Uefa take on the world

Ian Ridley explains the political games now starting to dominate football; Lennart Johansson uses today's Euro '96 draw in Birmingham to launch broadside against power of the Fifa president
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The Independent Online
IN THEORY, football is the simplest of games: the ball is round and at its most basic, two coats at either end of a patch of ground will serve as goals. Its tortuous politics are a different container of worms altogether.

The global problem lies in reconciling the interests and aspirations of the 172 countries who go to making it the most popular of games and went into the bowls for last week's World Cup draw, organised by Fifa. Attention switches today to the draw in Birmingham for the European Championship finals, staged by Uefa. Their president, who would like to run Fifa, is taking the opportunity to voice Europe's growing discontent with the world body.

Lennart Johansson has already declared his aim to replace Dr Joao Havelange at the Fifa Congress in France in 1998, but now says he is willing to challenge the Brazilian sooner. Should Europe's voice go unheeded on a variety of issues, he says, there is even the possibility of boycotting a future World Cup.

Uefa are concerned at what they see as the increasing autocracy of Havelange and are particularly angered by his recent unilateral assertion that Africa should be awarded the 2006 World Cup finals. Johansson also expresses distaste at the amount of junketing allowed to flourish under Havelange - bribery, the Swede calls it - as Japan and South Korea woo voters on the Fifa executive in their efforts to host the 2002 finals.

Matters came to a head with Havelange's recent visit to Nigeria, where he was entertained by the country's leaders at the very time of the execution of the dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa. Havelange also said that he would try to secure the next World Youth Championships for Nigeria.

He was, however, forced to abide by a decision of his executive that had already awarded the 1997 tournament to Malaysia. In a further attempt to pacify the Africans, whose voting power is crucial in world football's political forum, he then made his statement about the 2006 World Cup. It now seems to have backfired.

"We do think the World Cup finals should rotate," Johansson said last week, "but when the president of Fifa says they should go to Africa in 1996, he should know he will have a fight. We also should have a system where the executive committee takes decisions about contracts for the World Cup in TV, sponsorship and advertising.

"We want to de-dramatise the role of the president and rotate it every four years," he added. "He has to pay attention to the rules, regulations and statutes until we change them." Johansson's stand may seem unlikely to appeal to Africa, given that they may have much to gain from Havelange's continued presence, but he added. "I am not saying that they should not have the finals, just that it should be an executive decision."

Other subjects that incense Uefa include having new members, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, imposed on them by Fifa before they judged that the time was right; a proposal without sufficient consultation to begin a World Club Cup in 1998; and an attempt - successfully resisted - to cram the 49 countries in the World Cup qualifying competition into seven groups, though none of the leading nations wanted to play 12 matches.

"We provide 80 to 90 per cent of the financing of world football," Johansson said. "We can do without Fifa but they cannot do without us. They should be grateful that we behave in such a proper way. They should appreciate we bring ideas and vision."

Unthinkable that Europe would boycott a World Cup? The threat is that Europe could organise its own rival tournament, and while Johansson's tones may be measured, a velvet voice conceals an iron fist. It is improbable that it will come to that, more likely that Havelange will compromise and consult, or even retire. He had indicated that he is ready, at the age of 80, to do so, but subsequently said he was willing to stay on.

The 2002 bids of Japan and South Korea have been wasteful, Johansson also believes. "Both have spent a tremendous amount of money on campaigning instead of putting it into stadiums or of youth football. I blame both of them for trying to bribe us. I have had to send back lots of gifts."

Johansson, who as a member of Fifa's executive committee will vote on the venue in June, does not believe countries on the same continent should be in competition. He also wants to see a limit on the value of "gifts".

Neither was Johansson happy with last Tuesday's World Cup draw in Paris. "Did you see that boring draw? They tried to make a show of it and it became a non-show. Even the president slept. Why not leave it to the confederation concerned? Who knows better than Uefa what to do?"

Which brings us back to Birmingham today. Pele and Sir Bobby Charlton will be there while Simply Red will provide the entertainment. Even allowing for recent concerns that the tournament may see the FA make a loss - which Johansson says Uefa will underwrite - "Money's Too Tight to Mention" is unlikely to become its anthem.

Compared with last Tuesday's, today's 16-team draw will be a short, sharp and simple affair. It is unlikely that England will be left with a simple task at the end of it, however.