The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
FIFA's Valcke tests diplomatic limits again with straight talk on winter World Cup in Qatar
GENEVA - At FIFA, only one view often seems to count in world football, and that belongs to President Sepp Blatter.
When FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke takes centre stage for the governing body, his plain speaking can also push the diplomatic limits in football politics.
Valcke made headlines this week telling a radio station in his native France that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar "will not be June and July."
When he suggested "it will be played between Nov. 15 and Jan. 15 at the latest," Valcke was repeating his boss Blatter's oft-stated view on the best months to play in the desert nation.
Yet it appeared to pre-judge a barely begun consultation Valcke is overseeing on behalf of FIFA's elected executive committee.
Not for the first time, FIFA's top administrator provoked ruling board members — including vice-presidents Michel Platini and Jim Boyce in this case — to complain he had overstepped his authority.
Brazil's government would agree, after Valcke infuriated political leaders in the 2014 World Cup host nation by speaking the inconvenient truth that preparations were falling behind schedule.
"You have to push yourself, kick your (backside)," was the former television journalist's memorable March 2012 message to Brazil delivered to reporters in England.
Organizing a smooth World Cup is the main duty of FIFA's secretary general, yet Brazilian sports minister Aldo Rebelo could barely conceal his government's wish that Valcke be removed from the project for perceived impertinence — even if the view has proven accurate.
Far from being fired or sidelined, the imposingly tall, multi-lingual Valcke is among the few serious candidates to succeed Blatter as FIFA president, perhaps as early as May next year.
That would complete a remarkable comeback story.
In December 2006, Valcke was removed as FIFA's director of marketing after his professional reputation was trashed by a New York judge hearing a suit brought by then-World Cup sponsor MasterCard.
Valcke's conduct in murky negotiations which saw FIFA ignore MasterCard's contractual rights in favour of a deal with rival Visa was described as "the opposite of fair play."
Settling the case in June 2007 cost FIFA more than $90 million, yet within days Valcke was re-hired as secretary general — effectively a promotion to run a successful commercial organization which today has annual revenues topping $1 billion tied to the world's most popular sporting event.
Blatter's and Valcke's FIFA has survived the damage inflicted by senior FIFA officials embroiled in bribery scandals, and the perpetual dramas swirling around future host countries.
Two shamed former board members took shots at Valcke on their way out the door.
Mohamed bin Hammam said it was unacceptable that Valcke "showed his bias very clearly" when revealing what appeared to be fresh evidence in an ongoing bribery case against the Qatari official during a news conference to explain an ethics court judgment.
During those turbulent days ahead of Blatter's re-election in 2011, then FIFA vice-president Jack Warner published private correspondence in which Valcke suggested Bin Hammam "thought you can buy FIFA as they (Qatar) bought the WC (World Cup)."
Valcke defended his apparent candour as "a 'lighter' way of expression" in an email, and had not implied unethical behaviour by the wealthy Qatar bid.
Amid clamour to fire him again, Blatter — who for 17 years served the imperious presidency of Brazilian Joao Havelange — stood by his man.
Indeed, FIFA statutes decree that the board can only "appoint or dismiss the secretary general on the proposal of the president."
The ties binding Blatter and the influential Valcke in Zurich could be a barrier to UEFA president Platini rising to the FIFA leadership in 2015.
Tensions between the potential candidates were hinted at ahead of the World Cup draw last month. When the draw procedure was tweaked, allowing France to get a favourable draw, suspicion fell upon Platini having helped his home country.
"I am not the only Frenchman in FIFA," Platini said, steering reporters' curiosity back to Valcke's role.
On Thursday, Platini questioned Valcke's public intervention in the Qatar summer-winter issue which appeared to marginalize the FIFA executive committee's decision-making role.
The Qatar consultation will continue perhaps into 2015, as the latest task added to Valcke's workload in Blatter's busy fourth term.
"We need to show some diplomacy and wisdom," Blatter said announcing the consultation in October.
With Valcke involved, the show should be worth watching.
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