Sepp Blatter: World Cup in Russia will be exceptional

Football fever is coming to Russia and the big tournament is just a few days away. The Russia World Cup will see new technologies, debutant teams and new management. How will it all work out and what does it mean for global football? The long-serving former FIFA president Sepp Blatter shared his view.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:It’s really great to have you on our program one more time, welcome; it’s a pleasure to be here with you. So we’ve got a lot to talk about: World Cup coming up to Russia and you, your persona and your role in FIFA and just football in general. I know that you’ve said you’ve created the modern football and while you were doing this you made mistakes. What were those mistakes?

Sepp Blatter: I would say it a little bit different. I made errors, and the errors that I made, the biggest one was by conducting the FIFA and being the boss of FIFA. There is a matter how to manage such an organisation, and as I started in this organisation in 1975, when FIFA was just a very small organisation with 11 people, I was number 12, I went through all the FIFA, first as development officer, technical director, secondary general CEO and then the president. So I grew up with the FIFA. My biggest error was when I was elected in 1998, it was a difficult election, 2002 again we had a problem, then I got a position and I trusted people, and I trusted people so much that at the end I was betrayed. I had to accept to be betrayed by people from executive because I couldn’t choose them. And because they were not always on my side, but what was for me, this has harmed me, but this was my mistake, error to trust all these people and to not realise that.

SS: That’s the mistake that a lot of people make in politics and business and industry. I really just want to talk a little more about the impact that you’ve had on the game itself, on football itself, not the organisation FIFA. But what we see in everyday football, because I know you’ve said that you’ve created a modern football, is it maybe taking a little too far? I mean you came up with these amazing new rules, but the innovations, shouldn’t the players and other managers also take a credit for that?

SB: Well, the part of football, and then I am happy that you came back on a field of play, if you question, because I’m more comfortable on the field of play - that’s definite. I was a good player, I was not a star player, but I was a good player. What I’ve seen in football, when I started to think about developing football, then I realised that football is more than kicking the ball. Football is more than that. But to be more you have to organise the game, and the game was not organised, the game was only for Europe and for South America. And then to go worldwide we had to take a look at laws of the game – how are the laws of the game – and then the laws, they have to be adapted to the development of the game. The game became faster. And then we realised after the World Cup in Italy (Italia Novanta)…

SS: It was a very boring World Cup, I remember, it was only defence mainly…

SB: Yeah, defending and the back passed to the goalkeeper and at the line you had referees, they wouldn’t participate if the referee was in the center. I was the secondary general and then we have installed the so-called FIFA 2000, a group of specialists to change the laws of the game.

SS: How did that work? Yeah, I remember you’ve put a group together to make a football more combative and more, you know, exciting. How did that group work exactly? What did they do?

SB: It worked because everybody has realised – the coaches, the players, the media, even the referees – all realised that they were wrong to have referees at the line, because to be a linesman and to be a referee are different things. The linesman is a judge; the referee is a referee to say “yes” or “no”, they are the ones to say “in” or “out”. And then to see that the match was lasting less than 30 minutes and the whole match and the game when it was played because this back passed to the goalkeeper and non-respect of, let’s say, the strikers going and being tackled then from behind. So we had to change that, and this was a big issue or discussion, and we had players also with us at that time, I’ve already took Michel Platini in this matter and really so fast the international board has changed the rule. Then from one World Cup to another we have made different changes, the game was then 40 years later in the United States faster, the first matches the players have been red-carded because it was called the foul play, for instance, because outside the 18-yards line and also we had now linesmen on the line. And, thanks to the British, we have to say, we have changed scoring, it means that evaluation of this, three points and not only two points in and so on. So this was the biggest change that has been made in the laws of the game.

SS: Talk to me about the players of today, I mean, you also have called them “modern days slaves”, but these people are making millions of euros and dollars per week. I mean, the transfers they are just nuts, they are getting bigger and bigger, records are broken every year. I don’t see how football players are at the disadvantage here and how are they modern day slaves. Maybe you know something I don’t. And I know that you didn’t like this whole transfer fee mania, where like hundreds of millions euros or dollars were poured in one player and you wanted to change that, but that didn’t happen. So this transfer system the way we see it right now - is this the only way for football? Or do you think it still is going to be changed in the future?

SB: No, it cannot be changed because it is based on the so-called offer and demand of economic principles and you cannot change it. The only thing the UEFA tried to do is to introduce this system called “financial fair play” and then to make a rule that a club should not have a great gap in-between the income and the expenses, where is the money coming from. But this is the same rule where they cannot be successful.

