I’m still compiling Sepp’s chicken-scratch prose into another diary, but for the meantime, it’s important to note just how busy he’s been. With the election looming and haunting his waking life like a perpetual acid trip, Sepp’s been handling the pressure admirably.
All smiles, soundbites, handshakes and the kind of politicking from a man who’s well-versed in the art of self-promotion. It comes with a lifetime of marketing, entanglement in Adidas, and rancor towards his fiercest critics.
In the last couple of weeks he’s been on the road gathering votes, plucking support from FIFA member nations and showing a surprising love of the media.
For one, he’s hired some journalists to head his PR team: Walter de Gregorio’s firm, WDG, will handle media inquiries for the FIFA president (de Gregorio used to be the sports editor of Blick in Germany, and still writes for political mag Die Weltwoche from time to time).
This dovetails nicely with his enlistment of Brian Alexander, the 57-year-old former sports editor of the Sun (he was at the helm for the Graham Taylor “Turnip” story), the Mail on Sunday, the Evening Standard, and the South London Press, who will handle Sepp’s image as part of the reelection campaign.
Such curious hires, really. Is Sepp trying to ingratiate himself with the press having been so hostile for so long, or is this simply business? Similarly, one wonders what de Gregorio and Alexander see in the job beyond simple business. To accuse either of sleeping with the devil would be disingenuous, as both have moved on from their reporting days to focus on PR and consulting, and representing the FIFA chief in a critical election campaign probably pays as well as anything else possibly could; both de Gregorio and Alexander are now self-employed and busy running their own PR firms and must look after their employees, and so on.
Alexander’s experience is of particular interest; given that Alexander’s work beyond the back pages led him to several “agenda-leading” investigations in sport—notably stories looking into Thaksin Shinawatra’s appalling human rights record, match-fixing scandals in Italy, hooliganism in Eastern Europe, and the issue of bungs and corruption in English soccer (audio link here; hilariously, Harry Harris is involved).
There have been other big grabs, notably reporting on Stan Kroenke back in 2009, a high-profile interview with the elusive Jose Mourinho, and early color reporting on Fabio Capello while he was musing on the England NT job.
In short, Alexander is a man who’s been pervasive in the game for a long time, and, we assume, still has a large list of friends and contacts in the business to aid him with his latest job moving forward. (I’d assume the same of de Gregorio, though I can’t search in German)
Sepp’s notable u-turn on the media—previously, he’d talk to FIFA.com and cushy Swiss lifestyle magazines while keeping himself restricted to bland soundbites everywhere else—is telling for a number of reasons.
For one, his campaign might not be as strong as he outwardly projects, hence the need for hiring uncompromising, well-respected former journalists to handle the minutiae of his re-election bid.
Additionally, it’s a grab for the moral high ground, at least by inference; with bin Hammam’s platform being one of openness and transparency within soccer’s ruling organization, what better way to counteract that manifesto than by hiring the Fourth Estate, the one that routinely looks to report on goings-on within FIFA and soccer in general? Not only hiring journalists, but two with strong pedigrees and reputations for probing serious issues within the sport.
Also, it seems like a ploy to ingratiate himself with the media, with whom his relationship has long been frosty. Obviously he was never about to offer a job to Andrew Jennings, but it shows a willingness to make nice with the press that never previously existed, though how much it can help him at this stage in the game remains to be seen.
Ultimately, the appointments reaffirm Blatter’s optimism and tenacity in hunting for another term in charge of the FIFA expense account, and the expertise of his new hires leave him free to do what he does best: mug for the cameras and glad-hand with the voters. He clearly feels like he’s got strong support in Central America, and the recent announcement of the 22 men to lead his FIFA Task Force. Curiously, several members come from key regions of the world that Sepp will hope vote for him in June: alongside Gulati, there are men from Spain, Italy, England, Asia, and Africa hand-picked to oversee the laws of the game. Savvy, isn’t he? Journalists aside, there’s plenty of life left in the old dog.