In his enforced retirement in a sleepy canton somewhere in Switzerland, Sepp Blatter will watch the World Cup in Russia like a man spurned not only by his organisation but by technology. The video assistant referee will be in attendance at this competition for the first time and will be regarded by the former head of FIFA as being as welcome as a termite under his floorboards. Blatter always insisted such intrusion would destroy the fabric of the game, which he long argued ought to rely purely on the judgement of the man on the pitch. Anything else would dehumanise the game. By dint of personality he ensured that view held sway over the world organisation for 20 years.
For Blatter had the purring slipperiness of the Cheshire Cat. At the height of his powers within FIFA his trademark smile of sly invulnerability not only seemed to pour scorn over his questioners but simply signposted the ease by which he could slip away from looming interrogation. He combined the art of evasion with an easily identifiable sycophancy in the presence of those whom he knew could keep him in power. The first time I witnessed all this was in Madrid at the draw for the 1982 World Cup.
He presided over the proceedings as if the tournament was a creature of his own invention. It drew almost universal admiration, except among those with more than a passing knowledge of FIFA’s corridors of powers, such as Ernie Walker, the former SFA secretary who at that time was a significant figure within the organisation and was always extremely wary of Blatter’s political acumen which finally brought him to despise the man. To us in the media he was charming, approachable, and left you with the impression he could sell after-shave to the Taliban. However, what added to his status in the eyes of all onlookers that night in Madrid, including a television audience of millions, was a personal performance which was a tour de force. For that he had to thank the local Spanish World Cup Organising Committee who succeeded in turning the draw into a shambles.
The complicated method they had employed to take into account all the relevant factors, including seedings, was dependent on the way balls were to be rolled down tubes which would fall into the hands of the footballing personalities who would then announce the outcome. However, for reasons which could only be explained by a highly-skilled physicist, the balls seemed to roll down the wrong tubes, and up came the first results of the draw which clearly made nonsense of the template by which you could work out the possible opponents for any given nation. That Scotland were shown to be drawn against Argentina simply did not make sense, given the routes already mapped out by FIFA. Suddenly it dawned on everyone, including Blatter, that something was amiss and the draw came to a shuddering halt.
It is here that Blatter emerged with his reputation greatly enhanced, by the way he calmly restored order, tried to explain a fiasco that was virtually beyond explanation, and did so fluently in different languages and with that ineffable smile on his face. We were wholly beguiled. And, in a sense, displaying the attributes of a cool and calm gameshow host was a microcosm of the way he became the most powerful man in world football: unruffled manipulation.
Walker had warned me well before Blatter’s appointment as President of FIFA, just two days before the Scotland-Brazil opening match of the 1998 World Cup in France, that the Swiss was a Machiavellian figure of boundless ambition. And it was when he strode onto the stage of the Meridien Hotel in Paris at a controversial juncture in the tournament when refereeing was under critical scrutiny, that we saw the sterner, more inflexible man. In dealing with questions from the press about what appeared to be draconian instructions handed out to the officials, little charm was on display. Dogma reigned. He became almost livid in dealing with a French reporter who persisted in pursuing the line that video evidence on the spot would almost be a humanitarian gesture, easing referees away from making crass errors, and avoiding subsequent ridicule. Blatter emitted a sacré bleu snort of a response. There was a referee in charge of each game and that was that. No compromise. He dealt with subsequent questioners about the controversies concerning refereeing decisions, as if they were barbarians at the gate. Sitting beside him though was a figure of a wholly different personality who privately disagreed with him while publicly holding the party line.
David Will, the wee solicitor from Brechin, had risen through the ranks of FIFA, with some assistance from his close friend Ernie Walker, to become the head of the refereeing committee for the world body. It was his role to talk about and ultimately defend his officials, but he was abruptly sidelined on this occasion – even though he was to emit the sacrilegious comment to me, on the quiet, that he would not have been averse to using video evidence in some way. Will, like Walker in later years was not slow to use the word ‘corrupt’ when talking about Blatter. However at this particular meeting, Blatter had intervened, relishing that opportunity to flex his muscles so soon after his accession. But, there and then, FIFA was on the back foot over the controversies surrounding refereeing.
