INTERVIEW: Desailly - In defence of FIFA and the future of France

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Les Blues legend Marcel Desailly takes control of possession during his time at Milan.

When considering the greatest global figures in football, few carry more gravitas than Marcel Desailly.

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He is the Ghana-born adopted son of the head of the French Consulate in Accra who went on to make 116 international appearances for France, in the process lifting World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000 with Les Bleus. An exceptional club career saw him shine in four countries, historically winning the UEFA Champions League in successive seasons at Marseille and AC Milan in 1993 and 1994 before setting a platform for Chelsea’s future success and becoming a trailblazer in Qatar with Al Gharafa and Qatar SC.

When the 46-year-old discusses the state of the modern game, he speaks from a learned and broad position matched by few others. The converted centre-back comes from an esteemed position which contains working knowledge of both the traditional powers and the new stakeholders in the sport. 

The obvious starting point when in his affable presence is the ongoing FIFA corruption scandal. With 14 people indicted by United States authorities, Swiss prosecutors investigating 53 cases of possible money laundering in their inquiry into bidding for the Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 World Cups and president Sepp Blatter vowing to step aside, the issue is dominating the news agenda.

Insidious wrongs have been committed which must be legally punished, but Desailly insists “you cannot deny the bigger picture” when reviewing what has occurred during Blatter’s 17-year term.

Desailly made 158 appearances in his six seasons at Stamford Bridge.

“It is a difficult situation, we are waiting for the FBI to prove really, officially, with documents [what has happened],” he tells Sport360. “Honestly when you look at football when Sepp Blatter was made FIFA president in 1998, the global budget for the World Cup in France, or South Korea and Japan, Germany etc. He has really boosted the interests of football across the world.

“They have done a great job. Even when they have chosen countries over other ones, it was really for the good of football.

“When they went to Japan and South Korea [in 2002], it was not easy to split the tournament into two. Germany in 2006 was easy as it is in Europe, but to give it to South Africa in 2010 was a big deal. In 2014, Brazil was in need to continue to develop the economy. Their government put money into the infrastructure while it was an emerging country, then it was a great choice at the time.

“Let us hit the ones who have stolen, and see what is going on. But when you look globally, a lot of hard work has been done.

“The corruption did not directly affect the football. We are talking about a couple of million here and there, but we are talking about $5 billion revenue for the [2014 Brazil tournament – which FIFA state raised $4.8bn for the organisation] World Cup that went into the system. Let’s hit the people who steal, but you cannot deny the bigger picture.”

Next year sees Desailly’s France – the country he was brought up in from the age of four – host Euro 2016. He has happy memories of the last time a major tournament was played on home soil, being an important part of Aime Jacquet’s side who went on to claim the 1998 World Cup.

A link to both is provided by Didier Deschamps, the head coach lifting football’s most prestigious trophy as captain nearly two decades ago. The 46-year-old is in charge of a side which possesses leading talents such as Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, yet Desailly cautions World Cup 2018 is when this current crop will be at their best.

He adds: “It is hard, very hard for France. Most of the players aren’t first choice in their clubs or in doubt of being first choice. In friendly games we are struggling a little bit, conceding a lot of goals and losing to Belgium and Brazil. I am not sure one year is enough to get that team to reaching the level to win it.

“Can they win it? We are really having doubts. We were not [tipped to win World Cup 1998]. But in 1996 we started to build a team, we went out of the semi-finals of Euro 96 to Czech Republic on penalties.

“I feel like 2016 is too early, maybe for Russia 2018, we will be ready.

“But because of Didier, I want to trust and I want to believe we will be there.”

Desailly gained prominence more than 20 years ago, being the standout player in his second Champions League final with 
Milan in 1994. The success featured arguably the greatest collective performance in the competition’s long history, Johan Cruyff’s 

Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ shockingly dismantled 4-0 by opposition, lacking legendary striker Marco van Basten because of chronic injury and iconic defenders Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta through suspension.

Desailly excelled on an Athens pitch, which contained many of the best players around, rampaging from the defensive midfield position to slot home the final goal.

“We could not expect it,” he says. “We had some great players, like Dejan Savicevic. He was not known at international level but what a goal he scored against Andoni Zubizarreta [the Montenegrin chipped the giant goalkeeper from an impressive angle].
“Everything came perfectly. Collectively, we were together and we scored early.

