This year's FIFA Congress is being held next month in Sydney, Australia. In less than two months, the finals of UEFA EURO 2008 will get started in Austria and Switzerland. Autumn will then see the Olympic Games in China, where many of the planet's best men and women footballers are set to perform. These were just some of the events covered by FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, who also gave his opinion on the current status of preparations for the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™, the relationship between FIFA and the German Football Association (DFB) and the investigation into German football currently being carried out by the Federal Cartel Office.
The head of world football's governing body spoke on the 'Talk of the Week' section of DFB.de (the German FA's official website) and gave unequivocal support to those in charge at the DFB in their dispute with the Cartel Office. Blatter also announced when the 6+5 ruling would come into effect in the Bundesliga while also calling for footballing values to be given respect and recognition throughout the world.
DFB.de: UEFA EURO 2008 will soon be kicking off in Austria and Switzerland. Will you be able to relax and watch the tournament as a football fan, or do you have duties as FIFA President?
Joseph S.Blatter: I will be enjoying the tournament as a neutral football fan. I've decided that I am going to watch at least one match in each of the stadiums. I will of course be taking an interest in the organisation of the EURO in my role as FIFA President.
Will you be just as relaxed and neutral when the Swiss national team play?
When my home country is playing, for example during the opening match of the tournament against the Czechs, I may not sport a Swiss cross on my chest but I will feel as if I am. It wouldn't be normal for me to sit there totally impartial, although the FIFA President does need to maintain a certain neutrality.
How are enthusiasm levels for the EURO in your home country?
The Swiss always take their time to warm up, but when they do, watch out! There will be a great atmosphere particularly as Swiss football fans will be lucky enough to see some great games even in the group stages. Not just the ones involving their team but also the ones in the unbelievably strong group featuring Italy, France, the Netherlands and Romania.
Does it annoy you that some experts see the EURO as a FIFA World Cup minus Brazil and Argentina but with a greater concentration of quality and a more balanced line-up?
By saying that they prove that they don't know international football. Anyone who says that is over-simplifying things and looking at the tournament through European-tinted spectacles.
The German team may have won the EURO three times but at the last two finals, they went out early. How is the team looking this year?
Like any other team, they have to get past the first round. That won't be easy, even if the so-called experts we've just been talking about say that Germany got an easy draw. There are no easy draws. The German team will have been cautioned not to let their recent win over Switzerland go to their heads but rather to think about the tasks that lie ahead of them in Austria.
How do you view the current relationship between FIFA and the DFB, with Dr. Theo Zwanziger being elected sole President and the appointment of Wolfgang Niersbach as General Secretary?
At the moment everything is wonderful. The few differences and misunderstandings that occurred have been reconciled and smoothed over. I can only congratulate the DFB, under the leadership of Dr. Theo Zwanziger, on how the problems were tackled. Furthermore, I was delighted to discover that he, like the FIFA President, is an opponent of technology being used on the field of play. What I am particularly pleased about is the fact that the DFB has recently registered its one millionth women's footballer. Registered, you note. That means that there are probaly two million women and girls playing football. That is incredible. We are on excellent and very friendly terms with new General Secretary Wolfgang Niersbach. Horst R. Schmidt, the new treasurer of the DFB, has close ties with FIFA and will continue providing great assistance in the organisation of the next World Cup. And they also have Franz Beckenbauer, one of the most prominent members of the FIFA Executive Committee.
He took up office in March 2007. What are your impressions of how he is faring?
He is a very clever man. He's far from the nonchalant and easy-going showman that some people see him as. He always shows full commitment and a real interest in his tasks. He is chairman of the Football Committee and has tackled this responsibility with focus and determination. And as far as his work with the Executive Committee to date is concerned, all I can say is that I take my hat off to Franz Beckenbauer!
*How do you see the DFB's overall role in world football today? * They are one of the best organised national associations. The leadership is good and it is also well monitored - and that is key. It is a powerful association. If every association were as well organised as the DFB, our administration would hardly have any problems.
After the EURO, the Olympics in Beijing will be the second big event of the year. The women's tournament will see the best players from each of the qualified countries represented. Will this also be the case for the men's competition in the future, as it is for the basketball tournament and as IOC President Jacques Rogge would love to have it?
Since women's football is some way off enjoying the public profile that men's football has, the Olympic tournament is the chance for the best female footballers to demonstrate their skills on the world stage. For the men, the main issue is the international fixture list, in which the Olympic Games have their own place and for which the best professional footballers cannot be included due to timing considerations. I incidentally believe that the Olympic Games should be an event for young people. If football sends its best players up to the age of 23 then we will see some real quality. The tendency now within FIFA is to move away from the U-23s and just allow junior teams to take part in the Olympic Games.
The boycott of the Olympics which has been mooted by several sides will probably not come to pass. What is FIFA's position regarding the Tibet issue?
It is not the role of a FIFA President to comment on these issues or other political incidents. One thing is for sure, however. No-one has ever gained anything by boycotting, and particularly not the athletes. If you want to help the people of China, if help is required, then the athletes should be allowed to compete. And football will make a great contribution over there since the opening round is being played a long way away from Beijing. We will be bringing the Olympic spirit and the Olympic ideals to a remote place and that is good for the country and its people.
