FIFA not only has a new President but also a new General Secretary : Michel Zen-Ruffinen has stepped up to take over from his fellow Swiss, Sepp Blatter, as world football's chief administrator. With well over a decade of FIFA experience behind him, Michel Zen-Ruffinen is already a well known figure in football circles - but his conversation with FIFA Magazine reveals more.
FIFA Magazine: When the FIFA Executive Committee confirmed your appointment on 3 December, you modestly told them that when you joined FIFA in 1986, you had never dreamed that one day you would enter FIFA House as General Secretary. Really?
Michel Zen-Ruffinen: It's true. I had come to Zurich from French-speaking Switzerland above all to improve my Swiss German and wanted at that time to become a public attorney, but ended up discovering a more fascinating world that combined my legal qualifications with my hobby. But it wasn't until I was promoted to the FIFA management team in 1990 that I began to wonder if one day .... and then when I was made deputy general secretary in 1995, the whole thing became even more of a realisable dream.
When you joined FIFA, you had the opportunity to maximise your two main areas of interest : the legal profession, and refereeing. Which of these two interested you most at that time?
Both equally, I think. Of course I had my professional ambitions but I wanted a direct connection with football. In 1986, I was the youngest referee in the top Swiss league and that was consuming much of my time. I thought at first that maybe I could manage to do both things parallel with each other, but in time I realised that I had to choose.
When you graduated to becoming an international referee in 1993, was that the fulfilment of an ambition?
Certainly. To be one of the best referees in your country, anywhere, it takes a lot of perseverance, and I had refereed literally hundreds of matches over 12 years, often twice a weekend. I had played until I was 16 but then missed a training session with my club and they had such a strict sense of discipline that I was dropped from the team because of that. I knew I would miss playing if I couldn't be sure of a place in the team, but just around the same time I noticed an ad for new referees. I responded and soon realised that refereeing really appealed to me.
But as you rose through the FIFA ranks you were obliged to abandon your refereeing career, just as it was beginning. Why? And do you regret that?
When I joined FIFA I was responsible for the legal department as well as for refereeing. It soon became obvious that I couldn't do both those jobs and be an active ref at the same time. It was bound to bring me into difficult situations. Sure I regretted having to make the decision; I was only 32, and had a long career ahead of me. But I had to give priority to a longer career, especially as it involved FIFA. There's no way, though, that I would have made the same sacrifice for a job in a bank or a normal legal firm, for example.
Just imagine you had the chance of being either FIFA General Secretary (for several years) or the referee in the World Cup Final (for 90 minutes). An honest answer : which would you choose....?
That's not a fair question! But the answer's clear. Much as I loved refereeing, I would choose the career with FIFA. No doubt about it. I can honestly say that I never stop and think about what my refereeing career may have been; I've put that behind me. But I do admit I miss refereeing just when I see an ordinary Swiss league match on a nice sunny summer's afternoon, just for the sheer pleasure of being part of a game...
How useful has your legal training been in your career at FIFA so far - and for your new future responsibilities?
The FIFA administration clearly needs expertise in the Statutes and various rules and regulations, and all this requires a certain legal ability. With a broad legal training, I think I can tackle most of the legal problems that crop up. It's a challenge that suits my training and my personality.
As a lawyer yourself, would you agree that the legal profession is assuming an exaggerated importance in football?
I can't disagree. But it does require a certain legal expertise to make sure that football is properly structured and can protect its own interests. The problem is that there are too many outside interests encroaching on the game - but that, too, is no different to what's happening elsewhere in modern society. As I said earlier, I had wanted to be a prosecutor, and prosecutors are like forwards in football : they attack, they don't sit back on defence. I think I can lead the attack for FIFA, as we have a right and a duty to go on the attack, and to set the pace. It's like the game itself : the best form of defence of football's interests is to attack.
Your predecessor did not have the same legal background as you. As General Secretary, he was able to solve many of FIFA's problems with a sense of pragmatism rather than a clinical approach. Do you plan to follow his style or will you introduce your own, maybe as a reflection of the times into which football is moving?
Sepp Blatter's pragmatic style is an essential part of his character. He's had an enormous influence on my own career, with his own approach to management and a certain visionary sense. But above all he's taught me how to be patient. I'm more impulsive than he is but I've learnt from him how to bide my time when I have to. I'm a different person, younger, and want to make FIFA more specialised and better structured, more orientated towards specific tasks. That's reflected in the way we have been reorganising the general secretariat.
The President has an eleven-point blueprint for the future. Do you have a special agenda of your own for FIFA?
I don't have an electoral programme - but I do have some ideas! I would like to make FIFA even more efficient through greater specialisation and a more rapid turn-around of our gigantic workload. We have to continue to work on our internal and external communications. And I want FIFA to be seen in a more dynamic light, not just when problems occur, but as a constant positive presence. That's a major part of our new FIFA brand programme that we're launching this year.
What gives you most cause for concern for the future? And the greatest optimism?
My biggest concern is for the growing influence of people and organisations outside the game who want to cash in on its success without having its welfare at heart. And what encourages me most is the huge TV audience for France 98, which proved once again that our sport really has no equal in popularity and no end to its potential appeal.
Being General Secretary of FIFA is an honour but it comes at a price. As the father of three boys, while no doubt you are proud of your new position also for their sakes, you probably have to sacrifice some of your family life ....
If there's one thing I refuse to sacrifice in my new job, it's the time I spend with my family. Weekends are reserved for them, it's my best way of saying Thank You for all their support and understanding. I love every minute with the boys : of course we play football together, or I watch them play, we play ice-hockey and ski, we go swimming and hiking and cycling. They keep me fit! It's true they're proud of me ... but none of them seems to want to become FIFA General Secretary himself some day!