“We were very strong. We had doubts as Baresi and Costacurta were out, but collectively we were so strong. When I scored the final goal, it was a moment of great emotion.”

It is 21 years since that moment, as Desailly burst through to curl a finish high into the net before wheeling away in ecstasy. The memory remains a vivid one.

He says: “I remember it well. Demetrio Albertini gave me the ball and I was a bit scared, as I was not used to being in front of the goal. I saw the keeper, he made a little mistake by going a bit too early. I could see there was a big gap on the right and I just shifted it through and then scored.”

* Desailly was speaking at the opening of the UEFA Champions League experience at Yas Mall, the first-ever UEFA Champions League-themed retail and dining concept in the region

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Qatar paid CAF $1.8 million to present 2022 World Cup bid

Tom Williams 18/06/2015
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Opening up: Issa Hayatou spoke to Jeune Afrique magazine in France.

Qatar paid the African Football Confederation (CAF) $1.8 million to present its bid for the 2022 World Cup at a congress, the continent’s top football official told a French magazine.

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CAF president and FIFA vice president Issa Hayatou said he saw nothing wrong with the payment made before the confederation held a congress in the Angolan capital Luanda in January 2010.

Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup later the same year at a controversial FIFA vote now under investigation by Swiss authorities.

Paris-based Jeune Afrique magazine asked Hayatou about the donation from Qatar.

“It was $1.8 million, not one million. Paid in two times 900,000 dollars,” the AFC chief said. “The Qataris gave it to us to be able to show their plan during the congress.”

Hayatou insisted he had not expected other candidates, including the United States and Australia, to pay for a similar privilege.

“Not necessarily. We didn’t ask Qatar to do it. They proposed it. We did not ban the other candidates from taking part in the presentation,” he added, while also denying that it was a bid to buy African votes. 

“I convened immediately after a meeting of the CAF executive committee to say that what had happened did not commit us to anything. Everyone voted according to their soul and conscience.”

Asked about the payment, a CAF spokesman said Qatar “wanted to have this privilege exclusively” to make its presentation and that the money is “noted in the confederation’s accounts”.

Qatar did not comment on the report but has in the past strongly denied any wrongdoing connected to its bid.

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s attorney general says he is prepared for his investigation into the bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to cause “collateral” damage to the host nations if wrongdoing is proved – but warned that the probe could take years to complete.

Michael Lauber said his investigators are probing 53 possible money-laundering incidents as part of their inquiry but that the huge volume of computer data means the task will be long and complex.

Lauber did not rule out FIFA president Sepp Blatter or secretary general Jerome Valcke being interviewed as part of the investigation.

Asked about the effect of the investigation on the World Cup hosts, Lauber said: “I don’t mind if this has collaterals somewhere else. I don’t care about the timetable of FIFA – I only care about my own timetable, which is following Swiss procedural code.”

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The challenges for fasting athletes

Maher Mezahi 17/06/2015
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Professional footbal clubs struggle to manage athletes who fast.

In the micro-managed milieu of modern football, where clubs increasingly monitor off-the-pitch variables like fitness levels and dietary regimes, Ramadan is a seemingly unresolvable problem that intimidates and worries players, coaches, and medical staff alike.

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To Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, ritual fasting during Ramadan is obligatory. All able-bodied Muslims must abstain from food from sunrise until sunset during the holy month. This year, Ramadan begins on Thursday, June 18.

In November 2011, Qatar’s Aspetar Orthopaedic Centre organised a conference in Doha to address the issue of ‘Ramadan and Football’. The self-proclaimed purpose of the meeting was: ‘to collate and review the evidence relating to all aspects of Ramadan and sports performance with the aim of establishing practical recommendations for athletes, support staff, and sports governing bodies.’

Dr. Yacine Zerguini, an Algerian orthopaedic surgeon, who also stands on Aspetar’s board as a consultant, believes there is no easy answer to managing athletes during Ramadan.

‘There is no global, unique result for the research. The conclusion, in my opinion, is that each case must be treated individually,” Zerguini told Sport360.

“One has to remember that it is highly likely that the effects of Ramadan are also linked to the spiritual qualities and physical capabilities of each athlete. Faith and belief is a big factor.

