JEROME Champagne wants to become the next Fifa president, and doubtless the jokes will flow like the best bubbly. The 55-year-old Frenchman, a former diplomat and Fifa official, made his announcement in London yesterday, 17 months before the election that could end the controversial 17-year reign of Sepp Blatter.
The surname might not help in setting himself apart from Blatter, who for some represents the kind of extravagance and excesses associated with a champagne lifestyle. Nor does the fact that he worked with Blatter for 11 years, served as Fifa deputy secretary general for three, and ran the president’s re-election campaign in 2002.
Yet in most respects Champagne, an affable and endearing if at times rambling figure, seems a different vintage. His announcement, for all that it took place in the grand Connaught Rooms, was relatively low-rent, the invitation coming from his own email account; he even responded personally to queries, and was at the door to greet journalists as they arrived.
Asked who is funding his campaign, Champagne responded: “Myself.” There are no management teams, PR men or corporate interests lurking in the background, he insisted. And although he would not divulge his salary at Fifa, prior to being ousted in 2010, he did pledge: “If I’m elected president I will make my salary public.”
There are other major differences. Blatter has 514,000 followers on Twitter. Champagne, a few hours after announcing his candidature, had 513,000 fewer.
Much, it seems, will hinge on whether Blatter runs again. The 77-year-old Swiss says he will decide before this summer’s World Cup, and go public with his plans after the final on 13 July.
Predictably, it was when quizzed about Blatter that Champagne seemed less sure-footed. “I don’t know what Blatter will do,” he said when asked whether he would withdraw if Blatter stands for re-election. “Of course I am committed to running,” he said. Against Blatter? “I can’t answer hypothetical questions.” When will he make up his mind? “I will decide at the right moment.”
If Blatter does stand, can Champagne beat him? “No, I don’t think so. He’s someone of relevance. But I don’t know; it’s a very hypothetical question.”
Given that Blatter has come to symbolise much that is perceived to be wrong with Fifa – alleged corruption and a lack of transparency – the challenge for Champagne is to distance himself from the current regime while being careful not to be too critical. Because, as he came close to acknowledging, Blatter, whether he stands or not, will have a huge say in who wins.
Any criticism was therefore implicit. “I believe he is an honest man who is married to the game,” Champagne said of Blatter. “But if you read my propsoal you can read by deduction the problems he has faced.”
He acknowledged Fifa’s “image deficit,” yet insisted that the popular perception of the current president is unfair. “Lies have speed but truth has endurance,” he said. “I’m sure that in time a more balanced view of Sepp Blatter will emerge.”
He elaborated: “A lot of people think the Fifa president is all mighty, but imagine if the American president has John McCain and Sarah Palin in his government, bitching [saying] ‘You won!’
“The problem with Fifa is the way the exco [executive committee] is organised. If you want to live in a democratic system, you have to give power to the person elected. The exco [should be] about governing, not carrying on the election afterwards.”
In outlining his own vision, Champagne identified the major challenges: elitism and the “imbalance between continents, countries and leagues”; the fact that “football is increasingly controlled by private interests: billionaires, private companies, political regimes [who are] investing directly or indirectly”; and the loss of prestige at international level, with football in danger of becoming like basketball, where the American professional league, the NBA, is so much more powerful than FIBA, the world body.
It might have been an attack on the threat posed by the English Premier League, but Champagne was quick to sweeten it: “I follow the Premier League every day,” before adding: “But the team that finishes 20th next year will make double the amount of the French champions and more than the club that finishes third in Spain.”
Still, the choice of London as the venue for his announcement was symbolic in two respects, historic and contemporary. Speaking in the room where the Football Association was formed allowed Champagne to underline his desire “to restore the centrality of national associations,” while coming to England meant he could address “a history of misunderstanding and incomprehension” between the FA and Fifa most recently over the fiasco of England’s 2018 World Cup bid.
“I can’t conceive that in the 21st century we can’t work at Fifa without being hand-in-hand with the English FA and English football,” Champagne said. “Frankly,” he added, offering a further sop, “even if I can’t say this fully publicly, I would have loved to have the World Cup played here. But mistakes were made.”
