His apparent contention that a handshake at the final whistle was all it takes to resolve a heat-of-the-moment spat missed the point.
Not only was Blatter – whatever he may think personally and no-one has ever suggested that he is racist – badly off-message but it appears he was badly briefed.
Let us rewind.
Blatter is a 75-year-old from a nation which has not had the experience of assimilating all the cultural – yes, and skin-coloured – diversity of a home-coming empire.
On those grounds his comments might be understood. However, his role as president of the world football federation demands that he respond to the issue with that particular hat on, not by airing the naiveties or prejudices which might still hold sway back in his home canton of Valais.
British Sports Minister Hugh Robertson and players’ union Gordon Taylor, both committed supporters of the Kick It Out campaign, have jumped on the latest Blatterism to demand that he step down as FIFA president. But it’s likely that in Zurich such calls will be seen as mere band-wagon jumping in the wake of England’s World Cup and FIFA Congress debacles.
International football federations do not have an impressive track record when it comes to appreciating that racism is far more than an issue of mere dissent or isolated fan misbehaviour. UEFA, remember, was the body which shamefully and disgracefully, fined Patrick Vieira for complaining that it had not punished Valencia adequately for their fans’ racial abuse of black Arsenal players.
Blatter’s comments could not have been timed more inappropriately, considering the high-visibility rows over racial comment within the English game. The one focuses on Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra from domestic and international club giants Liverpool and Manchester United while the other centres on the already-once-reprieved captain of England, John Terry.
The screams of horror emanating from the likes of Robertson, Taylor, Rio Ferdinand and others encourage dismissal from Zurich on the grounds that they suggest English football considers itself the centre of world attention and the keeper of the game’s conscience.
Once more, without even considering the merits of the case, this will reinforce some foreign perceptions of English football arrogance. Conversely, as some of the attacks on the FA at FIFA Congress last June demonstrated, that is an opinion held in more than a mere handful of black African nations.
Of course, the context of culture and linguistics vary enormously from country to country.
For example, those familiar with South American football will wonder whether the Suarez/Evra row may emanate from the common usage, in the new world, of the term ‘el negro’ for a black player. TV and radio commentators, newspapers and magazine writers, use this commonly (as well as ‘El Indio’ [AmerIndian]) as a descriptive term not a racist one.
Now, back to FIFA and its messages.
In the wake of FIFA Congress and his pledge of reform, one of Blatter’s earliest steps was to reorganise his communications department. Veteran Swiss journalist Walter Degiorgio, with a distinguished career behind him, was persuaded to cross the frontier and become director of communications. Not only now does FIFA have a communications department but Blatter, in effect, has his own communications advisers.
Clearly, he was not advised well ahead of the two interviews with CNN and Al-Jazeera.
Perhaps they were considered ‘merely’ as organisations centred on the United States on the one hand and the Middle East on the other, with their internationalist reach under-estimated . . . perhaps Blatter and his advisers were so focused on his reform agenda and the 2014 World Cup wrangles that he was taken off-balance by the racism questions.
Blatter is an excellent communicator in English in one-on-one interviews, in round tables and – most of the time – in press conferences. But not, interestingly, when confronted by an English-speaking television or radio interviewer. He does possess an excellent command of English but, as one former communications director put it, he “speaks English in French idioms with a German accent.”
Ironically, Blatter had been due to host a round-table of British sports news journalists at FIFA tomorrow/Friday. That was cancelled late last week because of a change in Blatter’s FIFA diary.
Thus he will miss the opportunity to clarify his comments, opinions and FIFA policy. Pity, it would have been instructive.
Equally instructive, incidentally, will be to monitor how much – or how little – this row plays in the non-British media.
By Keir Radnedge