KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- This week sees the latest round in that peculiar spectator sport known as ‘FIFA Shadow Boxing.’ In the one corner: Michel Platini, French president of European federation UEFA. In the other corner . . . no-one at the moment. Hence shadow boxing.
The political boxing match began in May 2011 when incumbent president Sepp Blatter indicated that he would stand down at the election congress in Zurich in May of next year.
Blatter had made his retirement statement under heavy pressure as he sought a pathway through the mountains of scandal which had turned FIFA into a laughing stock and provoked votes against his presidency even though he was the only candidate left standing.
At that point only one tenable alternative candidate existed. This was Platini.
No other member of the exco possessed his footballing status and he had wielded his power at UEFA by expanding middle-rank access to the Champions League and creating financial fair play.
Over the past three years, however, Blatter has retreated steadily from the prospect of retirement. Simultaneously Platini, at just about the same pace, has retreated from the prospect of standing for election.
On Thursday of this week, ahead of the Champions League group draw in Monte Carlo, Platini is expected to clarify his intention. Not for the first time. Such expectations of him have been raised before. Indeed, Platini has resembled no other leader as much Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827).
The latter’s exploits – or lack of them – prompted the popular nursery rhyme:
Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
The last time Platini marched an expectant media army up to the top of hill and then marched them back down again was at UEFA’s strategy meeting in Dubrovnik in September last year. All he offered their expectant laptops then then was that he would make another statement some time after the World Cup in Brazil.
Monaco, this week, is the first opportunity, with a formal press conference summoned for Thursday morning.
Blatter, meanwhile, has talked of retiring only if his “mission” has been completed or if there is a successor who represents continuity, like Blatter in graduating from chief executive in 1998 to succeed the retiring Joao Havelange.
Only one man thus far has declared himself as a challenger and that is Frenchman Jerome Champagne. The former FIFA general secretary has a creative vision for the future of FIFA but accepts he would have no electoral chance against Blatter.
The problem for Platini is not Champagne but the timescale.
No potential candidate need declare himself until just before the deadline for nominations at the end of January. But Platini’s own UEFA election congress will be staged within the subsequent four months.
Hence the tease: If he stands for the FIFA presidency then how could he present himself to UEFA, a few weeks earlier, as a candidate for his own European job in the knowledge that he has ambitions elsewhere?
Or, should he stick with UEFA which, he may think, presents more opportunity for lever-pulling behind the scenes than the out-front role of FIFA president?
Blatter can afford to wait. He has been in FIFA for 39 years as development officer, general secretary, chief executive and now president. Potential mischief makers such as Mohamed Bin Hammam and Jack Warner are out of the way and, as Blatter has noted, the new generation of FIFA exco members are comparatively green behind the political ears.
One other issue remains outstanding. This is one which Mark Pieth and his reform process never touched: the very nature of the presidency.
Havelange ran FIFA as a chairman of the board. He had his own office in Rio de Janeiro and strode into Zurich a handful of times a year when duty demanded it. Otherwise he left Blatter to run the office.
Blatter, by contrast, has maintained the working style which he developed as general secretary. Insiders used to say that Blatter was there to open the post first thing in the morning and the last one to turn out the lights at night.
This may be an exaggeration. But, certainly, Blatter has maintained the executive presidency as a 24/7 job. This is unlikely to appeal to Platini. His modus operandi in Nyon has been to come up with the ideas and then rely on general secretary Gianni Infantino to fashion the mechanics.
As far as the body politic of FIFA is concerned, a change of style at the top may appear an intriguing option for some national associations. What remains uncertain is whether they will even have a choice.
Platini always used to insist that “I will never run against Blatter.”
However, on the eve of the World Cup, he stated a belief that Blatter should not continue for a fifth term as FIFA president.
Monaco, this week, may indicate whether Platini is prepared to put words into deeds.