents of this venerable society, gazes on?
That was the scene that unfolded yesterday evening as the 77-year-old Swiss followed three US presidents, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa among a long list of world figures in addressing the 190-year-old Union, showing a hitherto unseen comic streak as he used the opportunity to poke fun at the “Bond villain” portrayal of himself in the British press.
That perception had evidently permeated the dreaming spires judging by the boos mingled with the applause that greeted his entrance yet Blatter, whose political manoeuvrings during his 15-year presidency might draw have drawn a nod of approval from the busts of former prime ministers dotted around the chamber, responded by telling the 500-strong audience: “I am here today to challenge your perceptions of me and of Fifa.”
Pointing to the dark blue Oxford tie he had worn especially for the occasion, he added: “There are those who will tell you of the supposed sordid secrets that lie deep in our Bond villain headquarters in the hills above Zurich, where we apparently plot to exploit the unfortunate and the weak.
“They would have you believe that I sit in my office with a sinister grin, gently stroking the chin of an expensive, white Persian cat as my terrible sidekicks scour the earth to force countries to host the World Cup and to hand over all of their money.”
What followed was a staunch defence of Fifa’s work in redistributing its wealth around the world, its development of women’s football and – in a nod to his own legacy – the decision to take the World Cup to Africa. “We pour hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars back into football every year,” he said. “That is where the money trail leads.”
Blatter, Fifa president for 15 years, said Fifa had been cleaning up its act after allegations of corruption in the voting process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups but suggested that running the world football governing body was a more complicated task than David Cameron, an Oxford man himself, faces as British prime minister. “He has an easier [job] than I have at FIFA.”
As for the World Cup in Qatar, Blatter was spared too many awkward questions by the fact the usual questions from the floor were dispensed with; instead he fielded several questions from the Union’s president, Parit Wacharasindhu at the end of his 45-minute address.
Blatter repeated his assertion that a summer World Cup in Qatar was a mistake but suggested that the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf state was not the direct responsibility of Fifa. “Most of the other workers are not working on stadiums – they are working on other infrastructure, railways, building big houses,” he said. “Naturally we cannot just tolerate it and do nothing. We cannot interfere directly in the working principles of a country but we can tell them if you don’t stop that it can have consequences.”
Blatter was more forthright in calling for tougher sanctions against racism in the sport, saying the football world had to raise the stakes in the fight against the “devil” of discrimination by imposing proper sporting punishments rather than fines. “We applaud the strong stand that British football has taken against the scourge of racism in football,” he said. “Racism in our game is a big shame. Financial sanctions is not enough – we must punish by deducting points or by suspending a team or eliminating a team from a competition.”
Blatter was non-comittal about his future as Fifa president – “if you ask me if I will go on or two I cannot answer today” – but there insights into his past as he recalled his father’s refusal to allow him to sign a contract with a Swiss club as a teenager because there was “no future in football”. He also told the tale of his premature arrival on the planet, two months early, which left his grandmother to write off his chances of survival. “Looking back, perhaps some of my friends in the British media might have agreed wholeheartedly with my grandmother.” It was one of several nice lines, even if his comic timing was about as good as a summer World Cup in Qatar.