This week George Negus speaks with FIFA President, Sepp Blatter about racism in sport, politics and the future of football.

SEP BLATTER INTERVIEW – Wednesday 4th June, 2008

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Last week, the peak body of international football, FIFA, held its Annual Congress in Sydney, a first for Australia, compared with soccer’s royalty from Europe and South America, still a developing Third World nation. It may surprise non-football types out there, but for what is essentially a sporting body, off the field, 208 nation-strong FIFA has serious clout in areas such as racism and child labour, in terms of influence, right up there with the International Olympic Committee. So much so, that Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter, the FIFA President, is arguably among a handful of the world’s most powerful individuals. If you’re one of those who believes sport and politics shouldn’t be mixed, this interview with the Swiss-born boss of the world game will definitely raise an eyebrow.

GEORGE NEGUS: Mr Blatter, thanks for your time. I’ve travelled the world a lot, but two things I know I’m going to see, wherever I go, is Coca-Cola, which we may or may not really need, and kids kicking footballs around. Not even football sometimes – rolled up bits of string and paper. Is it bigger than any religion and ideology in the world – there are people who would think that?

SEPP BLATTER, FIFA PRESIDENT: No it is, it is, and I’m not immodest if I say that because we are not touched by religion. All religions, they play football – even nowadays all girls and women have the right to play football in cultures like the Arabic countries in the Muslim they play football. Not all in public, but they play football and football is over any ideology because the only ideology we have in football is to touch the world with our game. And how can you touch the world with our game?

GEORGE NEGUS: How do you explain that, I mean were calling this not a sport but a phenomenon? What characteristic is it that football’s got, makes it have this influence, if you believe it has?

SEPP BLATTER: First of all, football is hope. Football is hope. Let me just explain. To be a better human being but also hope one day, one day, to leave your country to be somewhere, let’s say admired, as a football star. And what is football producing that is so important and what we need in our world? Emotions. And then the other factor of our game is then because it’s so game is so popular everybody wants to play it. And we have football matches organised in all countries, everywhere – they want to play, they want to play this game – it is more than touching a ball.

GEORGE NEGUS: It must get dangerously close to politics on occasions.

SEPP BLATTER: Absolutely.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let me try a couple of political aspects of FIFA’s role with you. Palestine, not recognised by the United Nations, is an affiliate and a member of FIFA and plays in the World Cup qualification matches. That’s a political statement.

SEPP BLATTER: That is a political statement, and the political statement only goes so far – that we shall not intervene in any matters. But without our intervention, two words to the authorities in Israel. It would not have been feasible, that the Palestinians can leave the country, go to different checkpoints to go and play international matches outside of Palestine and what we are trying to do now is that one day we’ll try to organise an international match in Palestine.

GEORGE NEGUS: In Palestine, which officially doesn’t exist?

SEPP BLATTER: The territories in Palestine.

GEORGE NEGUS: In occupied territory – would you regard that as a political achievement?

SEPP BLATTER: No, I would say this would be a sport’s achievement, an achievement that football can overcome boundaries of politicians.

GEORGE NEGUS: So when people say that sports and politics don’t mix, you obviously disagree – you think that they do mix?

SEPP BLATTER: They have to mix, they have to mix because of the tremendous development of the game and our involvement now also. My predecessor always has said, “we don’t want to have anything to do with the United Nations.” I did the contrary. As soon as I became the president, we signed a memorandum of understanding with Mr Kofi Anan in June – in May 1999 – and the United Nations flag is now in all FIFA competitions – we have also this blue flag with the United Nations.

GEORGE NEGUS: There is a lot of controversy in the world at the moment about China and the Olympic games, human rights, Tibet, etcetera, the fiasco over the torch relay. If China was applying to hold the next World Cup, in the current climate do you think they should hold the World Cup?

SEPP BLATTER: If they correspond to the list of requirements of FIFA then they should, because…

GEORGE NEGUS: Would that include things like human rights?

SEPP BLATTER: No. Otherwise we can give the World Cup to nobody.


SEPP BLATTER: If you go to the essence of human rights?

GEORGE NEGUS: Even in Australia?

SEPP BLATTER: No, not even my country, Switzerland. Any country if you go really, really in depth somewhere, the human rights are not totally respected.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think the world could have applied more pressure? Would you, for instance, as the head of FIFA, if you were in the same situation, apply more pressure on China than has been applied to get them to abide by the human rights agreement that they made at the time. Do you consider the situation in Tibet?

SEPP BLATTER: Yeah, I have considered the situation in Tibet was well known also at the time when the Olympic Games were given to China and would at that time the IOC would have said, “Listen, we gave you, or we attribute the Olympic Games under the condition that in the next six months or in a year you will solve the problem of the right of the Tibet.” But they haven’t done it, we haven’t done it. But now to say we should not go there or we should have done this or that and at the same time the big nations in the world, the big seven or the big eight, they make a lot of trade, industry and commerce with China by selling or by producing in China and a lot of delegations travelling there still.

GEORGE NEGUS: Hypocrisy then – it’s double standards.

SEPP BLATTER: It is hypocrisy.

GEORGE NEGUS: You’ve had campaigns in a lot of areas, humanitarian, social areas, like anti-child labour, anti-racism. How successful do you think you’ve been in shifting world opinion and world activity on those sorts of issues?

SEPP BLATTER: Discrimination or racism, I think we have made a lot of progress. But we can only make progress if our national associations and the clubs, where such situations occur, that they intervene.

GEORGE NEGUS: Are there countries in the world where they ignore these kinds of attempts to change?

SEPP BLATTER: No, but to intervene, it means what they have to do, and this is the only way, is to deduct points in the match where you have identified the origin or the – let’s say the responsibility – or even to exclude from a competition, which EUFA did last season with one of the teams from Holland of discrimination.

GEORGE NEGUS: Despite all these admirable, high-minded motivations and intentions, continually though, there are these allegations of corruption. People say that you run the team for your own private fiefdom, for instance. Allegations of corruption against yourself over the years.

SEPP BLATTER: Yeah, but we can not be more open than we are.

GEORGE NEGUS: So why are there so many allegations, do you think?

SEPP BLATTER: Because there are obsessed people in the world, and coming from the media one day, there are barking dogs, they try to get the bone. They try to get that bone for whatever reasons. I’m happy to speak with you also about the corruption and the personal attack, but I cannot understand this ongoing, ongoing attacks, because that would also be in the evidence and would I feel guilty, then I would say go to the congress and say, “Sorry, I misled you.” But it’s nothing. That’s it, it’s nothing.

GEORGE NEGUS: It’s good to talk to you. I hope you enjoy your stay in this country.