Q&A: Fifa presidential candidate Jerome Champagne outlines his vision for football’s future
The Frenchman, Sepp Blatter’s former right-hand man before being fired in 2010, spoke to the South China Morning Post by phone about the importance of China to world football, and why he believes football’s world governing body is not beyond redemption
Q: How optimistic are you of success?
It’s not about being optimistic or pessimistic, it’s about explaining the future, listening to the needs and having the experience. I was in Fifa for 11 years, dealing with all the federations around the world – I know them, I know what they need, I know their capacities, and the federations they know me. They remember when I was in Fifa, when a federation had a problem I was solving the problems, I was replying quickly, I was helping them all the time and that’s what makes me reasonably optimistic.
Q: What do you say to people who think Fifa should be scrapped altogether?
I disagree completely. It’s not the first time in history Fifa is going through a crisis, like all the international organisations. In 1929 at the time of the stock exchange crash in New York Fifa was nearly bankrupt. Fifa went through difficult times in World War 2. In 1966 the African federations boycotted the World Cup in England because big leaders in Africa like [Kwame] Nkrumah in Ghana, [Julius] Nyerere in Tanzania considered that Africa was not treated correctly.
When I was in Fifa 2001, Fifa went through a very difficult crisis. In six months two [marketing] partners Kirch and ISL went bankrupt and we had a lot of difficulties and at that time Fifa had no money.
Today the crisis is very severe. But if you look at the fundamentals: since last May the Fifa competitions were organised perfectly. The Women’s World Cup in Canada was a sports success and a popular success, the World Cup men under-17 took place in Chile, it was a sports success and a popular success. Look closer to home in Hong Kong, recently we had the Club World Cup in Japan again a sports success and popular success.
The development programmes continue, the administration functions and the financial reserves are good with US$1.5 billion. So you see there is no reason to dissolve Fifa, it is just about improving the governance, changing the image, getting closer to the fans, being more humble, so I don’t agree that we need to scrap Fifa, we need to improve.
My position is very clear: we need to keep what has been done correctly in 40 years – development programmes, taking Fifa competitions everywhere, developing women’s football – and we need to change what needs to be changed. But to start from scratch, not at all.
Q: How would you ensure Fifa was a model of transparency and good governance?
First, you see if you look at the scandals affecting now tennis and the IAAF, Fifa is in advance on a lot of issues. Fifa has a very strong independent ethics committee since 2013 and look at what it is doing, and as a candidate, I’ve said I will make everything transparent, including the salary of the Fifa president and the top Exco members. We know the salary in a democracy of the heads of state like President Obama or French President Francois Hollande.
If you remember, I am the one that has been pushed out of Fifa, fired from Fifa in January 2010, by a group of people like Mr Bin Hammam, Mr Platini, Mr Valcke, who ganged up against me and who are all suspended today.
I know exactly why we need to change because I was pushed out when I was calling for change.
I understand the scepticism, but I tell you I have the experience of what was good and what was wrong. When I was not yet a candidate in 2012 I asked for changes, such as separating the governance of Fifa and commercial activities and I am very happy to see that the reforms committee has adopted that reform. So I tell you I’m ready and I’m someone who knows exactly what needs to be done.
Q: Will your past association with Sepp Blatter damage your changes?
Not at all, I tell you why. First, during 11 years when I was in Fifa I was never dealing with commercial or financial activities, but just sport issues, relationship with the federations, negotiations with governments in case of governmental interference, negotiation with European Commission on transfer issues, discussions and meetings with players unions, clubs and leagues. So I was never involved in this sector of the controversies.
Secondly I was pushed out of Fifa in January 2010, so it speaks by itself, it speaks volumes.
Last but not least I want to say that it is not about Mr Blatter, it’s about the vision. The world is changing. Definitely the growth of China, the growth of Asia shows that the world is changing. What I’m advocating is that Fifa should permanently adjust to the new reality.
Mr Blatter was defending the vision that football is universal, that Fifa should help everyone, that Fifa should be independent from vested interest, that Fifa should not be depending on western European football and should be independent and create a balance between the ones who have everything and the ones who have less. That vision of Fifa balancing everyone, I’m defending that.
In 1974 Mr [Joao] Havelange was elected from Brazil, he defeated the incumbent English president Stanley Roux. What did that mean? It means that in 1974 the Eurocentric vision of football is changing and we need to preserve that.
Q: You mentioned the importance of China and Asia in world football, how important is China now?
It’s fundamental. What was clear was that the plan of Mr Blatter was to go to South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014, Russia in 2018, the United States in 2022 and then in 2026 to have a World Cup for Asian federations. We would have had traditional bids like Japan and Korea but we would have had new countries bidding for the World Cup. Indonesia, the first Asian country to compete at a World Cup in 1938, we would have had a bid from India and we would have had a bid from China and that was the goal. All that was changed when some people inside the Exco betrayed their promises.
China is very important not only because of the size of the population and the size of the economy but also because we have seen a huge change.
First in the province of Linzi [actually the capital of Qi during the Warring States period] they have a tradition saying that football was created in this province a few thousand years ago.
Secondly in the past few years we have seen a huge growth. In 1990, Liaoning won the Asian Club Championship, then there was a long period of silence, now suddenly we see this growth, with Guangzhou Evergrande again champions of Asia and clearly what is very, very important for me is the fact that President Xi has created a clear goal, with creating these schools of football everywhere and with these three objectives: participating in the World Cup, hosting the World Cup and one day winning the World Cup. And that’s my objective because definitely China is important for the strategic future of the game.
Q: So you would push for a China World Cup?
