'Europe, South America overrepresented in World Cup' - FIFA chief Sepp Blatter

Preparations are underway for the world’s biggest sporting event – the FIFA World Cup to take place in Russia in 2018. How does politics influence the sport? Does football need new rules? What to do with the big money drawn to the world’s largest spectacle? Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, is with us to talk about the present and future of the beautiful game.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Mr. Blatter, thank you so much for being our guest today. It’s great to have you with us.

Sepp Blatter: It’s a great pleasure for me to meet you and to be with you on your television channel today.

SS: Likewise. So the 2018 World Cup will take place in 11 cities, 12 stadiums in Russia. Have you had a chance to take look at it? Do you think Russia is up to the target to be fully prepared?

SB: I haven’t had a look, the chance to have a look, but I can tell you it will be a great World Cup, and the preparations work, and we will have a special meeting about that. I am very satisfied of all the reports I have received. And I can say that comparing to Brazil 4 years ago we are far in advance of the works in these years. We have a lot of confidence in the success of this World Cup here in Russia.

SS: Now, something very interesting that you said recently, that you want to change the system of quotas in World Cup 2018. What exactly did you mean?

SB: Oh, listen, changing the system of quotas, we still have to maintain the quality of the football in the World Cup where we have 32 teams. But we should be a little bit more democratic in distribution of the quotas. For instance, in the World Cup we just played in Brazil - it was a great World Cup, but we had 13 teams of Europe and 6 teams of South America. It means 19 teams of 2 continents, of 2 confederations. And I think this is a little bit high number, and we should be a little more democratic and try to equalize these quotas, but still with maintaining the quality of football.

SS: Who would you want to see more?

SB: This is a very delicate sports political matter and I cannot disclose now, even with all your charm. You will not bring me to situation where I say what my proposal is.

SS: OK, but what I’m thinking is that, who would want to give up their quotas? Is it realistic?

SB: No, but I think, if I’m speaking of these two continents – South America and Europe – I think they are overrepresented there.

SS: OK. Do you maybe feel that there could be an increase in teams?

SB: No, definitely not. For the World Cup 2018 and 2022 and as long as I am the president of FIFA, we have made all our contracts for the World Cups ’18 and ’22 with 32 teams, and 32 teamsis the best number. To add numbers it would mean that the World Cup will last longer, and it is already 30 or 31 days. That’s enough for football, people cannot digest more football than 31 days, even if it’s football at the highest level.

SS: You know, as far as the 2018 World Cup in Russia, many European politicians have called to boycott this World Cup. What’s your take on that?

SB: It’s not only from Europe, also from other continents, from especially North America, they’ve tried to boycott. Listen, my first competition that I had in Russia – that time, the Soviet Union – was the 1980 Olympic Games. They were boycotted, and then the next ones also, in 1984. There’s nothing good in it, there is no result in boycott. We’re not in politics, we’re in sports, and I’m sure that Russia will deliver an exceptionally good World Cup and it’s for the world. Russia is the biggest country of the world, with all these frontiers with other counties, and it will be great. Russia is more in Asia than in Europe, it is an international organizer of the World Cup and there shall be no boycott. In FIFA we never doubt that we will organize this World Cup in Russia. It is a will, and it is a fact.

SS:Well, you said that sport is not politics and they shouldn’t be mixed. But oftentimes sports and politics are being mixed and sport is used as a political tool. How can this be averted, what do you think?

SB: You see, at the moment when football especially – not only sports, but football – is such an important player in the international scenery, in social and economic part, it has also, definitely, a political dimension. But we shall help politicians, or we should try to help, to solve problems by football, but not enter into the politics, and not the contrary. I have an example to tell you how we can do something. It is between Israel and Palestine, where we are trying to get them together in order that they can play football together, and Palestine can use the privilege that they have as a member on FIFA and they can have international contact. That is when politics can help. But what we want to do is to stand firm when we take a decision: we are going to play this competition in Russia in 2018, full stop.

SS:You just mentioned Israel and Palestine. It’s interesting because oftentimes, sometimes when two competing nations are competing in sports, it’s not the best outcome. We’ve seen Serbia and Albania. And I’m not asking you to make a statement on that, I’m just saying: things like this happen. So it’s not just politicians, it’s also athletes - when they meet, they get into brawls. How can that be?

SB: No, the athletes are not, but they have been provoked. It’s always a provocation. Other ways, in sport, you know, in football the national teams are the best ambassadors of the countries, and one must be very cautious when it comes to competition and try to not have matches where at the very beginning you know there could be a conflict.

SS: Like Azerbaijan and Armenia, they never played together, for example.

SB: Yes, in FIFA competitions, Armenia and Azerbaijan, we don’t put them in the same group in order to avoid the problem.

SS: So you didn’t see it coming with Albania and Serbia?

SB: That is not the matter of the FIFA, but I think in future everybody is now alarmed to avoid such situations, because we shall not create situations where politics can abuse the platform of football. We shall just do the contrary, because football is there to connect people. If I tell you that nowadays football is played in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria – everywhere, in these countries where there is a belligerent activity, football is played, and no footballer is harmed when they play football. This is connecting people and giving people hope and emotions in the world, which is a cold world, we need these emotions, and football is giving that.

