So where is football going, someone asked.
They were not referring to the game’s grassroots, where September’s national non-league day continued to make the most of these pesky international breaks and siphon off ever more punters disenfranchised by the vainglorious actors strutting the political Premier League stage. Nor the progress made in football played by women.
No, they were referring to October’s posturing in Zurich; in Greg Dyke’s case, the speech given by the FA chair at Millbank in September, widely interpreted as a shot across the very same Premier League bows… and to the returning spectre of a super-uber Euro Liga.
To sum up: the whims of unaccountable powerbrokers threaten to result both in a winter World Cup and a Euro tournament simultaneously based in umpteen different nations, not to mention the potential addition to the latter of guest squads from the likes of Brazil and Japan. Oh, and add some gimmick called a commission and a 50% cull on “foreign” players. Just as well there’s still some cash left.
Why not throw in the latest elite club breakaway talk while you’re at it, reviving the unrest of two years ago, two years, that is, before the Bavarians reclaimed the Champions League at Wembley; two years before all football’s sacred cows appeared to come up for grabs… and all at once.
In the summer of 2011, Bayern Munich and European Club Association (ECA) president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge called for nothing less than a “revolution” in football, adding: “[FIFA president] Sepp Blatter is saying he is cleaning up the game, but the fact that no one believes him tells you everything you need to know.
“I’m not optimistic because they [FIFA] believe the system is working perfectly as it is. It is a money-machine. It is a nice game but it is decided by people who are corrupt. I am not ready to accept the system as it is and I am not alone.”
Soon afterwards came this world-class climb-down. “Our goal is not to break away, we know we have to release our players to the international teams. But we want good governance, democracy and transparency.” In the intervening weeks Blatter and [UEFA president] Michel Platini appear to have caved to ECA demands for an uncapped percentage of “market-pooled” UEFA TV money and a reduction in the number of international fixtures.
Back to national teams and the Euro tournament, held every four years – as is FIFA’s bloated finals with 32 – is already going from 16 to 24 participants at the behest of Platini, a derided figure regarding whom your correspondent best declare full disclosure, and sooner rather than later.
You see you could well have mistaken me for a Platini pilgrim back when he played, venturing from the Manchester Posthouse which hosted him and lesser Juventus mortals to far-flung Mexican outposts where he orchestrated the defeats of Italy and Brazil before failing to prevent his keeper gifting the Germans yet another final berth in 1986.
Should you prefer the word “stalker”, this pathology turned professional and took me to a tunnel in Hamburg, a yacht moored off some Japanese harbour for a FIFA VIP view of Boyz II Men and numerous press conferences in between.
This unrequited adoration has, however, long since come to the end of the road.
Now Platini is no reflexive Brit-baiter, as most news outlets based in the UK would have you believe. Still, as an administrator he’s had to use a long spoon to coin a phrase, and invariably stick to the menu dictated by Herr Joseph, the Swiss watch salesman turned soccer emperor, whose resume is in fact more palatable than that of his FIFA predecessor, believe it or not.
Platini merely plays to whichever gallery will best potentially sustain his ambitions. His UEFA tenure has featured the ballooning of revenues since the original threat of a breakaway by the ECA (aka MUFC, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, MCFC, Spurs, Everton, Villa, Newcastle and Fulham plus 187 others). No coincidence.
Yet Galatasaray chairman Unal Aysal has brought the prospect of a 20-strong super league emphatically back into focus. “I think it is the future of football,” he said in London, October 10. “It has to be created, not after 10 years but as soon as possible.”
What could possibly go wrong if the game is left to the devices of the most vested of interests? Plenty. With true altruistic leadership seemingly too much to ask of football, then, forgive the simultaneous switch of code and of medium to evoke the team talk that the fan in all of us would love to believe could take place in the bowels of OUR stadium, where most of us are, perversely and voluntarily, persona non grata.
Central to Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday is the fictional coach of the fictional Miami Sharks: Tony D’Amato – portrayed, and indelibly so, by Al Pacino.
“We can stay here and fight our way back into the light… one inch at a time,” D’Amato implores of his team. Well, whether you’ve seen the film or not, don’t go looking to Michel Platini for the metric version.
