/ 23 October 2014

Champagne campaign lacks fizz

Not much hope for Jérôme Champagne.
Not much hope for Jérôme Champagne.

Early in 2000, Fifa president Sepp Blatter was scratching the few hairs that were left on his head. Fifa was to decide the host country for the 2006 World Cup. Blatter had “robbed” Lennart Johansson of the Fifa presidency in 1998 by promising the African delegates Fifa’s flagship event on African soil. He had to deliver it, but with it risked alienating Germany, who were also bidding.

Jérôme Champagne, Blatter’s personal adviser, offered the solution, according to Andrew Jennings in his acclaimed book Foul! The Secret World of Fifa: let both South Africa and Germany believe that you support their bid.

It was a masterstroke. Blatter won three times with his divide et impera politics: Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, South Africa did so in 2010, and Blatter remained firmly on the Fifa throne.

Champagne and Blatter had met at the 1998 World Cup, where the former was the local organising committee’s chief of protocol. A Parisian, born in 1958, Champagne was at home in diplomacy. He graduated from the Sciences Po – Institut d’études politiques de Paris in 1981. Champagne freelanced for France Football, so much so that he forwent his place at the select École nationale d’administration. But it didn’t stop him: Champagne held subsequent diplomatic posts in French embassies in Oman, Cuba and the United States.

Blatter saw an ally in Champagne: the Frenchman was savvy and eloquent, but not powerful enough to replace him. Champagne moved to the Sonnenberg in Zurich and stayed at Fifa until 2010. As personal adviser and deputy secretary general, he was part of Blatter’s inner circle and on hand to furnish that neat solution to a delicate problem.

“In 2000, Germany obtained the World Cup in controversial circumstances by one vote from South Africa,” Champagne says. “I think Europe could have said: ‘Let’s give the World Cup to South Africa in 2006, and then we will organise 2010 in Europe’. No, Europe was egoistic. Bringing the World Cup to South Africa was a tribute to Mr Mandela and to football.”

Champagne will need more of his measured words if he wants to succeed in the new challenge he embarked on in January: to unseat Blatter as Fifa president. He designed a programme in which change and inequality are buzzwords. Champagne emulates US President Barack Obama and economist Thomas Picketty, who believes that the importance of wealth in modern economies is approaching levels last seen before World War?I and recommends that governments should intervene to halt the growing inequality.

The Fifa presidential candidate perceives a similar trend in world football. He argues that there is an imbalance in football power. “The gap has increased between Western Europe and the rest of the world,” Champagne says. “The African leagues have been emptied. The best players are leaving early and often [to Europe].”

To address the gulf between the football haves and have-nots, Champagne has drafted several proposals: a procurement centre, the publication of the Fifa president’s salary and the release of Michael Garcia’s report on the bidding process for Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022. He also wants the presidents of national associations to hold a majority in the executive committee and would consider taking World Cup slots away from Europe.

The last measures are aimed at luring votes from non-European associations, a traditional constituency for the Fifa president but, as Jennings succinctly points out in his latest book, Omertà, there are a number of fundamental problems with Champagne’s candidacy.

Jennings writes from Blatter’s perspective when he is about to go on stage at the Fifa congress in São Paulo: “Oh, one last thing before I go up to the stage, must be photographed shaking hands with Jérôme Champagne. All the delegates will see he has my blessing. Keep him visible, keep him in play.

“He has published three serious and very boring statements about why he should follow me as president. A total of 9 600 words – and not a word of criticism of me. The word ‘corruption’ surfaces twice but it’s all blamed on forces outside Fifa. That’s my boy!”

Champagne avoids shadow boxing with Blatter. He fails to scrutinise Fifa’s rich history of scandals, the puppet ethics committee and the ever-growing expenses at the top. It reinforces the image that Champagne is just making up the democratic deficit.

Indeed, who will back Champagne? The football associations of Kosovo, Palestine and Cyprus? (Champagne advises them.) In 1998, Blatter won the election by 111 to 80 votes against Union of European Football Associations heavyweight Johansson. In 2002, the Swiss pummelled Confederation of African Football president Issa Hayatou 139-58. In the most recent elections Blatter all but barred his challenger Mohammed bin Hammam from standing after allegations of bribery.

For now, Champagne is an antagonist but, come May 29 and the election, he might just prove to be another figurant in Blatter’s charade.