Friday, January 14, 2011

Coming soon: Bin Hammam v Blatter

Machinations at the top of soccer politics revolve around Qatar 2022 -

We should all pay more attention to the name of Mohamed Bin Hammam, as he could end up running our sport before long.

The global condemnation of FIFA's handling of December's World Cup vote has increased the likelihood of a challenge to the tumultuous 12-year reign of Sepp Blatter, and the knives are already being sharpened.

But only one of the three usual suspects looks willing to stick the blade in. Africa's Issa Hayatou has played it cool while Asia's Chung Mong-Joon, who was expected to challenge Blatter, was voted off the FIFA Executive Committee this month and replaced by a Blatter loyalist in the form of the Jordanian Crown Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein.

Bin Hammam has a bone to pick with Blatter after he and UEFA boss Michel Platini backed Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa in his near-miss at unseating the Qatari at the AFC Congress in 2009.

Now buoyed by his nation's successful World Cup bid, Bin Hammam has begun to flex his muscles, taking Blatter on directly over the staging of the 2022 Finals. The joy at his home nation winning the hosting did not last long as Chinese whispers about the promised climate-cooling technology not materializing grew louder by the day.

No problem said Blatter, Platini and others - just play it in the winter when the thermometer is closer to a manageable 80F than an oppressive 120F.

But what about the domestic leagues? They would have to disrupt their calendar for at least two months and clubs are already fed up of their stars coming back injured from international duty. To add to the confusion, the International Olympic Committee, recently insulted by Blatter, are angry that the World Cup might clash with the 2011 Winter Olympics and are refusing to budge from late January to late February.

Blatter is on a war-footing, angering Bin Hammam with the announcement of a FIFA anti-corruption committee (don't laugh) to the media before the Ex.Co. had got wind of it: Conspiracy theorists allege Blatter plans to clip his rival's wings with probes into Qatar's dubious 2022 bidding methods before any assault can be made on his Zurich throne. Then Platini, Blatter's ally, for now, mentioned extending the World Cup to other Middle Eastern countries, presumably Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman or the United Arab Emirates, though probably not Iran, Iraq or Yemen (!)

Never mind none of this was in the bid, Bin Hammam is understandably furious his grand projet is being tinkered with by outsiders.

"I'm really not very impressed by these opinions to distribute the game over the Gulf or change the time from July to January," he told Sky. "We're not interested. Qatar can stand alone and organise by itself."

Fighting talk. Platini may think Doha is too small for an influx of a million or so visitors who will be tempted to travel to up to three games in one day.

A colleague of mine at the Asian Cup in Doha is sending back reports of unbearable traffic and these crowds are miniscule compared to the World Cup. Despite tickets priced as low as $2, less than 3,500 watched Kuwait v Uzbekistan and barely one hundred more turned up for North Korea v the U.A.E. Even the big name clash of Australia and South Korea attracted only 15,000 fans, as Qatar pleads to be taken seriously as a soccer-loving nation.

But in truth the call to extend the hosting is a Blatter ruse to bag votes from those countries' delegates should a challenger emerge. If the head of the FIFA region organising the big show refuses to play ball with the President, get ready for the hottest holiday you'll ever have and enjoy the FIFA fracas in the meantime.

With tactics straight out of The Art of War, Blatter is trying to sow confusion among his enemies' troops: With the Asian Confederation falling in behind Bin Hammam, Blatter just announced out of the blue that India and Australia, both AFC nations, should host the World Cup soon, in the hope some Asian delegates will think again.

This tactic worked for him in 1998 when he defeated the decent Swede Lennart Johansson by promising World Cup Finals to a slew of naive nations, including England.

Interesting rumours have also begun to circulate that the President voted for the USA and not Qatar as was commonly thought, while the alternative theory is that Blatter wanted a Qatari World Cup so as to sate Bin Hammam into not rocking the boat, a bluff which may have misfired. Sepp's questioning of Qatar's ability to host a summer tournament is perhaps only a ploy to ruffle his nearest rival and make him look incompetent and/or demented if he overreacts.

But should Bin Hammam triumph, the climactic conditions for fans and players outside the main stadia just do not bear thinking about. The Lonely Planet guide to the region states:

“June to August, which regularly reaches 50C (122F), is certainly an experience: This is when you can spot mirages, visible heat waves and melting roads...without water and without a hat, heat exhaustion is an everyday hazard.”

Qatar has eleven years to invent its mega air con systems and given the speed Doha and its neighbors have risen into the sky from the desert, who says that is impossible? Anyway, we have Brazil and Russia to worry about first.

On the other hand a winter World Cup remains an immense logistical challenge too.

Oh what a mess. Any of the other bidders would have made FIFA's life easy, but it is probably too late for that talk now...or is it? FIFA has u-turned before, awarding the 1986 World Cup to Colombia and then handing it to Mexico instead after imposing a list of impossible demands on the Colombians after the 1982 World Cup Finals.

Could the President be about to lead an unlikely rebellion against his own Ex.Co.'s decision in order to save his own skin? 74 year-old Sepp is no fool, knows his soccer politics well and could yet have the last laugh.

As for Bin Hammam, the 61 year-old Qatari has until April Fool's Day to announce a bid for the FIFA Presidency. Should he commit, the last day of Blatter at the helm of football could be June 1st, 2011.

-Sean O'Conor


jason said...

south africa seemed bad enough, but i'll definitely not be going to any countries where islamic law is used and it's necessary to point out on its wikipedia page that women can legally drive. forget it. i don't know about everyone else, but i'm looking to go to good places for a world cup vacation and have a good time. not be baked (by the sun) and not drink alcohol in public. fifa needs to save any political agenda for smaller tournaments.

is there anything fans can actually do to influence the removal of blatter? is it a case of the evil we know is better than the one we don't? would a replacement actually be significantly better?

Sean O'Conor said...

Agreed, South Africa wasn't easy but at least it was a diverse nation with a rich history and culture to explore, not an expat boom-town in the desert with a few medieval laws thrown in. That choice took no account of traveling fans.

Would Bin Hammam be any better than Blatter? Maybe not, but the Havelange/Blatter dynasty of sleaze, in power since 1974, still deserves to be ended.

Platini has radical ideas but I somehow trust him more than anyone else to do the right thing.

If only Lennart Johansson had triumphed in 1998...