SS: So I know that you are not a big fan of the Video Assistant Referee and it’s going to be the first time during World Cup 2018 in Russia that it’s going to be used at this level of competition. I’ve spoken to the organisers and they actually think that it’s tested and it’s working really well and it’s going to make judgment in football a lot easier. What are your reservations, what’s the reason you mistrust it?

SB: I don’t mistrust that visual development of refereeing and we have started to have the goal-line technology, but it took three years until it was introduced, because before you introduce a very important change in the laws of the game there must be some experiences made around the world, this is the principle of the international football association board. But now, and I was out then of FIFA, they have now put in the so-called VAR, video assistant referee, and this is not exactly what personally we have asked the television to do. We have not asked television to be the referee of the game. Until I said it is not the time for the World Cup to make such an experiment. Before going to make an experiment in the World Cup it shall be done in different other competitions worldwide – it can be the youth competition, the women’s competition – in order to see how it will happen. Because now you have the majority of the referees, that are now at the World Cup, they have never worked with the system, and you have also the majority of the players there, they have never worked with this system. So that’s why I put a question mark behind that and I was not criticising FIFA when they said they will do it, I was criticising the international board, the guardians of the laws of the game: “Why have you permitted to do that?” But now it is done and then let’s see what will happen.

SS:Obviously, when power has changed, whoever comes into power brings new sets of rules, new teams, so your successor in FIFA also brought a new team, they’ve changed everyone completely. Most of the people in power now are former football players, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know what FIFA needs, rather football players or ex-coaches or good managers, maybe you can tell me. But also FIFA wants to create an extended version of FIFA Club World Cup that would be held every 4 years and 24 club teams would take part. I don’t really understand the logic behind it, I mean, FIFA explains that this is actually a great idea, it would bring more competition to the game, will make it more interesting for the fans. Couple of points that I want to ask you about. First of all, the football players, I mean, wouldn’t they be so tired of playing this endless tournament, because there are just so many of them, you know? FIFA World Cup, the original Champions League, Confederation Cup, Olympic games - don’t they also need to train and rest? Second of all, the fans, I mean it’s great to have a lot of competitions but wouldn’t that also dilute their attention from the main thing which is the World Cup? And also why would anyone want to give up, you know, - the money I’m talking about, the UEFA clubs - why would they want to be part of the FIFA World Club?

SB: The FIFA World Cup is still number one in the world of any sporting event and it is definitely five times more popular than the Olympic games.

SS: That’s undoubtable, that’s what I’ve said, but I’m talking about the FIFA Club World Cup that they want to create.

SB: Because at the end the question was that the World Cup would suffer. The World Cup will not suffer.

SS: No matter what?

SB: No matter what. But it was so difficult to bring an international calendar together and now, with new competitions in this international calendar, that’s a nonsense, because we have a Gregorian calendar, we have 365 days, so we should ask to have another calendar with 500 days. And then it would be possible. And it is absolutely on the social point of view; it will always be the same clubs, the same players – it’s impossible for the players to have no more time to rest! And if they have no more time to rest then they are injured and they are out and this is a non-respect to the actors on the field of play. That’s first of all. Secondly, the fans at a certain time, they will have enough, because they switch on the television, there is always football, soccer all around the world. And there are so many competitions, and which competition will then suffer the most when all this will be done? The National League, and the football is first of all national, because it’s a national football, National League, and if they try, even now in Europe to put the good matches of the Champions League at the end of the week. And the end of the week has always been for the national football, not only the professional football – amateur football and all those – they play it at the end of the week. And it’s a non-respect, this idea is a non-respect to the players, it’s a non-respect to the fans, and a non-respect to the organisation of football. Football is organised through national association; FIFA is an assembly or confederation of national associations.

SS:So I get the two points, thank you. And the third point is about the clubs that are operating inside their own federations, like Champions League is part of UEFA. Why would they ever want to give up their revenues to FIFA and be part of this new FIFA Club World Cup, for instance?

SB: Well, so far and until the end of 2015 finances in FIFA were well, I was very happy and proud to leave FIFA with 2.4 billion, 1.4 in reserves and 1 billion in cash, but now FIFA needs more money. They need more money because they have changed the management of FIFA, they have another approach, new president has another view how to organise FIFA with, as you’ve said, former footballers - it’s ok, but the former footballers they need also the schooling to be in the position they are now. And how do they get it with all the people there? So it is because FIFA is looking for more money, they are coming with these new ideas and there is somewhere this offer from consortium of banks, speaking about Japan, South Arabia, USA – they have put together 25 billion dollars to get these two competitions.