It wasn’t all governance. Champagne, who has worked in the Middle East as well as Cuba, Los Angeles and Brazil (he counts Pele, who is supporting his campaign, as a personal friend), spoke of discipline. “I have kids,” he said. “How can you tell kids to respect police officers and teachers when you see adult men shouting in the faces of referees?” He would like to see football learn from rugby, of which he is also a fan: “So only the captain can talk to the referee, or the ball moves forward ten yards.”
Another Champagne initiative is the introduction of “orange cards,” instead of a second yellow and an automatic red.
It’s the kind of compromise solution that might sum up the genial Champagne, who should win the popular vote by virtue of the fact that he is not Blatter. The current president will doubtless have a major say, one way or another, but for the moment Champagne’s campaign is guaranteed to sparkle if only because he is the first candidate to pop the cork. “I’m the only candidate,” as he said. “And I’m running to win, to implement my ideas.”
These are his key ideas:
• Quotas for foreign players - Champagne is a fan of the Premier League but believes it is limiting opportunities for English players.
• Using technology for offsides and other key incidents.
• Implementing rugby’s rule where only the captain can talk to the referee with a free kick advanced ten yards for any dissent.
• Sin-bins with referees able to show an orange card for offences between a yellow and a red.
• Abolition of the “triple punishment” rule where a player who prevents a goalscoring opportunity in the penalty areas concedes a spot-kick, is sent off and also suspended.
• Leagues should distribute more money to the grass-roots – but supports Premier League’s mechanism of splitting its money among the member clubs.
• All Fifa presidential candidates should take part in live debates on TV and in front of the six continental confederations.
• The Fifa president should have more power and be able to appoint his own “board of directors”.
Who are you? Jerome Champagne factfile
• Born: 15 June 1958 in Paris
• Completed his education in 1981 after gaining degrees at the Institute of Political Sciences of Paris and the Institute of Oriental Languages.
• Joined France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1983 and during his career as a diplomat served in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman, Havana in Cuba, Paris, Los Angeles and Brazil.
• Became Deputy Consul General in Los Angeles where, during the build-up to the 1994 World Cup in the United States, he met the leaders of the organising committee for the 1998 World Cup in France, among them Michel Platini.
• Left the French diplomatic service in 1997 and began working for the French World Cup Organising Committee as diplomatic advisor and chief of protocol under Platini. Also met Sepp Blatter, then Fifa’s secretary general, who succeeded Joao Havelange as Fifa president in 1998.
• After becoming president, Blatter invited Champagne to join Fifa as an international advisor, the start of his 11-year career at world football’s governing body.
• Champagne quickly established himself as one of the most important and influential members of the organisation and was involved in a host of initiatives including building better relationships with the European Union, the International Olympic Committee, FIFpro – the international players union – and a wide range of others.
• He was also involved in the “Win in Africa with Africa” project, helped organise Blatter’s winning presidential election campaign in 2002 and backed Blatter’s plans for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
• He was Fifa’s Deputy Secretary General between 2002 and 2005, worked on special projects between 2005 and 2007 and was their director of international relations from 2007 until he left Fifa in 2010 after political infighting cost him his position.
• Since 2010 Champagne has worked as an independent international football consultant and as such, and in association with Fifa, has helped bring a possible rapproachement between Israel and Palestine.
He has also helped broker a new inititaive in Cyprus involving the Greek and Turkish FAs who signed a declaration last November aiming to unify football on the island for the first time since 1955. He has also worked on gaining recognition for Kosovo, a move Fifa announced on 13 January, when it decided that its members could play friendlies against Kosovo, not yet a member of Fifa.
• In 2012 he issued a 26-page 20,000 word document entitled “What FIFA for the 21st Century?” outlining ideas that he believes would transform and reform the game for the better. Subsequent papers further detailed his ideas for the future.
• He is married with three children, lives in Zurich and supports French club St Etienne.