“If players believe fasting will have no impact on their performance, then it probably will not. If they have doubt, then they better eat.”

Ex-Tottenham striker Frédéric Kanouté observed the fast.

Dr. Zerguini’s emphasis of the psychological influence on physical performance is particularly important. In 2009, Frederic Kanoute claimed that fasting actually improved his performance.

“Personally, having faith helps my football and football helps me to be healthy and strengthens me. Fasting empowers and does not weaken the Muslim,” said Kanoute at the time.

If Kanoute is correct then a devout Muslim athlete coerced into breaking his or her fast for physical reasons could actuality end up hampering their performance.

European football clubs are notorious for ramping pressure on Muslim players observing the fast. During his stint at Inter Milan, Jose Mourinho criticised midfielder Sulley Muntari, claiming that Ramadan adversely affected his physical performance. Recently, Moroccan centre-half Abdelhamid El-Kaoutari claimed that his club, Montpellier HSC, preferred he did not fast the holy month.

Last summer, the Algerian Football Federation adopted a smarter, more inclusive approach to Ramadan. The Algerian national team were preparing for the most important match in their history, against Germany in the round of 16 of the World Cup. When the global press continued to pester coach Vahid Halilhodzic on the issue of fasting he threatened to walk out of his press conference.

“This is a private matter and when you ask this, you lack respect and ethics. The players will do as they wish and I would like to stop this controversy,” snapped the Bosnian, before curtly adding: ‘Stop asking me about Ramadan, otherwise I will get up and leave.”

The Algerian Federation’s insistence on protecting player privacy was crucial, as it fashioned an insular atmosphere that allowed individuals to act on personal conviction, thus optimising performance levels.

This year’s fast will affect three major football tournaments; The FIFA Women’s World Cup, Copa America, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Ramadan will also interfere with European football’s pre-season preparations, as the holy month will come to an end in late July.

When fasting, athletes can suffer from glycogen depletion, dehydration, and fatigue, all of which can lead to injury. To compensate, nutritionists recommend players adopt a tailored dietary regime. Hourly drinking schedules should be drawn up to ensure hydration throughout eating hours, players should also take naps to ensure they are getting enough sleep, and efforts should be made to eat meals replete with carbohydrates.

During the off-season, clubs may also tamper with time slots to accommodate Muslim players who are training. Medical experts have outlined three windows for training sessions for players that are fasting; after sunrise, before sunset, and after sunset.

After sunrise, fasting players can train with regular glycogen levels, but they would miss out on crucial post-training intakes of food. It is also estimated that the human body needs one hour to adapt from a recumbent to an upright position. If athletes decide to train just before sunset, they may be dehydrated and risk injury. Most experts agree that training after sunset is best and players may take afternoon naps to compensate for a lack of sleep, allowing them to train and recover as normal.

 Abdelhamid El-Kaoutari claimed Marseille did not approve of his fast.

At the 1st International Consensus Meeting on Ramadan and Football, Abdul Rashid Aziz, from the Singapore Sports Council, provided tangible evidence that training after sunset is optimal. Working with various Tunisian youth national teams, Aziz described a protocol of six repeats of a standard Wingate test and showed that high intensity performance variables were lower during Ramadan for tests performed between 08:00–16:00. But performance on the test undertaken after sunset was no different than the controlled pre-Ramadan tests.

Though shifting training to accommodate a few individuals sounds impractical, doing so is not unprecedented. In the United States, an American football coach at Fordson High School took proactive steps to generate a healthy team spirit. First the coach educated himself on Ramadan, and then moved training to two hours after sunset, encouraging his players to use their afternoons to complete schoolwork and nap.

A few weeks into Ramadan, the team developed a heartwarming habit. The non-Muslim teammates decided to eat lunch in shifts – some would delay lunch and sit with their fasting teammates while others would eat first, then replace the first group. The visible and obvious support of Muslim players led to a more cohesive team unit.

Whether or not football clubs follow Fordson High School’s example matters little. It is of utmost importance, however, that professional players feel no pressure with regards to how they practice their faith, and that open avenues of communication and support systems are established for those players who do decide to fast this Ramadan.

To everyone doing so, Ramadan Kareem from us all at Sport360.

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