SS: Middle Eastern and Asian countries – they want to invest 25 billion to actually reform FIFA, so to say.

SB: To buy our two competitions, but you cannot buy competitions…

SS: So there will be like the first time that you are selling competitions to a third parties – is that a good thing or a bad thing?

SB: No, they have never. In my 41 years in FIFA we have never sold any competition to a third party.

SS: So if this happens they are going to own FIFA and they will be able to say where they want the competitions to be held, right?

SB: Sure, you cannot, the football belongs not to FIFA, belongs not to UEFA, the football belongs to 2 billion fans around the world – this is what the football belongs to. And you cannot sell out part of football to another entity. This is also from the philosophic point of view how we organise football, and the importance is social, cultural importance of this game is to put people together, but not abusing this game. It is abusing this game and abusing, I would say, players, coaches, everybody and the fans.

SS: Talk to me about this possible investment of 25 billion dollars into FIFA reform. I find it fascinating. If you were right now active president of FIFA you wouldn’t take in those 25 billion to reform FIFA?

SB: No, I wouldn’t sell out FIFA for such an investment. If they want to give the FIFA 25 billion dollars for development of football, do it what the best you can do, then I will take it.

SS:25 billion always comes with strings attached; it doesn’t come as a bonus.

SB: Yes, no one is giving 25 billion for nothing. And then now it’s up to the FIFA do decide on that, but I’m not convinced, because it’s a new era in FIFA, but I think this is absolutely wrong.

SS: So I just want to ask you a question about the World Cup that is going to take place in Russia. I know that 6 countries have boycotted the World Cup, but they are not sending politicians and representatives, but they are still sending their teams. It’s not like it’s going to have any bearing on a competition itself, so what is the point of this kind of a boycott? Is it going to affect the World Cup in Russia in any way?

SB: No, I am not so sure if in the end they are not coming. I am not so sure. We’ll see if by any chance the FA team, England, will do well and is going to quarter-final or final, then the people in London, they will be there in their chairs and they will say: ”We have to go”. And to announce the boycott of a competition because of the geopolitical situation in the world... Let football bring people together. And I’m sure that this World Cup will be exceptional, good World Cup on the field of play, but also for the image for FIFA and the image of Russia to show that they are able to organise the World Cup. But Russia has been in the past years now so much under pressure, but there was never, I would say, a very concrete demand that the World Cup should not be played there. Although they don’t like the World Cup in Russia, they were thinking twice or three times to say: “No, we should not go there, we should boycott it”. No, that would not be good, because it’s not only the football; it’s a powerhouse there. It is Russia powerhouse and here football and politics is together, it’s the World Cup that gives now Russia more power, and this powerhouse cannot be just boycotted. And if they are not there, they have lost something.

SS: So the 2026 World Cup will also have more teams competing, it’s going to be 48 vs. 32. The problem with that, in my opinion, is that with more teams to come there will be much more boring games. I mean it’s one thing to watch France and Argentina – everyone wants to watch it, but like who wants to watch, I don’t know, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia playing? There is going to be much more games like that. I mean you tell me yourself, in the 90s there was one of the most boring World Cups, how do you make sure that more teams don’t mean more boring football?

SB: It’s wrong.

SS:What’s wrong?

SB: To play with 48 teams – absolutely wrong. The number of 32 has now tried a system to play in 31 days, where there are definitely the best, or by any bad chance like Italy and Netherlands for this time are out. But 48 teams will dilute the quality – that’s first. And secondly, the other problem is they want to play in groups by three. And we have already played the groups by three in Spain the second part of the World Cup’82, when for the first time we had 24 teams. And when you have groups by three you always have a spectator, one is not playing. So the last match in the group by three, it is open for all, I would say, possible bad thoughts that there are wrong when you play and you speak about football, and you speak about fixed matches or whatever. But playing in the groups by three is absolutely wrong, totally wrong!

SS: You are coming to the World Cup to see the tournaments. What do you expect to see; I mean, who are you going to root for? I mean, obviously, the Swiss are going to be the champions, but who do you think is going to take the silver?

SB: I’m a guest of president Putin, I am happy and honored to be invited and I’ll be there, but, anyway, I have my opinion on the teams that would be the best at the end.

SS: Who?

SB: I have 4 teams, but I don’t put them in 1 to 4, I put them together.

SS: Just 4 favorites, who are they?

SB: The 4 teams are Brazil, France, Germany, Spain.

SS: No Argentina?

SB: No.

SS: Ok, so let’s wait and see. Thank you so much for this wonderful interview. We are expecting to see you in Russia.

SB: With great pleasure!

SS: Thank you!

SB: Thank you!