While we await his response this time around we have this two year-old one to go by: “The demands of the clubs to be heard and to be associated, also financially, are well-founded. The letter of intent signed today [binding clubs to the Champions League and due to expire in 2014, folks] is not a political step, but a logical one.”
The “market pool” bias of redistribution of commercial revenue from the Champions League and UEFA Super Cup instituted last time by Platini remains worth €1.34 billion a year. So you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see where this grotesque version of The Price is Right is headed. Anyone with an eye on outmaneouvering Blatter needs to out-Blatter Blatter. Hence Platini’s tactics aimed at gaining the necessary traction for change, whether for good (such as financial fair play, in principle) or ill (the rich get richer, as TimeZone put it).
Anything related to general or emerging European logistical footballing inconvenience is now attributed at the very least to colonial if not racist origins by those briefing on UEFA’s behalf, a narrative appeased by successive Prime Ministers desperate to garner host venue votes in vain, by the way.
As for Greg Dyke’s attempt at a domestic initiative: won’t it go the way of the Taylor report and its misapplied recommendations for ground safety in the wake of Hillsborough? Putting in far more lucrative seating was only what clubs wanted to do anyway, and the rest of the report remained unimplemented, only ultimately to be discredited entirely… far too late in the day.
Dyke himself must somehow assert, and soon, the kind of authority wielded by a relatively junior player when it comes to issues such as the Qatar 2022 debate. ECA Vice Chair Umberto Gandini of AC Milan said that “there are far too many aspects to be taken into consideration before FIFA announces an actual replacement date [the length of this consultation could easily be nine months]. Blatter says Europe no longer dominates. Fine, no problem, but what about all those teams that will have to stop playing because of a change of World Cup dates? What about cash flow for clubs who have to pay salaries to players who are not playing? How can they pay the bills without playing competitions?
“And what about countries who don’t qualify? These are practical problems. It’s not just a question of moving, period. The question is, to when? Our position is, don’t rush into a decision.”
All valid questions and the heart so very nearly bleeds… so why DID Platini himself vote for Qatar? Platini, don’t forget, is one of Blatter’s exalted FIFA vice presidents and an ExCo member to boot besides being top UEFA dog himself… Was his vote a proxy for Blatter, for Sarkosy, for neither or both?
Blatter told Die Zeit that “political influences” had played a part in Qatar winning the World Cup lottery, adding: “European leaders recommended to their members to vote for Qatar, because they have great economic interests with this country.”
Platini’s response? “When Mr Blatter speaks to the press, he doesn’t ask me.”
Just like prospective Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, Platini is said to be in a holding pattern ahead of going for the top job. It’s just a matter of which point in 2014 that both confirm their intentions.
With Blatter in post until 2015 the only good news is that the tide is turning, as reports of corruption are suppressed less and the naming of names gathers momentum on social media.
If you’ve the stomach for more on Blatter, try Badfellas by Sugden & Tomlinson and Foul! by Andrew Jennings, while @ChangeFIFA has a Facebook and a Twitter presence to choose from.
Meanwhile, as Dyke’s vaunted commission took shape amid chattering class loathing and the fear of another missed qualification (how many places do England really need to play for in order to relax), an unfortunate couple of equations also came to mind.
For the want of but ONE weekly wage packet from ONE of those pesky foreigners to have ruined our national game (remember the outrageously successful England team of the seventies, when it was the odd Celt suppressing all the talent?) Southern Football League Hinckley United’s debts might have been paid in ONE fell swoop to beat its winding up order.
The Premier League is one season into the implementation of its £340m Elite Player Performance Plan and FIFA’s income from the last World Cup was $4bn – although they still managed to report a $30m loss, while, back on September 7, on non-league day, if you turned up dressed as a pirate you got in free for Bexhill’s Sussex County Division Two home game with Saltdean United.
“We can heal as a team or die as individuals,” said Al Pacino one fine, fictional Sunday. So where IS football going? Search me but try following the votes and the cash for starters. And leave the fantasy to Tony D’Amato.