Published 10/06/2008 | 00:00
SINCE being named president of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders some 37 years ago, Sepp Blatter has been no stranger to controversy.
While heading up that group of 120 men from 16 countries, who were aggrieved at women replacing suspender belts with pantyhose, did not win the Swiss native worldwide fame, he has been more successful in that regard in his current role as president of FIFA -- an equally disparate, if not as fruity, organisation.
Blatter has held the hot-seat of world football's governing body for 10 years and rarely fails to polarise opinion when his mouth opens.
Amid ongoing criticism of the method by which he secured and retains the post, he has blasted his own referees, undermined member associations and returned to a subject close to his heart by bemoaning the fact that female footballers don't wear tighter shorts.
Yet for all those quirky character traits, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Blatter has made no contribution to meaningful debate on the future of the game.
While it is certainly in contravention of EU employment law and has riled the big guns of European club football, his desire to push through his controversial six-plus-five vision for the future of the game -- essentially decreeing that club teams in each country can have no more than five foreign players [or non-home-grown, which is one of the loopholes] in their starting 11 -- is one that has prompted debate about the future of the game.
His point is that the globalisation has accelerated to such an extent that clubs are in danger of losing touch with their roots, to the detriment of that nation's development. High profile supporters such as Franz Beckenbauer cited the example of England having three teams in this year's Champions League semi-finals, yet not being able to qualify as a country for Euro 2008.
While that debate will rage on, and will surely end in a curbing of Blatter's goals, you would suggest that while the FIFA chief will be cheering on his own country during Euro '08, he will also be curious about the progression of Russia.
They get their campaign under way against Spain in Innsbruck this evening, with the distinction of being the side with the most domestic-based players in their ranks as Nuremberg striker Ivan Saenko is the only non-Russian Premier League star selected by Guus Hiddink in his 23-man squad. While Italy won the 2006 World Cup with a selection entirely composed of Serie A players, four of Roberto Donadoni's panel for this gathering ply their trade abroad.
Ironically, if England had been here then their squad would have been entirely Premier League-based -- perhaps David Beckham aside -- but the other competing nations are representative of the global football market which Blatter is effectively seeking to restrict with a reasonable amount of diversity of location.
In that context, the performance of the Russians in this tournament will be fascinating after a year where their domestic game received a huge boost from the UEFA Cup success of Zenit St Petersburg.
Aligned with the staging of the Champions League final in Moscow, it's been a good year for their powers that be and it's telling that their sports minister has been present this week talking about the prospect of future bids for major championships.
Success on the field does no harm in spreading a message and Russia have been punted as many people's idea of a possible outsider, with the presence of Hiddink at the helm stressed as a major positive. And while his squad may be relative unknowns to the Western world, they are an extremely interesting bunch in themselves, referred to as the 'Dirty Dozen' in their homeland due to the number of reformed 'Bad Boys' in their midst.
There's midfielder Igor Semshov, a rebellious figure in his youth, who once received a five-match ban for kicking a referee up the backside during a league game.
Defender Sergei Ignashevich bizarrely rang Hiddink two days before a friendly last August to warn him he would be late due to traffic, and was sent home when he duly arrived late. And striker Dimitri Sychev, just 18 when he scored in the 2002 World Cup, saw his career falter shortly after when he took employers Spartak Moscow to court for inserting a buy-out clause in his contract when negotiations stalled. He received a six-month ban for his troubles.
All this baggage doesn't bother Hiddink, who had to deal with some cultural differences when assuming the post on a hefty contract, in no small part due to the contribution of good friend Roman Abramovich.
He encouraged apparent novelties such as swearing and slagging about individuals' respective club form into the dressing room as a means of building morale in a fragmented grouping. A few spicy characters are welcome, in his opinion.
The man who masterminded success with South Korea  and Australia  has been going about things his own way in the build-up, actually cancelling some training sessions in the past week as a chosen means of preparation. Perhaps he's looking to avoid further injuries, with luckless Zenit striker Pavel Pogrebnyak officially ruled out at the weekend after also missing his side's UEFA Cup final success.
Key playmaker Andrei Arshavin, also of Zenit, is suspended for tonight's meeting with the Spaniards as well as Saturday's meeting with Greece, and will be praying his side still have something to battle for when they play Sweden in their Group D finale next Wednesday.
Should they fail in this competition, then don't be surprised if Hiddink uses his charges' apparent loyalty to stay at home as an excuse, although some have tried their luck abroad and failed. Following a friendly defeat to Romania in March, he was unequivocal about the reason for the reverse.
"We saw the difference between two of the Euro 2008 finalists", he said afterwards. "In one team were gathered footballers that compete in the leading European leagues and who face serious challenges every week.
"In the other were players who are playing in the Russian championship. Unfortunately in Russia, the players don't play in matches at the top level as often as I would like to see."
While the country's politicians and propagandists emphasise the merits of staying at home, Hiddink's comments suggest a ready-made excuse if things go wrong on this European adventure.
Should he succeed in the unlikely again, however, and secure progression from the group stages, then expect Blatter and his cohorts to seize on what they believe to be a salutary lesson.