Grant Wahl: Who will be the new FIFA president?
3:28 | Planet Futbol
Grant Wahl: Who will be the new FIFA president?
Thursday February 25th, 2016

Of the five candidates for FIFA president, France’s Jérôme Champagne might be the most fun to watch a game with. If you spend 90 minutes talking to him—and he’ll talk your ear off—he’ll display a knowledge of the sport and its history that’s kind of like Rain Man. When we sat down together in Antigua and Barbuda on January 16, Champagne even brought up the U.S. Open Cup tournament and its history, and he talked about how the U.S. could be well-served by promotion and relegation.

Champagne lived for five years in Los Angeles, and he has lived on four continents over the years. He has a keen eye for the inequalities in today’s soccer world, and he has made remedying that a cornerstone of his manifesto. While he likes the NBA, he cautions against what he calls “the NBA-ization” of soccer, which he thinks is making national teams less important.

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But Champagne, who worked for more than a decade as Sepp Blatter’s right-hand man in FIFA (before he was fired in an internal political battle in 2010), also has some opinions that aren’t so popular in America right now.

For example, he thinks that Blatter will eventually be viewed like Jimmy Carter—as deeply unpopular when he left office but judged more more kindly by history in the end.

It was just one of many opinions that Champagne shared in our interview below.

Champagne doesn’t have a chance to win the FIFA presidency on Friday—he had a hard enough time getting the five nominations necessary to stand in the election—but he has a lot of ideas that are worth hearing.

Here are the standout parts of our 90-minute interview (lightly edited for length and clarity): First off, before we get into more serious matters: Who is your team?

Champagne: From the bottom of my heart I have two clubs. My first one is Saint Etienne in France. I first followed the FA Cup final in 1970. They won 5-0, and it was like a passion. And when I was 16 Catalan friends of my parents took me to the Camp Nou for the first match of my life in Barcelona, and it was my second club, I would say. So I am a member of these two clubs. I used to say we can change a lot of things in life, but not the clubs (laughs). As far as the FIFA presidential election is concerned, the one that is taking place on February 26 is in some ways the most important presidential election in the history of FIFA. Why do you want to be FIFA president? 

Champagne: I want to because I do believe in this globalized world of today football has to remain living and breathing through the valleys of the game. And in the globalized activity like football it has to be controlled, regulated, bicentral structure. If not, politicians, business people, even criminals will take part of the game for their own interest without any link to the game. And I have such a passion for the game that I want the game to remain the game.

Two, I have a passion for the world. I’ve lived on four continents. I was a career diplomat. My family is a fruit salad from various places and languages and cultures. And today … the world is so divided, so unfair, so segregating that we need the game of football. The game of football is something which enables a Canadian and a South African and a Bolivian and a Chinese who have nothing in common to have something in common. Every four years we have this moment of world communion, which is the FIFA World Cup, where we can be proud of our colors without hating the other ones. We can be striving for our colors, but at the same time accepting defeat. And we need that more than ever. That is why I want to be the FIFA president: To continue this mission, to have football regulated, redistributed, giving a chance to everyone. And if you look what has happened in 40 years, Eurocentrism was defeated, and football became the sport number one for everyone, including in the United States.

The SI Extra Newsletter Get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox You have talked a lot about the inequality in your opinion in world soccer. What do you mean by that?

Champagne: Very simple. Globalization creates inequalities. It is not only in football. Look at the latest State of the Union speech of President Obama, when he mentioned the breaking down of the American social ladder by inequalities. Or Mr. DeBlasio [the mayor of New York City] talking about New York City being divided. It is also for football. We have inequalities between continents.