SS:Do you feel that football needs new rules?

SB: No.

SS:At all?

SB: No, not at all, not at all. The popularity of our game is that practically since 1886, the basic laws, rules of football have not changed: eleven-a-side, one ball, one referee.

SS:Well, it is a good thing, though. Everything evolves, why shouldn’t football?

SB: Well, we have started to put a little bit technology inside the game, but the basic game which is played everywhere around the world is so easy to understand that everyone understands it. The only thing that people cannot understand is the offside rule, and here I have the best answer to that: just try that in your life you are never offside. And then you will get what it is.

SS:If you permit, I’ll still just go through a couple of proposed innovations that were proposed in football, and you tell me what you think about that. For instance, the European football head Michel Platini is in favor of introducing this so-called “white card” that would allow a player to go off the pitch for a certain amount of time. What do you think of that? It happens in hockey, why can’t we have one in football?

SB: No, in hockey there is not a white card, you are just penalized for two or five minutes.

SS:So they can go for ten minutes and then come back.

SB: Anyway, this is already tested in amateur football in Great Britain, that’s the first thing, but not with a white card. We have a red card and a yellow card, and we cannot have a presentation of different cards, and then the referee says, which card do you want? No, I think we have to discuss all the novelties they want to put into football, but we have to be very careful when it comes to changing the rules. We have put in the goal-line technology, this is a big help.

SS:So expensive! Is it worth it, the goal-line technology?

SB: It is expensive for the time being, but when a system is introduced and it will be generally used, then it can be adopted. And it depends, if you still want to have this situation in professional football - I’m speaking of professional football – the situation when you don’t know if a goal has been scored or not, and then you have all these discussions, and we finish the discussions. It is a help for the referees, but also for everybody, because now we know if it is a goal or not a goal. If it’s a question of price, those who can afford it can take it, the others who don’t want it, they go on with the problems they can have if the goal is scored or not.

SS: So it’s not your objective to install the technology everywhere?

SB: No, it’s free. Everybody can take it or not take it.

SS:OK. And what about lifting the age cap for the referees? Do you think it should be lifted? Because I’m thinking, people at 45 nowadays can do much more than 20 years ago – they are younger, they are healthier… Do you think the age cap could be lifted?

SB: There is no more age limit now.

SS:No more?

SB: No. The congress has decided that there is no more age limit for the officials, and referees are officials, and therefore now in national associations they can use the referees, and also for the FIFA, if they think that referees can go on after the age of 45. And it is correct, because the age limit is discrimination, finally. Some of the referee organization weren’t happy with that. But now it’s open, the congress was very clear: no age limit in football for all officials. It means not only for office bearers, but also for referees, and this is a big, big step forward.

SS:What do you think about introducing more substitutions in half-time? Two more substitutions in half-time? Does it make sense?

SB: No, no. It is eleven-a-side, football is eleven-a-side, and we have already three substitutions and that’s enough. Because otherwise it is a go in and go out, and it is no longer eleven-a-side. And we have to stick on that, we have to maintain the essence of football and not try to adopt things from other sports. Let football be eleven-a-side.

SS:Let’s talk a little bit about match fixing. That’s a problem that’s been there forever and it seems like it never goes away. Just recently there was Ghana and Croatia, I think it was this summer, right? What do you guys do, what does FIFA do to combat that? Can anything be done to combat that?

SB: Well, sure. It is a manipulation of results. The origins were in football, but now it is in other sports as well, they try to change, to manipulate the results. I have a solution for match fixing, but it is very difficult to apply.

SS:Share it with us.

SB: It is just that whoever is touched by these organizations for match fixing, be it a referee, a coach or a player, he just immediately denounce it. But it’s not so easy, because sometimes these organizations are in crime. It means, they say to the player…

SS: They implicated themselves.

SB: They say, “If you denounce it, something will happen or could happen to your family”. It’s a very difficult problem we have, but we are fighting against that, and I think also the participants of football – it means players, coaches, referees – they must fight with us. And I’m sure we will be successful at that.

SS:You’re saying that as soon as someone is touched with match fixing, he should denounce it. Could you give any guarantees to those people? Could FIFA give any guarantees to the referees, the players?

SB: Sure. We have had a case in one of the associations where one of the players announces it, and later on he had no more contract in this federation. So there is something wrong in appreciation of people who denounce it. They don’t like it when people denounce other people. But this would be the solution. But I said, we would protect all these players. We protected this player who did it, he is now an ambassador for FIFA, he’s working with us. But the problem is that behind the organization of match fixing there is also crime, international criminology. And there is danger, we have examples when people said: “You have a 12 yearsold daughter. Do you want that something happen to her if you denounce it?” And then it’s finished, that’s it. That’s why we have to work with Interpol and all the police organizations of the world, and also we have to work with our own players and coaches and referees by saying what is fair play.

SS:The chief of FIFA’s medical committee says that there is no doping culture in football. I’m sure you would agree with that.

SB: There is no doping culture, there are doping cases.

