Interview: Jérôme Champagne Pt I

In the fight for the future of FIFA, only one man stands between Sepp Blatter and a fifth term of presidential office. Only one man has dared to lift his head above the parapet and say, “I will oppose you.” On his shoulders, he carries the hopes of all those who despair at the way football is governed. And I am lecturing him on how to conduct himself.

“If I was your campaign manager,” I tell him, “I would tell you to link the words, ‘Blatter,’ ‘FIFA,’ and ‘corruption,’ to everything you say. Blatter. FIFA. Corruption. Blatter. FIFA. Corruption. Hammer it home.”

He looks at me with a hint of disappointment and shakes his head.

“No. I will not fall into this demagoguery,” he says. “In 2015 we need a campaign, not on personality, but a campaign on visions. I want to campaign on visions, I want to campaign on real things.”

Jérôme Champagne and I met in December 2014 in a restaurant by the Limmat river in Zurich, just weeks before Michael Garcia despairingly extricated himself from his investigation into FIFA’s handling of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.

Explaining the FIFA crisis to the uninitiated is never anything less than a delight. For those who follow football, it is an extended soap opera with a story line so ridiculous that increasingly it leaves them numb and unmoved. For those new to the affair, the saga is eye-poppingly extraordinary.

In 2010, FIFA announced that the 2018 World Cup would be held in Russia and that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar. There was immediate uproar, especially from the English, whose newspapers had led investigations into alleged corruption within the governing body.

Russia’s win brought its doubts. Qatar’s victory, however, was an open goal for all critics of FIFA. The desert state had no history of football, no significant population on which to base a future, only two cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants and scorching temperatures that would make a summer tournament highly dangerous for both players and spectators. But while the nation was small, it was also extremely rich.

In the months that followed, a number of high-ranking FIFA officials were embroiled in bribe scandals. In 2012, Garcia was appointed to lead an investigation into the bidding process, a limited investigation that a number of FIFA officials unsuccessfully attempted to block nonetheless. In 2014, FIFA announced that Garcia’s report would never be made public and that only a summary report would be released. When that summary eventually appeared, it cleared Qatar and Russia of any wrongdoing. (The latter had been unable to assist the investigation because all of the bid team’s computers had been destroyed.) In fact, one of the few nations to be censured was England, the nation which had led the complaints. Garcia immediately announced that the summary report was erroneous. FIFA refused to accept his objection. Garcia resigned. Blatter told the world that he was surprised by Garcia’s decision and urged everyone to move on.

And after all of that, Champagne is insistent that the gloves will not come off and that he will be running a pure campaign of vision. Why?

“I will not join the anti-FIFA chorus because I believe we need a stronger FIFA. I will never fall into this. Mr Blatter has a responsibility because all of this took place on his watch, but it is a collective responsibility of the Executive Committee and that’s what I want to change. For me, FIFA is a federation of national associations, not of vague continental bureaucracies that think only of their own continental competitions.”

But surely attacking Blatter would help?

“I think that history will say that Mr Blatter made mistakes, but that Mr Havelange [Blatter’s predecessor] and Mr Blatter did a lot of good things. Remember that when I joined FIFA in 1999, there were 121 federations that had nothing.”

“Mr Blatter wanted to implement programs of development to make FIFA a form of Robin Hood, to redistribute the money of football and I shared that vision, I could share it because I was continuing to implement a vision that I was striving for as an individual and a citizen. On the strategic issues, I don’t think there is a lot of difference between me and Mr Blatter. We have of course some nuances and differences, that is normal. But personally, I believe that football needs a world governance, a strong world governance.”

“I fully recognise that we have a very grave image problem. If you look at my programme I want reforms to correct this problem. We are also making clear statements on how I want to govern FIFA in terms of style, in terms of ethics and in terms of transparency. I think it’s very easy to blame one person for the responsibility of a collective group. It always easy to to join a campaign against a structure, ignoring the behaviour of the other structures. I think it’s more important to explain what you want to do and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Champagne announced his intention to run for the presidency in January 2014 and he certainly has enough on his CV to stake a serious claim.

Between 1976 and 1983, he worked at the prestigious French publication ‘France Football,’ putting his linguistic skills to good use as he prepared the international league pages.

“Even now,” he laughs, “I can still remember all the names of all the clubs in the East German league!”

After that, he joined the French diplomatic corps, working in Oman (83-84), Cuba (85-87), returning to France as technical advisor to the Department of Economic Affairs (87-91), then working in Los Angeles (91-95) and Brazil (95-97).

A lifelong lover of football, he grew up listening to St Etienne games on the radio and still follows them now. “A team with a very intelligent business model,” he says approvingly, “but a club that still needs to sell big players to survive, which is unfortunate.”

He is also a member of Barcelona, converted when he was taken to the Camp Nou by family friends at the age of 15. He became a ‘socio’ in 2009 and took his son to his first game there. “A priceless moment,” he smiles. “Since the age of seven, he knows the song of Barcelona by heart, even though he doesn’t speak Catalan.”

Champagne began to transition towards football administration in 1994, working with the organising committee for France ’98 while stationed in Brazil. Here, he met and befriended Pelé, who has publicly backed Champagne’s presidential bid. In 1997, he left the French service and became the diplomatic advisor for the tournament. It was here that he met Blatter. The two men formed a close relationship.