For example, in the suburb where I live in Zurich, which is not the wealthiest, but not the poorest: 200 meters from my building we have six football fields, five natural, one artificial. More in my suburb of Zurich than the entire Democratic Republic of Congo, which has 70 million inhabitants. One has qualified for the World Cup ‘74 and has a great club like TP Mazembe of Lubumbashi. Other inequalities: The French FA has an annual budget of €237 million a year, while half of the federations in the world survive with less than €2 million a year. In some countries they cannot even afford to pay for the tickets in spite of the FIFA grants to fly teams or clubs to matches.

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The 20 wealthiest clubs in the world are the cumulative annual turnover of €6.2 billion. And it’s great because I live in countries where they think about redistributing the wealth before creating it. I love the big clubs. I am a socio of Barcelona, but it is a reality. So do we want football to become like basketball? What I call the NBA-ization of football, where only one country and one league would concentrate everyone.

Basketball is a sport I love. I lived five years in Los Angeles, but in basketball national teams have less relevance and importance than the club competitions, where in football it is the other [way around]. Because we have club football, which divides communities where national football unites not only men, but women, kids, families. That is why we need to protect the game.

The inequalities today are dividing a lot. Look at Europe. We just celebrated the 26th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. Before, Europe was divided but football was homogenous and united. It was possible for Steaua Bucharest to be champion of Europe in ‘86 from Romania. Red Star Belgrade, champion of Europe from Yugoslavia in ‘91. Ajax Amsterdam from the Netherlands, champion of Europe in ‘95. Do you think today that is possible? No.

In my country, France, the club Paris Saint-Germain after 20 matchdays has a 20-point lead. In Greece Olympiakos Piraeus has 16 or 17 of the 19 last titles and this season 16 wins out of 16 matchdays. So inequalities are killing the uncertainty of the result. Are killing the competitiveness of the competition. And why do we watch football? Because we want everyone to have a chance to win.

GALLERY: Faces of the FIFA scandal How do you address these inequalities if you are FIFA president?

Champagne: First we have to recognize them, whether it is the country, a private company or a couple, if you don’t recognize that you have a problem and you put it under the carpet it explodes later. It is exactly what is taking place now. The issue of inequalities has been discussed, but some people do not want to recognize that. So I first campaign on that because it is central issue. Two, we have plenty of ways of increasing development funding using the regulations. When I was in FIFA and I negotiated with the European Commission in Brussels the creation of the solidarity mechanism—meaning that five percent of the transfer fund of an international player would be redistributed for clubs having trained that player between 12 and 21. Maybe we should do more.

For example, TV rights. The English league is making $40 million a year out of the Nigerian market or the Indian TV market. Re-investment in local football: Nothing, while at the same time competing with the local leagues and the local clubs. So I don’t have a turnkey solution for everything. I placed that in the center of my campaign. The motto of my campaign is “Rebalance the game in the globalized 21st century.” Because I think it’s a very important issue, as important for me as cleaning FIFA, bringing more ethics, more responsibility, all these things we need to do to adjust to the world today—to the request to the public opinion of this transparency, which is so important. But I am the only one talking about inequalities. When you look at this election campaign and you are making your case for people to vote for you, what are some of the most significant accomplishments you’ve had in your career in soccer that you point to?

Champagne: The fact that I am a citizen of the world. I’m someone who knows the game, who has been tested also with experience. Because FIFA went through a very difficult crisis in 2001 when in six months two economic partners, Kirsch and ISL, went bankrupt. On October 11, the month after the tragedy of September 11, the insurance contract for World Cup 2002 Japan and Korea was canceled. At that time the Executive Committee was divided by a huge political war and FIFA had no money. And I’ve been tested with others to save FIFA at the time.

Also the fact that when I talk, I talk about football. But I talk also about some concept about understanding the complexity of this world, the problem with inequality. While we speak, in Antigua, they had nothing in some of the regions. Unfortunately, some Goal projects have been badly used or mishandled. I recognize that. But it’s not because some I would say abuse the social security are the ones we should delete from the system. My position is we need to do more. And the fact that doing all these years in FIFA and after I left FIFA as a consultant I was always close to the people, close to the FAs, close to the leagues, and the players as well. That is something money cannot buy. For more than a decade you were advisor to Sepp Blatter at FIFA. What is your opinion of his presidency?