SS:But the doping tests that were conducted in Brazil by FIFA were so extensive this summer! And I read somewhere that it costs 3 million to catch a single steroid cheat, and none of them were caught this summer. So is it worth spending so much money on a problem that doesn’t really exist?

SB: You’re so right with that! We could use all this money to develop the game, to organize and offer football pitches in the poorest countries in the world. But if we don’t do it, then we are under suspicion by the world of the other sports where there is doping. So we have to do it to prove that we are not in a doping culture. You know, we have identified in FIFA that there are more social drugs in football, and not doping. But we have to do it. But you are absolutely right; we could use this money for developing, to make people happy in Africa, in Asia, wherever there are poor people…

SS:…in Georgia…

SB: Georgia? No, Georgia is not poor people (laughs).

SS:Mr. Blatter, I would like to talk to you about a very sad and unfortunate and strange accident, but we cannot not discuss it because everyone has been talking about it. Something that happened in India after a football match finish, I’m sure you’ve heard. When the goal was scored and while the celebration the player did an unfortunate flip and died. And that created worldwide discussion that maybe stricter rules can be brought in for goal celebrations. What do you think? Is it needed?

SB: Listen, football is this exceptional game. We’ve 300 million active participants and 1,2 billion people with their families in this game, and this game gives its entertainment, emotions, but also passion. And in a game with so many people you cannot avoid accidents even in celebrations, of course. We cannot avoid that, it is absolutely impossible. But we can avoid, or try to avoid, and when we can intervene is when it comes to a fair play. It is an intervention that we had, that is very, very sad case, when people from the spectators were throwing stones inside the field, and one of the players got touched and later he died. This we can avoid. But in celebration something can happen. It happened in the show business, it happened in theatre, it happened everywhere where there are a lot of people. We are victims of our popularity and we have so many people in this game – I repeat, 1,2 billion, it’s the sixth part of the world population – they are linked with football, so it’s impossible to avoid such situations. And football is a passionate game; there is passion in this game. And if you are in passion, passion has no limits.

SS: Well, you just brought up fans, crazy fans that would throw something at the footballers. But fans are a massive part of football, like in any sport. I’m just thinking, doesn’t slapping a spectators’ ban on a match punish just regular viewers along with a handful of crazy fans? And also I’m thinking, how a club can be responsible for behavior of just a few idiots.

SB: Well, this is the question of responsibility of the club with the club members or the fans, if they are not club members, and somebody must be responsible for that. If the club did not play, they would not come. This is the problem.

SS: How can they be responsible for someone being crazy?

SB: We could start a big discussion about individual and collective responsibility in an event. But I agree with you when it comes to playing a match without spectators. I am against such decisions by the disciplinary commissions, because football shall not be punished by not having spectators. We shall have other ways and solutions to punish those that are responsible for something, but not to play without spectators. This is not the essence of football. And when it comes to racism, we have the possibility to deduct points off the team that is responsible for that. If you start to deduct points of one of the teams, then it will stop immediately.

SS: You brought up two very important aspects during the interview: passion in sport, that is very important, and you also said that most of the teams for the World Cup are from two continents, being from Europe. And it’s true that with most of the money in the hands of the handful of clubs, when we see the finals of the clubs, it’s always the same teams playing. And as soon as talent is on the scene, it’s snapped up by rich clubs. Players are paid just ridiculous sums of money. Do you feel like big money in football these days sort of impend the spirit of the game?

SB: No, no. As long as it is controlled, no. Because football is now also a business. And we need business in football for the promotion of football, we need the big leagues and big clubs, we need them. But it has to be controlled. Here in Europe, in UEFA, they are controlling it by this famous “financial fair play”, they control the clubs. We have to control it, but you cannot avoid the money to go to football. I think finally if the money is distributed, as we do it in FIFA, towards the whole world, then it is good money. But in some of the leagues it’s obvious that the rich become richer and the others, they are not poorer, but the gap between the rich and those who are not so rich is opening and is higher and higher. We cannot avoid it without this financial fair play, and I do hope that this financial fair play that UEFA’s president put in, Platini, I think if it works, it can bring down a little bit this explosion of money, wages, transfer fees etc.

SS:Also, like you said, football is a business. I feel like it’s becoming more of a show business than a sport. If you take World Cup in Brazil, I mean, it raked billions and billions of dollars in TV broadcasts, ads, merchandise, ticket sales… Do you feel we’re walking a thin line between football becoming more of a show business than a sport?

SB: It’s a show! The World Cup is the biggest show on Earth. The World Cup is a show. It’s a show of the best football. And this is what makes the World Cup so attractive. It is sport on one side, it is emotion, but it is a show, and you have seen that, and we will see it in 2018, as well, here. It’s a big show.

SS:Who do you think is the best football player right now, in the world?

SB: The best player right now is German goalkeeper Neuer.

SS: Do you think you’ll be reelected for the fifth term as FIFA president?

SB: If you are a prophet, and you tell me, you give me good odds, then I would say it’s a good chance that I would be reelected…

SS: I’m convinced that you will be reelected. Thank you so much for this interview.

SB: Thank you. It’s a pleasure meeting you.