In a rare break from the norm, a dignitary from the world of rugby was the special guest at the home of football on Monday. Visiting FIFA headquarters in Zurich, the President of the International Rugby Board, Bernard Lapasset, was received by FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter.
Rugby became a professional sport in 1995, and since then has passed through the various stages of development familiar to football from its own change in status. The leading figure from the realm of the oval ball was therefore keen to learn from the experiences of the beautiful game. After speaking with President Blatter, Mr. Lapasset answered a few questions for FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Mr. Lapasset, what brings you to FIFA headquarters?
Bernard Lapasset: FIFA is a strong symbol of a sporting federation that has marked out its territory and succeeded in taking its own direction, particularly due to its President, Mr. Blatter, who is known throughout the sporting world. My idea was to learn more about this place and meet the people who make it work. Rugby is going through a transformation as it moves towards becoming a universal sport. Because of that, we're facing problems that certain sporting federations, and notably FIFA, have already resolved. On a personal level, I came into contact with the world of football a long time before coming here because, although my career has been in rugby, I started in football. I played it from seven to 14 years of age and I've always kept my love for it, like a lot of people across the world.
What subjects did you discuss with President Blatter?
Rugby has been professional since 1995 and since then we've grown and encountered the same problems that have arisen in other sports before us, with one example being the relationship between clubs and national teams. Professional sport is organised around a federal model, supported by the professional infrastructure of the clubs. We need to find a good balance between the two. First of all, training work needs to be done so that clubs draw players from right across the network of associations they're linked to. This social stratum is even broader and diversified now as European society is open to the free movement of people. But, in the interest of the national teams, we also have to consider the notion of eligibility. We need to make sure that the clubs have players eligible for the national team as well as representing the whole network of associations. It's out of a respect for all sides that we're looking for the solutions that work best.
What are those solutions in your opinion?
The example of football is an important consideration for us, especially the 6+5 proposal. We hope that in rugby we'll also be able to guarantee a significant number of eligible players at each club, so that national team coaches are able to select experienced players for the national side. Whatever their talents or their performances, we can't let the number of foreign players grow without the federations having control over the number of players eligible for the national team at club level.
How will you put those measures in place?
We don't want these sporting rules to be decreed by the European Commission or the European Parliament. The federations must be masters of their own sport. It's up to them to make propositions and establish the principles of eligibility - in accordance with the treaties, naturally. The concepts of autonomy and specificity are also tied up with the progress of the Olympic ideal and the whole sporting family.
Since you mention the Olympic movement, rugby is no longer an Olympic sport but Rugby sevens is perhaps poised to make a comeback. Can you explain that to us?
That's one of the major elements of my mandate at the IRB. We haven't been on the programme since 1924. It's a difficult situation because we had to choose between two disciplines: rugby with 15 players or seven. The game with 15 players has found its own format, balance and logic with the World Cup, which suits everyone's interests: players, supporters and television. The Olympic Games is a format that corresponds better to Rugby sevens: it's dynamic, convivial and festive. All the ingredients are there for it to be an Olympic sport. It would be an extraordinary breakthrough and we should receive a definitive decision on 9 October.
The 2019 World Cup has been accorded to Japan, a first for the continent of Asia. How was that choice made?
We wanted to widen the scope of the World Cup to introduce new countries to professional rugby. Asia is one of the most populous regions of the world, which means it is filled with potential, and it's also a strong economic market. Japan has been playing rugby for over 80 years and has started to get some good results as well as putting professional structures in place. Japan has solid foundations for organising an international rugby competition. Given their experience of organising a football World Cup, which President Blatter confirmed to me was a success, we know Japan has the capacity for organising global competitions.
On a similar theme, are you pleased that Argentina will be joining the Tri Nations from 2012 onwards?
Of course, it's fantastic recognition for Argentinian rugby. Argentina demonstrated their progress at the 2007 World Cup. It's good for rugby that a team from another continent, and thus another culture, can take its place among the global elite. It's no longer true that Europe and the big southern hemisphere nations dominate the game. Rugby is opening itself to professionalism and to the world, which is a long way from where it started. It's proof that this sport is developing and undergoing a real boom.