Johansson Sees No Way Past Sepp Blatter
The resentment, you feel, still partially lingers and the wounds of defeat have perhaps not completely healed. But ask Lennart Johansson whether Sepp Blatter, who beat him to the FIFA presidency back in 1998 and has reigned ever since , has any chance of being dethroned on May 29 and the Swede provides a categoric one-word answer.
It is now 17 years since the former UEFA president failed to land the top job in world football, losing to Blatter by 111 votes to 80 in an acrimonious campaign.
But as the 85-year-old elder statesman of European football, who ran UEFA for longer than anyone else in history before losing his crown to Michel Platini, Johansson knows a thing or two about the workings of presidential elections.
His message to the three candidates taking on Blatter – Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, Dutch FA president Michael van Praag and Luis Figo – is that they stand two chances of upsetting the odds: slim and none. Even though Blatter, as yet, has no manifesto.
“He doesn’t need one because he will win in the first round, but I can’t give you the figures,” Johansson said in an interview with Insideworldfootball and Reuters on the fringes of last week’s UEFA Congress in Vienna.
“How long have the others been in football? Do they know the key people? I doubt it though Prince Ali comes across as a good man.”
Blatter may be 79 – six years younger than Johansson – but he still has a razor-sharp mind according to his one-time foe.
“He knows how to do it, he knows which way to go, how to handle things. I am not surprised he has remained president since1998. He is an extremely intelligent man. Of course, it depends on how you use your intelligence. But he is smart and a very hard worker. I remember how I could call him at 7.30 in the morning and he would be working.”
Sadly, the passing of time appears not to have built bridges between the pair of them. Johansson may be treated with almost statesmanlike respect wherever he goes but not, he claims, by Blatter.
“He doesn’t even say hello when we meet now. He avoids me. I sit on the first row as an honorary vice-president of FIFA and the honorary president of UEFA and he is sitting next to me … but he doesn’t “see” me. I don’t approach him either. I see no reason to. These are the facts.”
Perhaps it has something to do with the bullish approach that Johansson, who now uses a wheelchair for mobility, used to take in his heyday when he made a fair few enemies outside of Europe.
“When I asked about his salary, I remember being told I should be ashamed for asking such a thing. But I think it’s natural the world should know how much he’s being paid. We still don’t know.”
Whilst giving Blatter’s three rivals next to no chance of unseating him, Johansson reveals he would have liked Platini to run.
In fact, he advised the Frenchman to do just that.
“I advised him to put his name forward because I thought that through his work for UEFA for a number of years he has gained a good reputation. He is the president of the biggest organisation and he is a former top player …but he was not very interested.”
So how does he see the voting pattern unfold in the months ahead?
“I think van Praag will have almost complete support in Europe, even including the eastern Europeans because they are now represented on the UEFA executive committee. I’m convinced they will go for one of their own. But Africa and Asia will not vote for a European. Blatter is not ‘European’ in their eyes, he is FIFA so they will vote for him.”
One of Johansson’s legacies is that, together with his general secretary at the time Gerd Aigner, he turned the old European Cup into the Champions League and saw the expansion of the European Championship finals from eight to 16 teams.
How does he feel about the finals expanding further to 24 teams next year and about the revolutionary pan-European finals of 2020?
“I’m not sure about 24 teams but I’m not in favour of (what’s happening in) 2020. To have 13 central points is too much.”
But in general he thinks Platini has done a good job.
“He has surrounded himself with intelligent, well-educated people and experienced people. He has been very clever in that way and he stopped depending on Blatter.”
And when he looks back, he is proud of his own achievements. “People knew that we tried to be honest.”