Of course. The only problem we have is that World Cup 2022 is going to take place in Qatar, in Asia and in Fifa there is a rule that a continent cannot bid for two World Cups in a row which means that we can expect that 2026 will go to North America and that Asia and China will be able to bid for the World Cup only in 2030, 34 or 38.
So you see that the plan of Mr Blatter to go to Asia in 2026 is creating a problem because it is postponing the moment when China is able to bid. I regret that but I would definitely be in favour of that.
What is also very important today is that we can see the growth of the Chinese leagues, we can see the growth of Chinese investment in football, buying shares in clubs like in my country France with Sochaux, investing in other clubs in Europe, also investing in the content with Wanda buying for example the InFront group and building one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates.
For me it’s clear China is the future. But for now we need to find a moment when China will be able to bid, that’s very important.
Q: Would you make an exception to the rule so China could bid in 2026?
I don’t know if we can change the statutes, but it’s clear that the rule is very old and very strong in Fifa. Frankly I think if the World Cup stays in Qatar then 2026 will go to another continent, that’s clear. But let’s wait. For the moment the situations stays, but there are some investigations, we will see what will happen. But again I regret that Mr Blatter’s plan was not implemented – you can imagine 2010 South Africa, 2014 Brazil, 2018 Russia, 2022 United States, 2026 China – it would have been an amazing series. But listen, we will see what will happen.
Q: Do you still believe 2022 will go ahead in Qatar?
In a democratic system you have the principle innocent until proven guilty. And that benefits also the Qatar World Cup. But there are investigations so let’s see what happens.
We have a second issue which is the exploitation of the workers. I applaud the emir of Qatar who said let’s improve the labour law, but you’ve seen that even the local parliament has refused to modify the law or at least modify it greatly.
Last but not least you have the issue of the date so there are some issues. So let’s wait for the outcome, as you know there are two investigations, the Swiss and US so let’s wait and see.
Q: Given the negative headlines about human rights and worker abuses surrounding the Russia and Qatar World Cups, would you be worried by the prospect of similar negative press if a World Cup went to China?
It’s a completely different situation. You cannot compare an autocratic regime like Qatar to China. China has to face also some issues but definitely it’s a country where the situation is much better, there’s no doubt. But in the case of Qatar it’s not an issue of human rights it’s an issue of the worker’s rights. Organising a World Cup means building new stadiums or revamping old ones. In Brazil unfortunately seven workers died in building the stadiums. That’s a tragedy. In the case of Qatar it’s about systemic exploitation of poverty.
Secondly, football is a very democratic sport. It’s a cheap sport, everyone can play, you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment so football is by definition very democratic and it’s by definition anti-racist because the biggest star in football is a black man, Pele – who by the way supports me. So you see, football and human rights are very close. But I’m not afraid about the situation in China and I do hope we have the World Cup.
Q: Sheikh Salman is seen by many as the favourite, though there are criticisms about his own relation to human rights in Bahrain. Do you think that will affect his hopes or will the election come down to backroom deals between confederations?
First, out of the five candidates we have two candidates coming from confederations and I think that’s wrong because Fifa belongs to the national federations. It belongs to the federation in Bolivia, it belongs to the federation of Botswana, it belongs to the federation of China, it’s not down to the confederations to decide.
Secondly, Fifa should remain a federation of federations and I’m afraid that these two candidates coming from Uefa and the AFC would like to transform Fifa taking away from the federations the power which belongs to them.
Considering human rights issues in Bahrain, it’s not about coming forward – it’s already forward. This morning and elsewhere in the world you have more and more articles about the situation and controversies. But it’s not so much about human rights as about the fact that it seems that some principles in terms of management of the league in Bahrain were violated. That apparently some clubs representing the Shi’ite community have been relegated to the second division for political reasons. So not even talking about human rights, talking about the Fifa principles. There are some investigation, it’s not up to me to decide but it’s not about whether it will come out, it’s already on the table.
— Jérôme Champagne (@JChampagne2016) October 23, 2015
Q: How much concrete support do you have? How many votes can you win?
The media say this person is favourite because of what? Because they think that if you are in a confederation you have automatically the exact number of votes as the federations in that confederation. It doesn’t work like that and it shouldn’t work like that because the decision is not for the confederations, it’s for the federations.
Secondly, some of these candidates representing some regions are coming from regions which are in big trouble and it’s potentially a risk for Fifa to bring into Fifa the political controversies of these regions.
Last but not least, what is essential is one to continue the Fifa which is for everyone, which is not depending on any interest which is independent; two it’s a Fifa which is to be led by someone with experience and among the candidates I’m the only one with experience at the top; last but not least a Fifa which is at the service of the federations, and during my 11 years I was at the service of the federations.
So I’m not going to give you a number of votes but this election is not decided by some journalist who decides Mr So-and-so is the favourite or the betting companies. There are a lot of things taking place. I’m travelling around the world and the federations as I said want to continue what has been done correctly by Mr Blatter and they want to have a Fifa modernised and strong for the 21st century.
Q: Anything to add?
What I would like to tell everyone in Hong Kong and in East Asia is that we cannot have a Fifa which is dominated by one region. A Fifa which is dominated by some people who are so rich that they believe they can buy everything.
We want a Fifa which – you know Mr Blatter and Mr Havelange received a lot of criticism and let’s do the investigation, but let me tell you something: Mr Blatter and Mr Havelange have changed the face of football, they have changed the map of football and they changed it because they believed football belonged to the world.
I believe that as well and I want to continue that football and Fifa belong to the world, not to some small group of people, not to some private interest not even to some government interest – which by the way finance the campaigns of some of the candidates, you have to consider that as well. So for me Fifa belongs to the world and should stay like that.