When Blatter won the 1998 election to become the new FIFA President, he soon appointed Champagne as his international advisor. Champagne managed Blatter’s re-election campaign in 2002 and was made deputy secretary general after the election. He left FIFA in 2010 amid rumours of in-fighting and suggestions, most neatly put by one person familiar with the affair, that “he was casting too long a shadow.”

Now, he is planning his return with a campaign designed to raise questions about the inequality in football.

“Football is no different to society,” he says. “We have the same inequalities. The club that finishes last in the English Premier League receives twice as much TV money as the French champions, more than the first 16 teams in the Belgian League. But I adore the English league because it has the lowest ratio of distribution for the money between the club finishing first and the club finishing last. So many other systems in Europe, particularly in Spain, automatically create inequality.”

“The central topic of my platform is to place FIFA policies in a very determined way to correct these sporting imbalances. Look at the Champions League. Steaua Bucharest won in 1986, Red Star Belgrade in 1991. Now it’s not possible. It’s not possible for Malmö to play a final against Nottingham Forest. We need a strong governance and we need a governance which is democratic, determined, but also more respected. That’s why I’m running.”

Champagne’s policies (and The Set Pieces will take a more detailed look at them here) are certainly ambitious and their emphasis on sporting integrity and the preservation of national identity are themes that would likely meet with the approval of many English supporters. And yet it is the Blatter question that continues to dominate the agenda.

“We need to reconcile,” he says. “That’s why I want to speak to the British media. They need to understand. Gary Lineker, a player I admire, said that the FIFA president behaved like a dictator. That just showed that he doesn’t know how FIFA functions. British readers have not been told that the confederations accused of bribery do not control FIFA, but in spite of that they control the Executive Committee. We need stronger governance.”

“I believe in freedom of the press. We need people to reveal what some others would like to hide, even though sometimes that the race for immediacy tends to condemn people in spite of democratic principles of innocent until proven guilty. I will not join those who say that the accusations are organised by sore losers. No. The fact that they come from the British or the French is irrelevant. What matters is whether they are true or not. But at the same time, you cannot ignore that Europe tends to behave in a paternalistic way, seeking out corruption elsewhere while ignoring its own.”

“Look at my country and what happened in 1993 with Marseille. Look at Germany in 1971, the German national team in 1982 with Austria, the referee scandal in 2005. In your country, the match fixing of the Middlesbrough manager in 1911 and Sheffield Wednesday in 1963. And the Europeans want to give lessons to the rest of the world?”

“If we allow the rest of the world to have the feeling that this election will be about preserving western European football dominance on the game, then football will remain divided. At the same time, if we don’t recognise problems of some European federations, it will remain divided too. I’m in favour of the principle of one FA, one vote. My platform is to rebalance the game and to reconcile.”

This will be an election overshadowed utterly by the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. So where does Champagne stand on that and the farcical handling of Garcia’s report?

“Qatar has a right to benefit from the democratic principle of being innocent until proven guilty. I think it’s good that we take the World Cup to this region, I would have preferred a World Cup with one stadium in Jordan, one in Kuwait, one in Bahrain, one in Abu Dhabi and so on, but we have to determine whether the integrity of the vote is preserved.

“We cannot conclude that everything is finished and finalised. Let’s finalise the investigation. To declare quickly that everything is finished with this report; I disagree with that. I’m in favour of the release of Garcia’s report. We can blacken sections to protect identities. No problem. But we need to know.”

“I will also personally support the proposal that we give the Qatari government one year to stop the exploitation of migrant workers. Let’s look in a year at their reforms. Let’s get Amnesty International to say in a year’s time if they have solved the problem. We have that time.”

Again, I ask him if he is tempted to link Blatter and Qatar and make it the cornerstone of his election strategy.

“Who pushed to have an independent reform with an independent ethics committee?” he asks. “Blatter.”

“After two years!” I protest.

“Yes,” he says. “But six members of the ExCo resigned because of this investigation. Mr Blatter has a responsibility. It happened on his watch. But let’s at least give him credit for this much.

Would he consider taking the World Cup away from Qatar?

“I have said many times: when we know the outcome of the investigation, we will know. Until then, we do not know. For me, all the options are on the table, going to Qatar or going somewhere else. I am absolutely open-minded.”

Finally, I ask him if he’s concerned about the battle that is coming in 2015. If he is worried about how hard the other side will fight.

“You use the word ‘side’,” he grins. “ I always use the word ‘sides’. There are definitely some people who would prefer Sepp Blatter to continue because they would be happy to continue blaming Blatter and FIFA for whatever takes place in football even when FIFA  has no responsibility for it. That’s why I use the plural.”

“I accept that I am painted as the underdog. But anyone would be considered the underdog. I am the only one with a credible, financially realistic programme. I’m the only one who has a clear positioning between the ones who want to blame an individual for the problems of a collective and the ones who want to throw away a necessary structure in order to protect their own positions.”

“But, listen: If you are not happy with a situation, you have two choices. Either you go home, you switch on the television and you live like a hermit or you decide to take responsibility, roll up your sleeves and say what you want to do. And that’s what I’m doing. To win an election, you have to take the risk of losing it. A year ago, everybody thought that Blatter would stand down and that Michel Platini would be a shoo-in. Now Blatter is the favourite and Platini will not stand. Politics is a fast moving phenomenon. And a lot can change between now and election day.”

Interview: Jérôme Champagne Pt I
4.6 (92.5%) 8 votes