x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

When eating humble pie, try not to choke on your words

Fifa president Sepp Blatter has pulled of a seemingly impossible trick: making himself even less popular with English football fans.

In these uncertain times, with social unrest and a perilous economic future facing us all, it's important to have a common cause behind which everyone can unite. Luckily for the English, there's one thing on which we can all agree upon. We all despise Sepp Blatter.

The relationship between English football and the beleaguered head of Fifa has for many years been one of mutual trust and understanding. We don't trust him and he doesn't understand us.

An elegant Swiss, he exudes sleek authority and studied elegance in equal measure. Sadly he seems to find our domestic version of the beautiful game, with its ageing stadiums, fierce tribalism and preponderance of effort over artistry, a little too coarse for his refined palate. The trouble is, he can't quite conceal his distaste.

What's more, we know it. Indeed, one of the most piquant delights during England's recent campaign to secure the 2018 World Cup was to see the English delegation dancing on eggshells in an effort to maintain an entirely spurious civility with the man regarded as their administrative nemesis.

Testimonies to his genius were spat out through rictus grins and gritted teeth from everyone in the English delegation. Yet despite our honeyed words we lost all hands down to Russia, a humiliating result that cemented Mr Blatter's reputation as public enemy No 1.

Since then relations have soured further with Mr Blatter fighting off allegations of incompetence and corruption on almost a monthly basis.

This week things took another turn for the worse after Mr Blatter's astonishing claim there was "no racism" in the professional game, and that the odd singular occurrence could be resolved with a handshake at the end of the match. To anyone who studies English football his words were as optimistic as they were crass.

His comments have unleashed a firestorm of criticism from all quarters, with leading administrators calling on him (for the umpteenth time) to resign and a leading UK newspaper devoting its entire front page this weekend to launching a campaign to get rid of what it calls "the Fifa buffoon".

Even David Beckham, one of the ambassadors for the 2018 campaign (and normally the most genial of men) labelled Mr Blatter's comments "appalling", while England defender Rio Ferdinand went in with both feet on the social networking site Twitter, describing his comments as "so condescending as to be laughable", and later criticising his subsequent attempts to dampen criticism by hurriedly posing for photographers with a black Fifa delegate, Tokyo Sexwale.

Yet such despair is understandable. With so much effort and money currently being expended to eradicate racism both on the pitch and in the stands, the last thing anyone needed was to hear the most powerful man in world football suggesting the issue was no more than a schoolyard squabble. The comments are particularly vexing just now as England captain John Terry currently stands accused of directing racist slurs at Queens Park Rangers' Anton Ferdinand (Rio's brother) during a recent Premier League match.

To be fair, Mr Blatter has since used the "s" word - sorry - and has ascribed his apparently tactless pronouncements to linguistic subtleties and poor translation. What he meant to say, he assured the BBC in an interview on Friday, was that he believed in zero tolerance towards racism.

Yet when asked about the "r" word - resignation - Mr Blatter was as bluff and uncompromising as ever. And if, as seems likely, he survives this latest squall you can be sure that the criticism he's endured from English football will have done little to soften his disposition. Or to put it another way, expect to see England host the World Cup sometime in the 22nd century.

Still, perhaps I can offer some words of comfort. He may feel unwelcome here just now, but in truth you can always find a friendly word at an English football ground if you look hard enough. The comedian Chic Murray used to tell of a visit he once made to the catering truck during a game at a particularly bleak ground somewhere in northern England.

"I'd like a cup of tea, a meat pie, and a few kind words," he asked the woman behind the counter. She duly handed over the tea and the pie without speaking.

"What about the few kind words?" he asked. She leaned across the counter and whispered in his ear: "Don't eat the pie."


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London