Champagne: First, I was an advisor to the FIFA president with Michel Platini. We started the same day with the same title, Advisor to the FIFA president. Not for the same sector. I was paid as a normal employee, if that would be one of your questions (smiles). No, but joking aside, I was after that the Deputy General Secretary. Myself, I was never in contact with any aspects from marketing, finances, commercials. So I can only talk about Mr. Blatter from the side I would say of the portfolio I was in charge of.

[Blatter is] someone who is definitely married to the game. Who sacrificed his life for that. Someone you know, people say is it true that he was the first one to arrive and the last one to leave switching off the lights? Yes. It’s true. I am not here to defend anyone, but I am absolutely sure that history will judge him better than the current news. Whatever will happen, there is one thing which is true in the face of world football now: This globalization would not have been the same—including women’s football—without FIFA’s role. You remember when former president Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1980, and what is his image today? I am pretty sure that history judges things a little differently than the pressure of the daily news. A lot of Americans are going to hear that and say: What is this guy saying? I’ll be honest with you: Sepp Blatter’s Q-rating in the United States is not very high right now.

Champagne: But listen, you are a journalist, you are someone who is following their life. Sometimes the narrative of the media does not correspond fully to the reality of history. I just mentioned Jimmy Carter. The narrative of his departure in 1980 was definitely different to what would be said about him today. Once again, I’m not here to defend anyone. He is someone absolutely able to defend himself. But the reality is that public opinion around the world, including in the U.S., has not been explained correctly what has happened.

They all believe—let’s forget Mr. Blatter for a minute—that a FIFA president is almighty and decides everything. That’s absolutely untrue. You mention in a democracy you elect the American president to run the country for a mandate of four years. And after being sworn in on Capital Hill the U.S. president arrives at the White House and formally appoints his government. That is a democracy. Someone we elect has a right to appoint his or her cabinet to implement the program he or she has been elected for. In FIFA that is not the case. Because the government of FIFA, composed today of 25 [Executive Committee] members, is controlled 23 members out of 25 by non-members of FIFA, the confederations.

Your readers from Sports Illustrated have not been explained to that confederations are not members of FIFA. They are independent. They develop stuff on their own, and they refuse FIFA’s controls. But they have not been exposed to the reality. And it’s not about justifying everything, I am just telling the facts. For example, you have internal war inside the FIFA Executive Committee. When I was Advisor to Mr. Blatter between 1998 and 2002, it was a permanent internal war for simple decisions. And to give another analogy that the American public opinion can understand, imagine President Obama having had to run his cabinet for his first mandate between 2008 and 2012 with Arizona Senator John McCain, being just defeated, keeping grudges and already inside the cabinet, not outside. Not in Congress, but inside the cabinet, and already Mitt Romney trying to block any initiative. It’s how FIFA functions—or rather, does not function.

Let me be clear: Let’s clean, let’s finish the investigation. Police investigation forces, whether they’re Swiss or American, have means to investigate FIFA. I am totally in favor of cleaning. But to pretend that only one person is responsible for all the decisions taken by the 25-member group of the ExCo is demagoguery. To believe that FIFA is responsible for what CONCACAF and CONMEBOL have done is simplicism. But let’s clean. I have no problem with that. I feel like I should point out here that as we speak Sepp Blatter is banned for eight years from FIFA. [It has since been reduced to six years.] That is something that I think would hurt his legacy, correct?

Champagne: Of course. Absolutely right. And once again, you are a big democracy and in your country everyone is innocent until proven guilty. And we have enough cases of mishandling of justice with a number of people who are on death row and have been liberated after 32 years because finally we have done some DNA tests. So we have to be extremely cautious on this kind of thing. But once again, I am not here to defend Mr. Blatter. I am here to campaign.

