Blatter displayed a political footwork and tactical awareness as nimble as anything Leo Messi manages out on the pitches over which the 77-year-old Swiss wields presidential command.
Blatter, aware the British media rottweilers were out there – fangs bared, teeth snapping – mischievously conducted his press conference in French. He enjoyed himself so much that, at one stage, he even protested that his Swiss/German was not adequate to answer a German/German question.
As for the issues:
Qatar? Finesse it into the distance and wrongfoot his most likely presidential rival. Workers’ rights? Express an empathetic stance between protesters and ruler. Palestine? Say just enough without promising too much or conceded too little.
For example, the momentum building up for FIFA to declare a winter switch for the 2022 World Cup has been halted in its tracks. Staging it in an air-cooled summer has edged back into the realms of possibility.
UEFA president Michel Platini had led the charge for a winter World Cup and Blatter had expressed a belief that the exco would express a will to go down that desert road.
On Friday, however, insisting he had been trying only to stimulate debate, Blatter pulled the rug out from beneath everybody.
“I wanted to create a discussion on summer or winter,” he explained. “I did not expect we would make a decision now. We could not make a decision without consulting our partners.”
Hence, the only decisions were to reconfirm Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 finals and to launch a lengthy consultation process across the game about the pros and cons.
One of the cons – and possibly a decisive one – is the extent of the financial damage inherent in switching away from the traditional and competition-free summer date.
Blatter said: “This issue [compensation] will be an outcome of the discussions and consultations and then we will see what will be the consequences of liabilities or for leagues and other organisations if we played the finals in winter.”
He then launched into a exposition on the consultation process.
Despite expectations, FIFA will not even set up one of Blatter’s favoured ‘task forces.’ Much lower key. Instead FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke will manage the consultations with Asian president Sheikh Salman taking up the overview for the exco.
As if Valcke does not have enough on his plate with trying to keep Brazil on 2014 World Cup track.
Blatter, perhaps deliberately keeping his aide-de-camp busy, said: “In December we will present to the executive committee the roadmap which will explain where we are heading with this consultation and we will end this consultation after the World Cup in 2014.
“Let us play this World Cup in Brazil with an easy conscience and then we will be able to tell the best time frame in which to play the World Cup in 2022 in Qatar.”
As for the issue of workers’ rights, Blatter will lead a FIFA delegation to tell the new Emir about all the protests keeping busy the FIFA postman.
Years of campaigning by the International Trade Union Confederation against ‘modern-day slavery’ finally exploded into public awareness when the issue was taken up by the media worldwide and, notably, The Guardian.
Every concerned organisation has pressed FIFA to use its World Cup lever to press the Qataris into overhauling the notorious kafala system under which migrant workers, notably now from Nepal, are employed.
Blatter expressed “all my sympathy and regrets for everything that happens in any country when there are deaths on construction sites and especially when there are deaths on construction sites related to a World Cup.”
He also noted that European companies were among those who bore responsibility for workers’ care and added: “It is not FIFA’s primary responsibility but we cannot turn a blind eye and say it does not affect us.
“The executive committee has requested a courtesy visit to Qatar and I will meet the new Emir, Sheikh Tamim, both to confirm the World Cup 2022 but also touch on this issue which concerns many people in the world of the working conditions in that country.
“We are not the ones that can change it . . . but I bring to their attention the situation we are facing with all the letters and demands we are receiving but which is also their responsibility.
“We cannot assume the duty of supervising security on building sites but we are not indifferent to everything that has happened and it does concern us.”
The International Trade Union Confederation dismissed Blatter’s proposal as worthless but he might respond that the ITUC had made little progress until The Guardian seized on the issue and afforded it worldwide visibility.
Blatter may have been encouraged in his ‘delegation diplomacy’ by signs of the strategy generating a faint hint of progress over the Palestine issue.
A memorandum of understanding between the Palestinian and Israeli Football Associations should feature on the agenda at FIFA Congress in Sao Paolo next June.
Whatever Blatter’s critics may say – and in whatever language – none can ever accuse him of being trapped in possession on the big issues.Subscribe today to World Soccer Magazine - The unrivalled authority on the game of soccer
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