How should individual sportsmen and women behave during the Olympics?
As they are used to behaving as footballers. Ours is a team sport, so the team should behave as they normally would during a tournament. I would like to add in this context that it is a disgrace that the Olympic torch is being extinguished because people do not want to see it burning. There is something wrong there. I am an IOC member and have received a message that there is serious thought being given to the torch and whether it will continue to exist in the future. When we travelled across various countries with our FIFA trophy before the 2006 World Cup, this was met with universal approval. That is the way football is. Football is something special. Football is something that is so popular. It is the people's game.
This brings us on to the sport's biggest event, the FIFA World Cup. How is South Africa faring with its preparations, and what issues are causing you the most concern?
Energy supply is causing FIFA the most concern at the moment. Electricity. If you cannot provide a suitable energy supply in this day and age then there is something wrong. On the other hand, the stadium construction is going extremely well. We had the opportunity here in Zurich to talk with the South African union representatives as well as their Swiss equivalents and these discussions really helped us to make progress. The trade union members explained their problems to me and I then told them how the employment situation would probably look if the World Cup did not take place in South Africa. That broke the ice and the atmosphere became much more relaxed, and they assured me that they would all now be working together for South Africa.
*How are the safety issues looking? * When you accept that safety is an issue then you can take the necessary measures. The 2010 World Cup will therefore have the sustainable effect of helping South Africa become a safe country.
Will the 2018 FIFA World Cup come back to Europe or will it be held in the North, Central America and Caribbean zone, as per the rotation system?
We have modified the rotation principal somewhat by stating that the confederations in which the last two World Cup finals were organised cannot apply. For 2018 this therefore concerns South America and Africa. It is clear that Europe would like to have the World Cup back in 2018. There are a number of candidates, not just England. There is Russia, and the Netherlands together with Belgium, or Spain perhaps with Portugal. And then you have Mexico, USA, and then China, Australia and Qatar. It will be quite a contest.
At next month's FIFA Congress in Sydney, one of the items on the agenda is the 6+5 rule which is endorsed by the DFB. In your estimation, when will each team in the Bundesliga for example have to start every match with six players who are qualified for the country they are playing in?
At the Congress in Sydney, we not only have to discuss and approve the 6+5 ruling as a system but also work out a time scale for its implementation. At the moment there is still opposition from the European Commission in Brussels since this ruling supposedly goes against the freedom of choice of employment. We do not want to get into any quarrels with a political organisation, but there is no rule that says that there have to be eleven foreign players in a team. A lot of the politicians in Europe we have spoken to approve of the wording and the principal behind the 6+5 ruling.
When will it become a reality then?
First of all I would once again like to express my thanks to the German Football Association for their support in this matter and also to Dr. Zwanziger and Franz Beckenbauer who are very much behind us on this. The implementation is based on contracts that are currently in force and means that starting with the 2009/10 season we will have four nationally qualified players, then five and finally six so that the system is functioning by the World Cup in 2014. It is not morally right, and competition loses all balance when the big clubs buy 25 top players to deprive other teams of them and then hoard them because they can only have 11 on the park.
There is another hot topic in German football at the moment, namely the investigations by the Federal Cartel Office into the DFB and the German Football League (DFL). What is your opinion on this?
For us, football in Germany is a unit. The German Football Association is a member of FIFA and UEFA, and the DFL is integrated within the DFB, making it a legal entity, so there is no way that they can come into competition with one another. Incomprehensibly, something is being set off that could rock the very foundations of our sport, and in Germany as well, where almost seven million players are registered members of the DFB. When you take the families into account then you can multiply this figure by four, meaning that more than a third of the German population is either directly or indirectly involved in football. It is not just an economic issue but also part of education and culture. Football in Germany has great social importance and has taken on a political dimension. So let's leave football in peace and leave it organised the way it is in Germany. You would be hard pressed to find a more positive role model than football in Germany.
In this context, what do you make of the comments by the German Minister for the Interior, Dr Schauble, who said that based on the conditions of the single European market, not all aspects of life, and in particular sport and football, should be governed according to the laws of the market and competition?
I am in agreement with him 100 per cent, as is the case with the 6+5 ruling, which I have also already discussed with him. In Brussels they are saying that football is merely a sector of the economy. But football and sport are so much more and the socio-cultural aspects have far greater significance. This needs to be taken into account, recognised and respected. What does football give? It gives hope and emotions. And what do we need in our sometimes wicked and crazy lives more than hope and emotion? But let me make it quite clear that football has to take its responsibilities very seriously. What recently happened in Frankfurt during the match against Nurnberg was certainly not a great advertisement for saying that sport should be left in peace and to its own devices. There should be no let up in our fight against violence, corruption and racism, against cheating during games with persistent diving, against drugs and illegal gambling. But we can only fight if we are all in agreement that football is something more than just a business.
*After so many controversial questions, here is a final and very straightforward question for Joseph S. Blatter the football expert: Who will be the 2008 European champions? * I know that people are going to say that I have had enough time to come up with a cleverer reply, but as FIFA President I have to give a diplomatic answer, and that is - whoever wins the final.