This crisis is very severe. And that is why I want to run for the presidency, because I want to restore FIFA’s credibility. Because we need FIFA, but we need a credible one, we need a respected one. But if you look, for example, in the middle of this severe crisis, the FIFA competitions took place without a glitch. The Women’s World Cup in Canada was a sporting and popular success as you know. Bravo to the United States and Carli Lloyd and a beautiful goal and hat trick in the final. Look at the men’s Under-17 World Cup in Chile, with half a million Chileans coming to follow under-17 teams from all around the world. Look at the Club World Cup which finished with again a title for Barcelona. Perfect.

Look at the development programs. They continue around the world. Look at the finances, $1.5 billion of reserves. Solid. Mr. Hayatou [the acting FIFA president] is running the boat in a very difficult time. Finally some reforms. Maybe the glass will be only half-empty, but O.K. Personally, as of 2012 I was proposing to separate the governmental function of FIFA from the commercial activities, building a Chinese wall. I was the first one. As of 2012, I was also discussing that we need to rebalance between the continents because FIFA is going through the same debate than rebalancing, for example, the composition of the security council of the UN which represent the world of 1945, not the world of today. They are changing.

And by chance, thanks to this investigation, because FIFA has no police forces to investigate things are revealed. Let’s wait: Presumption of innocence. So this crisis is severe. Very, very severe, but there are some fundamentals which are solid. And by the way when you say FIFA we do a huge mix. Are we talking about the FIFA administration? Are we talking about the FIFA ExCo? Are we talking about the FIFA president? When people say FIFA everyone is in the same bag, but without saying who is in charge of what. Switching gears, there has been talk about expanding the men’s World Cup from 32 to 40 teams. Are you in favor of that?

Champagne: Solidly against. Why?

Champagne: For three reasons. The first one is that we have seen that in Brazil how complicated, costly, gigantic it is to organize a World Cup with 32 teams. And if we don’t pay any attention this race toward gigantism will make the result that it won’t be any more possible to organize World Cups in democracies where, rightfully so, public opinion and citizens can complain about allocation of funds and rather than building this or that they would advocate better public transportation, better schooling systems or better hospitals. And for me, we have not organized a World Cup in a non-democracy since 1978 [in Argentina]. For me, football is the most democratic sport in the world because it is cheap. It’s the cheapest sport. You don’t need very expensive equipment. You can imagine the lines on the field because in some other sports without the equipment and without the lines you cannot play. It is a sport which offers enough positions that everybody can find a possibility to play. Who can play basketball if you are not usually tall? Or American football?

So for me football is about democracy. And we need to I would say reduce the level of requirements. FIFA cannot continue being criticized all the time for what some local FA officials want FIFA to be blamed for. For example, the number of stadiums. You can build a World Cup with nine stadiums, eight actually, plus one back-up. And in Brazil some people had an interest locally, both political and football leaders, to go for more stadiums. And FIFA was blamed for decisions which were not needed and FIFA made a mistake not to tell the president, “Hey, guys we need eight. You want 14, you want 12, that is your call.” So I want to stay with 32 [teams].

The second reason is that if we expand it to 40 we would have either 10 groups of four, qualifying the 10 first-place [group finishers] and qualifying six runners-up, and you know how messy it can be with these kind of calculations in these games. Or we would have eight groups of five teams, expanding the World Cup number of dates and with one team having a bye on the last day of each group. The format is not correct.

