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It Seems To Me . . .

Blatter, Johansson, once enemies, now form bond behind mutual interests.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, January 26, 2000) -- Unless you were paying very close attention, you may have missed this feel-good story which came out of Zurich, Switzerland during the holidays. World governing body FIFA president Sepp Blatter and European soccer chief Lennart Johansson have officially buried the hatchet -- and somewhat surprisingly, not in each other's skulls.

Switzerland's Blatter and Sweden's Johansson ran against each other for FIFA president in a campaign that was both nasty and bitter, and one which left deep scars. Each accused the other of all sorts of cheating and dastardly deeds. When Blatter finally emerged as the winner, Johansson retreated to his job as UEFA president to lick his wounds.

Now, says Blatter "Lennart and I buried the hatchet at the World Cup draw in Tokyo, but this does not make headlines."

Actually, this rapprochement could not have come at a more opportune time because the two men, and their respective organizations, are going to need each other desperately in the coming months. First there is the subject near and dear to Blatter's heart, his FIFA World Club Championship. The inaugural tournament held in early January in Brazil was far from an artistic or commercial success. Some 73,000 did show up for the final, in which Corinthians defeated fellow Brazilian side Vasco da Gama 4-3 on penalty kicks after the two teams played to a scoreless draw.

It was a good thing the final was between two popular Brazilian teams, because the Brazilian fans had stayed away in droves from matches featuring non-Brazilian teams. For instance, in one doubleheader, some 70,000 fans watched Vasco play England's Manchester United in the opening match, and then an estimated 69,000 of them left before Mexico's Necaxa squared off against Australia's South Melbourne in the second match. On another occasion, crowds of less than 8,000 showed up for matches not featuring one of the two Brazilian entries, even when teams such as Man. U. and Spain's Real Madrid were playing.

Blatter badly wants this tournament, with its potential windfall of worldwide television revenue, but the two European entries are going home less than thrilled with the results or the way the tournament disrupted their domestic league and Champions League schedules. This tournament will not continue without, at least, the semi-enthusiastic support of the European federations, and Blatter is absolutely dependent upon Johansson to keep the European federations in line.

For Blatter, there is a price to pay. He gets almost misty-eyed thinking about the tens of millions of extra dollars that could fill FIFA's coffers if only the World Cup could be held every two years instead of every four. But doing so would all but eliminate UEFA's biannual European championships, that will next be contested this June in the Netherlands and Belgium. Johansson was incensed when Blatter made his original announcement that he would push for a World Cup every two years. Now that goal has clearly receded from FIFA's wish list. But Johansson needs Blatter just as much to again beat back calls for the formation of a super league.

Last year a Milan-based sports marketing group, Media Partners, essentially fronting for some of the biggest Italian and Spanish clubs (the so-called G-14 group of the largest and most prosperous European clubs) attempted to form a new made-for-pay- TV league of the elite of Europe with perhaps an American and South American team thrown in. It would have meant the instant death of UEFA's very lucrative Champions League and UEFA Cup competitions.

Johansson managed to stave off Media Partners by expanding the Champions League and offering the participating teams more money.But they are still unhappy. Real Madrid's president Lorenzo Sanz, the G-14 group's spokesperson, says the result is too many meaningless matches and not enough money. So the Super League has risen its head again, and this time Media Partners has sued in the European Court to prevent UEFA from interfering. If Johansson is to again stave off this revolt of the elite teams, he is going to need Blatter at his side.

Then there is the so-called "Atlantic League." In a number of the national leagues of the smaller soccer powers of Europe, countries such as Scotland, Portugal, the Netherlands Sweden and Norway, the domestic first divisions are absolutely dominated by one, two or three teams. These teams run away with the championships each year, but spend most of the year playing teams in their league in front of small crowds in money-losing situations. So the suggestion is these teams join forces in a new multi-national league.

Obviously the withdrawal of their marquee teams would wreck havoc on these national leagues. They are also looking at Johansson to somehow head off the Atlantic League. He in turn is looking to Blatter. And Blatter has forcefully replied. "We must protect the national associations and the clubs against any attempts to create various leagues outside of the existing confederations, outside of our FIFA family,"

Blatter said this week from Moscow where he was unveiling a plan to help the federations in former Soviet Union countries. "Just 10 days ago, I had a meeting with Mr. Lennart Johansson and both of us absolutely agreed that these leagues shall not be permitted," he said. "Those who do not follow our laws shall be expelled. We can't allow some clubs just to come in, take the best and go away, because we must look after all our members and not just a few."

Then there are other critical issues such as the salary-cap proposal Johansson is pushing, and Blatter's proposal that there be a limit on the number of foreign players that can be on the field at any one time for professional teams. Blatter and Johansson -- each needs the other desperately in this soccer marriage of convenience.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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