Thursday 29 September 2016

'Before thinking of leaving the boat, let me bring it back on the right course' - Blatter, 2003

In 2003, Sepp Blatter did his first ever interview with an Irish journalist, the Sunday Independent's Nick Webb who recalls meeting Blatter, and we reprint some of the Fifa boss's comments

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Members of the media stand in front of the entrance of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland as Sepp Blatter is re-elected as FIFA president for a fifth term (REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann)
Members of the media stand in front of the entrance of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland as Sepp Blatter is re-elected as FIFA president for a fifth term (REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann)
Sunday Independent 2003

From the top pocket of his elegant suit, Blatter started to pull out some tickets. Would I like to go to the Champions League Final, he asked. AC Milan were due to play Juventus in the first all-Italian champions league final at Old Trafford later that evening. The centre of Manchester was thronged with chanting Rossoneri and Bianconeri fans and tickets for the final had sold out months earlier.

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Sepp smiled as he brandished the tickets. The psychology was clear. Take the tickets and ask soft questions. "No, thank you," I said. The Fifa chief looked surprised. And then the interview started.

I'd spent almost a year trying to persuade Blatter to do an interview with the Sunday Independent. There were dozens of phone calls and emails to his handlers and advisers in London and Switzerland. My pitch was that I wanted to know about the business side of Fifa and how it had become the most successful and profitable sporting body in history. Finally, Fifa agreed, a date was set. The afternoon of the Champions League final in Manchester on May 28, 2003. I'd have half an hour.

I remember parts of the interview. I remember walking along the corridor to Blatter's suite and rock star Phil Collins opening his hotel door wearing just a towel. Blatter's suite was buzzing with handlers and advisers. Blatter himself was tiny. Five foot something. He also had the smallest feet I had ever seen. And he was wearing leather boots. I liked Sepp. He was a bit of a rascal, but quite charming.

I did take something from the Fifa supremo. When the half -hour interview ended and I was leaving his opulent hotel suite, he handed me a tiny football. It was gold. Appropriately enough.

The 2003 interview extracts

Corruption allegations against Blatter reached a head when his own general secretary (now seeking employment elsewhere) denounced him in a report. "Yes, it was difficult. It was unfair and it was a difficult time because I was not the only one affected. Some of those who believed in me were affected. Some of those who believed in me started to doubt. But I was very happy with the strong support."

Blatter says that he never considered resigning, even when pressed to do so by Fifa officials. "I knew that I hadn't done anything wrong - at least in my opinion - to the federation and to my conscience. I'm a very faithful and believing man. I said also, toward God, I have my conscience in peace," he says. Conscience satisfied, the gloves came off. "I thought: 'So let's fight.' So I fought for two days. And I fought with a little bit of pleasure."

Blatter admits that there had been some internal problems with the running of Fifa. "There have been weaknesses, but with not having the right people," he says. "There were also weaknesses of communication and with the transparency of our finances. We have changed that. Those who claimed that we were in a bankruptcy situation are totally wrong."

***

Fifa has traditionally been seen as one of the last great oligarchies, with Blatter wielding ultimate power. It's something he refutes. "The case was that I had acted like a dictator without going to the relevant committees to confirm things," he says. Of 18 separate incidents brought up by his detractors, Blatter says that 16 of them were all confirmed and ratified by the relevant people. "There are only two cases in which I took a decision," he says. "There was a payment to a former referee out of my own pocket, as is my right to do... the other was to interfere with the human resources policy of Fifa to make sure that I had the right people by my side." The shooting is over and the smoke is clearing. "It's finished. It's a closed chapter in the Fifa family, unless there is some tabloid journalist in England writing more," he jokes.

***

Blatter is now approaching his 30th year in Fifa. Although trained in economics and the dark art of public relations, the Swiss was a top-class amateur footballer, playing in the highest amateur league until he reached "the canonic age" of 37. Blatter says that he was a speedy centre forward, clocking 11.4 seconds over 100m.

El Presidente can't have been bad if, as he says, he scored 11 goals out of 15 in one of his matches. After football, his career path took him into tourism, a marketing role with watch firm Longines, journalism, and an executive position with the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation, before he joined Fifa in 1975.

Already, there are rumblings that Blatter may run for Fifa presidency again when his term expires. "We will have to see what happens. In 2006, I will be 70 years old and then I will really have to think about what I want to do. But before thinking of leaving the boat, let me bring it back on the right course." Given the bitter rows that preceded his election, Blatter is going to need all his skills to ensure Fifa sings from the same hymn sheet. His hymn sheet.

Sunday Independent

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