And the third reason, which is also very important: The football calendar, the international calendar, is so overcharged already that it will mean that we will have to expand the number of dates. I’m a guy who believes that the clubs are to football what our families are to our societies. We need to protect the clubs, we need to protect the players. So no, I would stay with 32, but it doesn’t mean that we should not rebalance. Because the map of football is changing. For example, today I said that if I am elected I would fight to have four slots for CONCACAF instead of 3.5 because we just have to look at the results. The American team is really strong. I lived in the U.S. at a time where there was no league and no MLS, and the U.S. team has qualified regularly since 1990. Costa Rica was fantastic. Panama was two minutes away from qualifying. I propose six teams for Africa because once again for the first time in history we have two African teams advancing from the group phase and qualifying for the [Round of 16]. And but for one minute we would have three with Ivory Coast. I think we need to permanently adjust, but we would stay with 32. We can reorganize a few things to find a most equitable distribution of slots. It was a huge year in 2015 in the United States for women’s soccer. 27 million people watched the Women’s World Cup final, and this was the biggest audience ever to watch a soccer game, male or female, in the United States. How do you feel about women’s soccer and the potential growth for it and what FIFA needs to do to support it?

Champagne: First, women’s football grew like that because Blatter wanted to create the Women’s World Cup in 1991. When you create a competition, you need continental qualifiers. And if you need continental qualifiers it entices the local affairs to run and to present a good team. So it’s a top-to-bottom phenomenon of stimulation. Of course 2015 was huge, but I was in the stadium in Pasadena in ‘99 when Brandi Chastain took her jersey off. Don’t forget 1999.

To be absolutely honest, I was not exposed to women’s football when I was younger. I come from a country which is rather macho. But today we have more than 100,000 French women and girls as registered players. The French [women’s] national team, which was not really existing, is now very powerful. It reached the fourth position in both the Olympic games and the World Cup. French clubs are strong. But I am proud of my football macho country that the only woman being a top professional [men’s club team] coach in the world is in France. Corrine Diacre. What would your plan be to bring women’s soccer to even more countries where it is not big?

Champagne: It is very important. First I tell you three things I want to do. First, to create a division for women’s football inside FIFA. And I know it from the inside. Development of women’s football is part of the development division. Organizing a women’s competition is part of the competitions division. Legally issues affecting calendar and status of players is a little part of the legal department. It is not that my former colleagues are doing a bad job, but if we want to show clearly more than it has already been for the last 20 years that is a priority, let’s identify clearly a division of women’s football, centralizing it.

Secondly, I want to create a Women’s Club World Cup. Because if you look at the history of the game, first you start with a national team. By creating a world competition, you force continents to create qualifiers. Then the FAs want entry and they want to perform correctly, so they invest. And don’t forget, FIFA created the Women’s World Cup in ’91, and then we created the Under-20 World Cup and the Under-17 World Cup [for women]. Now the challenge for women’s football is to make sure that in every country you have a strong league.

Think about Brazil. In Brazil: great women’s team. They have a very badly organized women’s league. And if we want to go deeper we can think about a system that, for example, I know it has been discussed in the U.S. that every MLS club should have a women’s club. We can have a system like that. And for example, in my country we are traditionally some women’s clubs—small clubs from small cities like Juvisy or something. Now the rich clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon have invested in a pro team. So we have a lot of options. But the second thing I want to create is definitely a Women’s Club World Cup to stimulate with the same principal, top to bottom, the creation of national leagues.

And last but not least I want to create special funding. For example, if you take the financial assistance program of FIFA, the annual subsidy, 15% has to be reserved from that for women’s football. I would prefer in fact to have independent funding. The women’s division in football would have a special budget. That way we can better identify how this money is used better for women’s football. In the end, why should the voters choose you as their FIFA president instead of the other four guys who are running for this office? What stands out the most for you?

Champagne: Knowing football, knowing the world, knowing the complexity of the interaction between the two. The experience. I’m clean. I was in FIFA for 11 years, but also I was fired from that for a group of people who are all, by the way, suspended. With this personal moment in my life, being fired while I have done nothing wrong—while I was not guilty of anything—it teaches you a lot of things when you go through these kind of things. You know what you can keep. You know what you can change, and that is based on my platform and especially the fact that today, in this globalization of the game, I was already defending that.

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