For instance, in the 36 first-round games in 1998, 15 red cards had been issued, the same number as in the entire tournament in the USA four years previously. This led to general unease about the pressures referees were undoubtedly under to interpret behaviour on the field in a draconian way and led to outcries over some of their decisions.
That attitude did not surprise me, for even before he gained his presidency Blatter’s influence prevailed, particularly on the way a game was conducted by officials. This became evident when I was commentating for Eurosport a few months before the opening of the World Cup. TF1, the French television channel, proposed putting TV monitors around the pitch at the Parc des Princes for a friendly between France and Sweden. They would be available for immediate playback and easily accessible for the referee who would make the sole judgement, thus retaining the kind of supremacy which Blatter considered sacrosanct. Not only did FIFA reject the idea, they refused to allow us to experiment with the system.
So, in the French World Cup, with arguments raging about refereeing controversies Blatter was reinforcing that dogma. He was assailed by journalists about what many believed were glaring mistakes which had caused various controversies from even the first game of the tournament when Scotland took on Brazil. I recall the apoplexy among the Scots around us when we saw Dunga deliberately handle a John Collins free kick in the box. We were forced to assume that we were witnessing a referee who did not believe Brazilian players could do such a thing, for he simply turned on his heel and ignored it. Dunga later told the Brazilian press: ‘I touched the ball intentionally. I admit that. But only to protect my face.’ Eh? A mea culpa helped Scotland not one jot.
Clarity and justice were the main issues for correspondents at that tournament. But Scotland’s outrage at being deprived of a penalty was dwarfed by the questions asked about how Lucien Bouchardeau of Niger had awarded a penalty kick to Italy with only five minutes remaining in a group game with the Italians needing a win to stay in the competition. A Roberto Baggio free kick looked, quite accidentally, to have been handled by Fuentes of Chile in the box, which led to Italy winning 2-1. So a referee had helped keep Italy in the tournament? That was the buzz around me. Whether or not video evidence would have vindicated these decisions is, of course, questionable, but the furore surrounding the incident was simply batted away by FIFA. Then came the most curious video reference of all, which ought to have jolted Blatter. It showed that even an obvious absurdity would not dent his stance on video judgement.
It was on the day Scotland played Morocco. Brazil were facing Norway at the same time. Whatever happened to us in our game would be negated if Norway were, astonishingly, to beat the South Americans. One minute from the end, with the score 1-1, the American referee Esfandair Bharmast awarded a penalty to Norway for what he believed was a foul on Tore Andre Flo by Junior Baiano. Nobody at the ground, bar the referee, thought it was an infringement. The decision was ridiculed by virtually everyone who had been there as well as those who watched it on television. But Norway scored and won. This ignited a Brazilian fuse which saw them promote a character assassination on the referee by their acolytes in the press, and there were demands for his suspension. Esfandair was alarmed, to the point of being suicidal, and he sought the support of David Will. Will stood by him publicly, although he had reservations about the actual decision.
Salvation came in the oddest way, in the midst of universal condemnation. Esfandair’s wife phoned him from the States. She had been watching America’s own television coverage where they had used a camera behind the goal and it had revealed a unique picture of Junior Baiano deliberately pulling Flo’s jersey, hidden from the conventional camera angles. The message was passed on. Those images did more than exonerate him – Referee Magazine in the USA called it one of the best refereeing ‘calls’ of all time.
Of course, the Premier League in England have cold-shouldered VAR for next season. A prejudice set in after incidents which showed how cumbersome its use could potentially be, especially after the Spurs-Rochdale cup match at Wembley which seemed to suggest that the remote referee was off having a cup of tea when he should have been on the job. This was supplemented by irate TV commentators seeming to jump on the bandwagon of cynicism to dismiss a system which was barely up and running. Of course, we are inured to a fast-flowing sport which abjures unnecessary interruptions and it is that which has prompted resistance in England and elsewhere. But that is because we are all creatures of habit. Rugby adapted to such interventions. So can the football world. Thankfully, the new regime at FIFA has taken a more measured approach in the belief that it can be handled expeditiously.
Of course, it will not solve everything. It will have to compete with that primal need of the football man to wallow in controversy, to argue, dispute, rage and accuse. Who wants silent pubs?
But if any screaming injustice is avoided by this system in Russia then it will have served its purpose and perhaps then be appreciated, after two decades, by that retired luddite in Switzerland.