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Blatter defends the “beautiful game”

Fifa president Sepp Blatter at Thursday's media conference Keystone

The centenary celebrations of world football’s governing body, Fifa, have been marred by a legal dispute with Europe’s leading clubs.

In an interview with swissinfo, Sepp Blatter, the organisation’s Swiss president, gives his take on the row, doping and the game in Switzerland.

Earlier this month Switzerland’s Competition Commission launched a preliminary investigation into a complaint by the G-14 group of European clubs.

They claim Fifa, which is based in Zurich, is abusing its power in requiring clubs to release players for international matches without compensating them.

Speaking before the Swiss press on Thursday, Blatter accused clubs such as Real Madrid and Manchester United of a “lack of respect”.

The spat could not have come at a worse time for Fifa which is marking its centenary with a series of events around the world.

It is also constructing a new headquarters in Zurich, due for completion in April 2006.

swissinfo: What is your response to the case brought by the G-14 group of European clubs?

Sepp Blatter: We are going to fight this for the time being. But I have to say that I am very sad about this because there is no more respect and no more discipline in our football family.

We pay the national teams when they are on Fifa duties and what they do with the money is up to them. But the clubs should ask the national associations and not Fifa. In this case they are calling into question regulations which are already EU [European Union] compatible – and if they are EU compatible I cannot see how we can fail in this matter.

swissinfo: Two years ago you were accused of corruption and mismanagement by fellow Fifa executives, allegations which were later found to be false. How much damage did they do to Fifa and how difficult was it for yourself?

S.B.: I think at the time there was inestimable damage done to Fifa and to the office of the president. But football has a very special dynamism and once a game is over a new one begins, and it was the same here. During the subsequent elections 70 per cent of the national associations supported my candidature and at the next congress in 2003 they gave me standing ovations.

In the meantime we have proven that the finances are sound and we have projections for the future which are very positive. I also had to make some internal changes, like say with a football team, and transfer some key players in Fifa to other clubs.

swissinfo: Many people were shocked by the severity of the ban handed to England’s Rio Ferdinand for failing to attend a doping test. Was this meant as a signal that Fifa takes doping seriously?

S.B.: We take doping very seriously. But it was the FA [English Football Association] in London which decided on the eight-month ban and I congratulate them for what they have done. But they acted too late and should have imposed an immediate suspension on the player when he missed the test.

There was a lot of criticism aimed towards Fifa and the FA but finally the player accepted the ban. I have to compliment Rio Ferdinand for his sporting behaviour once he accepted that he had broken regulations.

swissinfo: How big a problem is doping in football?

S.B.: I was of the impression that there was very little but there is a problem – especially in club football. Because there is too much club football and too many games, players are overloaded physically and psychologically. They have no time to recuperate, so there’s the danger that they will be given something to enhance their performance. They don’t know exactly what they are taking and that is why we must be very vigilant.

swissinfo: Being based in Zurich, you have a front row seat to assess Swiss football. How do you see the game developing here?

S.B.: There is a lot of effort by the Swiss football federation in relation to developing youth and women’s football. They have established technical centres in Switzerland and the results speak for themselves. The under-21s are in the [European] finals and are fighting for a berth to go to [the Summer Olympics in] Athens, and the national team is one of the top 16 sides in Europe.

But I have to say I do not see the same development in the so-called Super League, where football can be very boring.

swissinfo: It must be a great honour for you, as a Swiss, to be president of Fifa during its centenary year. Has it all been hard work or have you found time to enjoy it?

S.B.: First of all I am proud to be Swiss and it gives me great, great pleasure to be at the helm of this wonderful organisation as it celebrates 100 years. I am in my 30th year of working for Fifa and am if not married, then definitely engaged to football.

It’s been hard work but I do it with pleasure. I just hope I can stand the pace at which I started in January until the end of the year.

swissinfo-interview: Adam Beaumont

Fifa says it has entered its centenary year on a solid financial footing, recording a profit of SFr141 million ($108 million) in 2003.

Blatter has revised Fifa’s structures, staffing and finances since winning the 2002 presidential election.

The preliminary investigation by the Competition Commission into a possible breach of Switzerland’s antitrust laws is expected to last three to eight months.

Fifa was founded in Paris on May 21, 1904.
The organisation, under the presidency of Jules Rimet, held its first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.
Sepp Blatter was elected Fifa’s eighth president in 1998.
The current world champions are Brazil, who have won the cup five times.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR