“2015 is not about choosing a person,” says Jérôme Champagne. “It’s about a vision.” But what exactly is his vision? What will Champagne offer that might repair the public image of FIFA?
When I speak to Champagne in Zurich in December 2014, he carefully outlines his plans and there were three major themes: reconciliation, redistribution and regulation, particularly with regard to nationality.
“This is not about choosing a coach or a commentator,” he says. “This is not a job for someone who can do the highlights on a Sunday night or explain why a coach has changed from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2. It’s about choosing someone who understands the game – and no-one has ever said that I don’t – and choosing someone who understands the world and who is able to connect the two.”
“I worked for FIFA for 11 years and I won’t attack it because we need it to be strong. We have placed national football at the service of continental and world football, but it should be the other way round. I want the majority of the seats in the FIFA Executive Committee to be filled with sitting presidents of the Football Associations, not people with no national responsibilities. And I want to tell the English people to join the change instead of sitting and brooding on your side of the Channel. Because we need you.”
While the English FA and FIFA remain at loggerheads, Champagne made a point of using London as a launchpad for his campaign, addressing journalists there in January 2014.
“I chose the exact location where the FA was founded in October 1863. Why? Firstly, because I want to give back the power in FIFA to the FAs. Secondly, because the league that most people watch around the world is the English league. But finally, because we cannot run football in the 21st century with a cold, distant and non-cooperative relationship with England.”
“I know what British people have done for the game. Look at the number of clubs around the world, for example, called Lokomotiv or Ferrocarril because they have been funded by British railroad engineers. Look at Shakhtar Donetsk, a club of a city founded by a Welsh steel engineer.”
“We must reconcile. I hope we can do that through the World Cup. I hope we will have a strong bid for the 2030 World Cup by the UK. I would like to see a joint bid from all the UK nations. Why? It will be an opportunity to pay a form of tribute to all that we owe to British football.”
But it isn’t just the UK that Champagne wants back in the fold. Champagne left FIFA in 2010 with his efforts impose the “6+5” rule, a plan that would restrict clubs to just five overseas players in a starting line-up, cited as one reason for his departure.
“I want to reconcile FIFA and UEFA. If I lost my job with FIFA, it’s because some people within UEFA believe that FIFA has nothing to do with European football. At the time they were still conniving with the EU commission to block FIFA initiatives and I will not connive with the EU commission.”
“We have to reconcile FIFA with public opinion too and it will be tough. But under my watch, it will be my priority. And people who know me know that I say what I want to do and I try to do what I say. For me, it’s very clear. The only ones who are happy with the situation as it is today are the ones who want to gain control of the game, for political, financial or criminal reasons.”
But Champagne’s hopes of reconciliation with western powers of the game might be affected by his plans for global wealth redistribution. While there is a certain nobility in seeking to use the coffers of the rich to fund the leagues of the poor, I point out that the English Premier League does not give up its resources lightly.
“Reconciliation doesn’t mean we will be in agreement with everything,” he counters. “I follow the Premier League, but at the same time I would like them to give something back. They make $40m from Indian TV rights, so why not hand back a little chunk to the Indian league? That’s about solidarity, that’s about justice, that’s about fairness.”
At this point, my face may well be betraying my scepticism.
“Listen, I’m not going to lie to anyone,” smiles Champagne. “We can run this campaign on a platform of demagoguery, illusions and lies, and maybe it would be easier, but I’m not going to do that. I know that there are a lot of people on your side of the channel who feel this responsibility. We cannot only wish to sell jerseys abroad. We take and then we give. One day there will be Indian players playing in the Premier League.”
“It is because we have invested in African football that we have so many good African players. I think many parents around the world would be happy if their kids supported a local club and a foreign club. I never said that it would be easy, but the reality is that if we don’t do it in a generous way, it will be imposed. So let’s be open-minded, let’s be generous.”
Champagne’s plan is, he agrees, something of a tax and trade mission.
“Let’s take India,” he says. “I would propose that a task force for India is set up and money is put in together by FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation and the larger associations. In a country like India, the Premier League is in a good position to lead. I would have no problem with putting that money under the authority and leadership of the Premier League. They know the market. At the same time, we have to do in a way where we’re not just trying to sell Chelsea jerseys. We need transparency, joint decisions. We can create that system. What I want to avoid is what we have now: we send delegations, we do nice reports and then nothing happens. I think there are enough generous, intelligent people in the Premier League who understand that the growth of local football in places like India would be good for the growth of the Premier League in India. It’s a game where everyone can benefit.”
If Champagne has a fight on his hands convincing the major leagues of the merits of redistribution, he’ll have another battle with the European Union over his desire for regulation of ‘foreign’ players.
“Football is about identity,” he says. “I agree with Greg Dyke and Gordon Taylor over their concerns for the future of the England team and the lack of eligible players. I have no problem with freedom of movement and I see the EU as a form of life insurance for a region that has seen war so frequently in the past. But football should be treated differently.
He then runs through a list of statistics, explaining that the EU’s freedom of movement had led, in 2011 at least, to 6.6% of the EU’s population being made up of either non EU citizens or EU nationals living outside their home nation.
“It varies from one nation to another, of course,” he says, “but 6.6% makes little difference. In football, however, it can be as high as 70%. The Premier League has only seen its number of eligible players rise to 36% because of Burnley and their largely English team. It has had a major effect.”
“When English club managers need players, they do not take risks on their own youngsters, the home grown players, they cannot afford to. They buy in players from outside. And the young players have no chance. And they fade. They might stop training, they might only be allowed a few minutes in the League Cup and then they are out on loan. Then they come back, but they didn’t develop their career and then they vanish.”
“I am for freedom of movement elsewhere, but this transparency has been used for the benefit of only a few clubs. That’s why when I was in FIFA I supported the 6+5 initiative and that’s why I had problems with UEFA. I believe that football should be treated differently. That we should come together and discuss the best way to protect our identity.”
But as we finish our discussion, Champagne is keen to return once again to his hope of reconciliation.
“We have to be sufficiently open-minded. We need to reconnect. That’s why I say to the British, instead of blaming Blatter or blaming FIFA, come in. We’ll change the system together.”
“I think that if we continue to drift apart, it will be extremely dangerous. And it is not just the western nations that are drifting. If we continue to allow the feeling that Europe is exploiting the foreign markets or that it has different rules because UEFA connive with the EU or that there is a conspiracy to steal the World Cup from the Arabs, we run the risk of breaking FIFA. And if we continue down that road, then we are risking huge problems.”