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spike: Don’t pop the cork yet, Champagne

Owen Gibson

Jérôme Champagne’s bid for football’s top job has raised as many questions as answers.

Jérôme Champagne. (Reuters)

As stirring slogans go, it is not exactly up there with Margaret Thatcher’s "Labour Isn’t Working" or Barack Obama’s "Yes We Can". But "Rebalance the Game in a Globalised 21st Century", the tagline of Jérôme Champagne’s push to become Fifa president in 2015, is a pretty apt summation of his ­position.

It is also one that is admirable, worthy and full of good intentions but overly verbose and prompts more questions than answers.

Champagne launched his candidacy this week at the historic site where the Football Association first met to codify the rules of the game 150 years ago. He also unveiled a new website, gave a thoughtful speech and received an endorsement from Pele.

But in a remarkable admission for a man at the beginning of a campaign that will not reach a conclusion for 15 months, he also accepted that he could not win if his one-time ally Sepp Blatter decides to stand for a fifth term at the age of 77. He also conceded that he may not even make the ballot paper if Blatter stands.

Asked directly whether he could beat Blatter, Champagne said: "No, I don’t think [so]. He is a person of relevance. But it’s a very hypothetical question. A lot of things can happen."

He answered differently when asked whether he could beat Michel Platini, long seen as the most likely challenger to Blatter’s throne.

Champagne, a former French diplomat who held senior positions at Fifa for 11 years before he was ousted in 2010 in a coup by the heads of the six confederations, has spent much of the intervening period thinking carefully about the future of football.

The problems he identifies – the growing gap between rich and poor within leagues and between nations, the slow strangulation of international football, the urgent need for the reform of Fifa to provide more transparency and representation – are the right ones. His proposed answers have been thought through and deserve consideration, so much so that Blatter has already purloined many of them.

But his problems, beyond securing the required five nominations from football associations around the world, are many.

On the one hand, he is heavily identified with Fifa and Blatter. On the other, he has kept his hands scrupulously clean and is presenting himself as a reform candidate who can help to correct an "image deficit" in the eyes of fans around the world who see Fifa as utterly discredited.

Moreover, he feels compelled to defend the man he helped to victory in 1998 and 2002 amid all kinds of rumours of corruption, arguing that the way Fifa is constituted made it necessary for Blatter to sup with all manner of devils "with a long spoon".

But Champagne admits that the structures that govern world football are in urgent need of reform. He has called for televised debates between candidates, promised transparency on pay and finances, and vowed to restructure the executive committee to include representatives of players, of clubs and of leagues.

There is a French children’s song that features an elephant balancing on a spider’s web. As Champagne fended off questions about his future intentions, it is one he might have recalled.

In the febrile world of Fifa politics, where little is ever as it seems, his decision to fire the starting gun on the 2015 race so early prompted a host of theories.

Some wondered whether the idea was endorsed by Blatter, either as a way of smoking out potential competition or as a way of proving this is not going to be another unchallenged coronation.

Champagne, who has carved out a post-Fifa career as a consultant in some of football’s thorniest trouble spots, was forced to insist his declaration was not simply a PR stunt aimed at bolstering his own reputation and employability.

"If I am here, it is not for me," he said. "It is for the ideas I defend."

He said, again and again, that he was running for the right reasons. "I am running because I believe in what I am saying. I am running to win. I am running to implement my ideas," he said, denying rumours he had been "manipulated" by Blatter.

Others have speculated that Cham­pagne believes Blatter will not stand, leaving him in a straight fight with Platini. But if that scenario does present itself, there could be other challengers, including Jeffrey Webb of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football.

Blatter has still to make up his mind, although his most recent hints that he is "not tired enough" to give up suggest he will stand. Platini, under pressure on several fronts, has also yet to declare his hand.

Whatever else, it is to be hoped that at the very least Champagne ignites a debate based on policies rather than personality. Pele, no stranger to endorsements, said: "My friend, Jérôme Champagne, I am wishing you good luck for the fight." He will need it. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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