BERNE – Sepp Blatter is known universally as the president of FIFA, the international governing body of football. But fewer people realize that this distinguished sports executive and IOC (International Olympic Committee) member also has a strong connection with the hockey world.
“Originally, I'm a hockey man too, because I come from this village called Visp, where they are still playing professional hockey in the Swiss second division,” President Blatter explained in an exclusive interview with IIHF.com during the first intermission of the Switzerland-France game. “And in the 1960s, I was the general secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Association.”
Blatter offered his analysis of the game he was watching: “This is an interesting game. France, at the very beginning, I have to say, had good chances and played well. But I think they cannot sustain the rhythm of the Swiss. More and more, I think the Swiss will get through. They looked very nervous in the first period.” And ultimately, the Swiss prevailed, although by a narrow 1-0 margin.
As a hockey observer, Blatter has remained true to his roots: “I have always supported Visp. I'm still following hockey too. FIFA is based in Zurich, and when I am there, from time to time I go to see the ZSC Lions or the Kloten Flyers. I like this sport. It's very fast and interesting. When you are born in a city or village where ice hockey is part of the culture, you maintain this relationship.”
Another relationship that Blatter cherishes is with IIHF President René Fasel, a fellow native of Switzerland and IOC member.
“I have very good contacts with René Fasel, because the IIHF is the only other international sports federation in Zurich,” said Blatter. “Most of the other federations are in Lausanne, Geneva or Monaco. So we work together in different aspects. The problem in spreading ice hockey worldwide is that you need ice, and in most of the countries of the world, you don't have that. But you do have surfaces where you can play football. Still, ice hockey now has 66 member associations, and it's well-organized.”
Marketing hockey and growing the global fan base is an ongoing challenge, and Blatter is aware that there isn't a one-size-fits-all plan that can be adapted from football.
“One difference is that they hold their World Championship every year, while we in football only have the World Cup every four years. But we have continental championships that are interesting. In hockey, this does not exist. It's started now with the Champions Hockey League, but this is club-based. You don't have a European championship as you do in football, or the Gold Cup for North and Central America and the Caribbean, and other such tournaments. You can't compare the two sports, because hockey is not universal.”
Although he's committed to the football universe, Blatter retains fond memories of his days with the Swiss ice hockey association. One of the best moments was when Switzerland competed in the A group at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics, with a roster that featured Walter Salzmann, a schoolmate of Blatter's who won a Swiss title with Visp.
The FIFA chief also can't help reflecting about how far the host nation for the 2009 IIHF World Championship has come in the decades since the 60s.
“At that time, any Canadians or Americans coming to Switzerland were not from the NHL,” Blatter noted. “They were from the American Hockey League. But they were still the best players! They could take the puck from behind the net and go through the other team. The Swiss league was totally different back then. So they have really done a good job of developing the game. In the 1970s, Francois Wollner was the head of Swiss hockey, and he said: 'If you want to play in the A or B League, you must have an arena.' This was the start of building one of the highest numbers of arenas per capita in the world, and it created interest in this country. Now Switzerland has a very good league. They are very good and professional. Perhaps our strikers are not so good, but we have good goalkeepers and good defence.”
Are there areas in which hockey and football can collaborate more closely for the benefit of all?
“All team sports have to work closely together,” said Blatter. “Team sports are very attractive now when, both in families and schools, there is not the same community spirit as there used to be. More and more, young people want to get involved in team sports. Football is the most popular, of course, because it's easy to grasp and you don't need ice or skates. But ice hockey is also a very good sport. In team sports, we have to fight together against doping. You cannot compare team sports to individual sports in this regard, however.”
Blatter doesn't hesitate when asked to list his proudest achievements with FIFA: “That football became universal. That we can go to Africa for the first time with our World Cup in South Africa in 2010. We have also made football involved in humanitarian activities, together with the agencies of the United Nations, SOS Children's Villages, and other organizations. Football has become a tool of education, not only within the game, but also at the school level. It's a big job we're doing there. Naturally, there are no penalties, no goals, no big scandals, and thus less publicity, but we do a lot of this humanitarian work.”