BERLIN (AP) — As the powerbrokers of European soccer celebrated their championship weekend and some jokingly congratulated themselves for staying out of jail, many said that the next FIFA president needs to do a better job of listening to the continent that pays most of the bills.
While several FIFA executives are awaiting extradition to the United States, European leaders — so far untouched by the corruption case — held closed-door meetings in rooms that cost 2,000 Euros ($2,222) per night as they prepared for the Champions League final where Barcelona defeated Juventus for the richest prize in sports. They ate, drank and discussed the future of global soccer.
The top leaders didn’t want to speculate openly on the election, but many leaders feel the next president should show more respect to the billions of Euros coming out of this continent.
“It’s undoubted that the weight of European football should be properly felt throughout the world,” European Club Association vice chairman Umberto Gandini, an AC Milan director, told The Associated Press at the Berlin Ritz-Carlton. “It is fundamental for those who are risking investing their money in professional football in Europe have the opportunities to design the rules and regulations. We deserve to be there (at FIFA) because of what we represent.”
The scandal so far has focused on bribes in the Americas and Africa. But behind the jokes and revelry, there was clearly a deep uncertainty about who could next be ensnared by the escalating corruption scandal. The other big question was who is best positioned to lead the world’s biggest game out of this mess, with Sepp Blatter preparing to vacate a FIFA headquarters that has already been raided by Swiss police.
European soccer provides the most valuable viewing audience, the biggest clubs and the greatest players in the world — no matter where they were born. But FIFA gives each nation one vote, so tiny nations like the Cayman Islands have as much influence as world powers.
And the 79-year-old Blatter has built a coalition of African and Asian nations, along with some tiny island territories and big outliers like Russia — the next World Cup host. Despite Blatter’s resignation, if another candidate grabs that same coalition, the Europeans won’t be able to change FIFA.
A constant theme from Blatter to deflect Europe’s grasp for more control has been to depict the clubs there as leeching off the rest of the world by pilfering the best players.
“The perception is there’s a neo-colonialism in world football,” said Jerome Champagne, a Frenchman who served under Blatter as deputy secretary general. “European football is using African and South American talent but doesn’t care about the leagues there losing their talent and losing their fan base. There is a lot of resentment from outside Europe.”
Blatter proved that his collation was still strong enough by winning a fifth term as FIFA president on May 29, only to announce four days later that the scandal had cost him too much support and that he would resign after new elections held at some point from December to March.
European chief Michel Platini, a former Blatter confidant turned adversary, is a favorite. But he’ll need help from outside of his European power base.
The former France captain and coach is president of UEFA, overseeing the Champions League and its $1.1 billion prize pool. Saturday’s game was the pinnacle of Platini’s year, a gathering of elite players and coaches, blue chip sponsors and club and federation leaders.
The 59-year-old decided not to run against Blatter, but he led most of the continent to vote for change. The Europeans, along with most of North America and South America, weren’t enough to break Blatter’s coalition.
In public, Platini has been silent on his FIFA ambitions, only beaming when a reporter addressed him as “Mr. FIFA President” and resisting the chance to gloat about Blatter’s demise.
In Berlin, Platini held court with the leaders who can smooth his path to FIFA or prove to be rival candidates: including honorary FIFA Vice President Chung Mong-joon of South Korea to Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, who joined FIFA’s executive committee last week.
Sheikh Ahmad was a Blatter loyalist. Now many in soccer are looking to whomever he backs. He played a key role in Thomas Bach gaining the IOC presidency in 2013.
Even if someone other than Platini replaces Blatter, the new president will find it hard to ignore the European clubs.
It was after the prospect of UEFA boycotting FIFA tournaments gained momentum that Blatter stepped down.
UEFA doesn’t like how Blatter sought to erode the continent’s influence since gaining the presidency in 1998 by defeating Lennart Johansson, the Swede who preceded Platini as European soccer leader.
“It’s a chance for Europe to regain its power,” Johansson, 85, said of the upcoming election.
Blatter has built loyalty in less wealthy nations. When there was crowd violence at the African Cup of Nations in January, rather than condemning the incident, Blatter blamed the Western media.
Platini needs to win over some smaller nations to have a chance.
“In the past 20 years, UEFA has increased its relevance because of the money coming from the Champions League but because of that some people there believe they have a divine right to run world football,” Champagne told the AP. “The Champions League is the best club competition in the world but it lives at the expense of the rest of the world … look at the final, where would European football be without players from Africa and South America?”
The “Trident” that led Barcelona through a championship season features Luis Suarez of Uruguay, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Neymar of Brazil.
More than three quarters of the players at the 2014 World Cup were from European clubs. The 214-member European Club Association ensured a greater involvement in FIFA when it collectively secured $209 million for clubs releasing players to both the World Cup in 2018 and in 2022.
“It benefits the game worldwide,” Gandini said.
But Blatter has pushed the perception , has been that Europe is out to divide and conquer.
“For more than 25 years Europe was divided politically by the Berlin Wall but football remained homogeneous and united,” said Champagne, who failed to gain the five nominations required to seek the FIFA presidency. “Now football worldwide is not united, it is completely fractured … football should be inclusive worldwide, not controlled by the elite in Europe.”
Whether Platini confronts this during a potential presidential campaign could determine if he can win the votes to run world soccer.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.