In an exclusive interview, Portuguese footballer and philanthropist Luis Figo says he is looking forward to a new era of football following the resignation of Fifa president Sepp Blatter.
Luis Figo, a former world footballer of the year, pulled out of the Fifa presidential race in May over his frustration with president Sepp Blatter’s refusal for a public debate, comparing his 17-year tenure to a “dictatorship”. The former Barcelona and Real Madrid legend said the process was “anything but an election”. His withdrawal left incumbent Blatter with only one challenger, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein from Jordan, and Blatter was re-elected – although his triumph was short-lived as the scandal of corruption allegations on his watch led to the announcement he would step down before the end of the year.
Now all eyes are on his challengers – Figo among them. The footballing legend says he still stands by the manifesto he launched before withdrawing his bid to run for president but is refusing to be drawn on the prospect of mounting a fresh bid. “Candidates need time to build on and establish their pro les,” he has only said so far. Yet he is insistent the next person to take the most important job in football should “unite rather than divide” the sport.
When you withdrew your candidacy for the Fifa presidency, you said: “This process is a plebiscite for the delivery of absolute power to one man – something I refuse to go along with.” What did you mean?
I said that because it became obvious to me the so-called elections were not elections at all. Of course I knew from the beginning that this would not be an easy task and I imagined I would face difficult obstacles, some of which were pretty dodgy but I did not imagine things would reach the level I witnessed.
You were very keen to challenge Sepp Blatter in a public debate. Why did you want the debate so badly?
Essentially to give the fans and all the football stakeholders (including the federations) around the world a chance to compare and evaluate the proposals of each candidate. It would be the perfect opportunity to debate the future of football, the strategic path we must take. This would only benefit everyone who really cares about our game. This was probably the first so-called election I can remember in which there was not a single debate. Not to mention the fact that with the exception of Uefa, only Mr Blatter was allowed to speak in the confederations’ congresses.
What would you say to Blatter if he was in front of you?
I would raise the issue of transparency and good governance in Fifa. I would have asked what kind of strategy Fifa is pursuing for the development of football in all parts of the globe. I’d ask what was being done to attract more children to sports in general and our game in particular – and why Fifa spent more than $30 million on a movie production, among so many other things.
How would you improve the World Cup voting process?
I think there was a positive change in broadening the scope of the deciders. From the members of the Fifa executive committee we have now passed to a phase in which the 209 federations have a say in the congress. Still, I think this is not enough. The World Cup seeding is a very important thing and I believe there should be certain minimum requirements set out at different levels for a country to be able to bid for an event like that.
Who do you feel are the leading candidates for the Fifa presidency following Blatter’s departure and what do you think they need to do in order to restore Fifa’s reputation?
I think it is still early to speak about names or people in particular. The dust hasn’t settled yet and there is time to think and evaluate what is best. I think first we need to establish the profile of the next Fifa president. This person has to have charisma but also has to be a team player – someone who is ready to share the decision-making process and to listen to as many parts involved as possible. Someone who has a true passion for the game and who places collective interests in front of him or herself. Someone who can understand and be accepted by all the federations in all parts of the globe. Someone who can unite and not divide.
If you were to be appointed president, what changes would you instigate and how do you think they would benefit football?
There are many urgent and important things to be done in order to start a new and healthy era for the better of Fifa and football. I have put them forward in my manifesto. Transparency would be key. The more transparent Fifa can be, the more it will win back the trust of fans across the world. I suggested an independent governance, audit and compliance committee takes charge of supervising the president and the entire Fifa organisation to ensure good governance is implemented. It would supervise Fifa’s processes, such as making sure all decisions are taken following a proper democratic consultation process, [ensure] Fifa’s financial transactions follow a proper tender process for suppliers and that the distribution of Fifa’s revenues are closely monitored and audited. I also suggested merging the ethics and disciplinary committees to enable them to administer sanctions. This merged committee would be fully independent from the executive committee and congress and would have to provide full publication of decisions. I also proposed changes in development, cooperation and solidarity with more investment in a more efficient way to develop football around the world. I had suggestions for the laws of the game and ways to protect football from the challenges it faces such as discrimination, match fixing, doping, violence and transparency in money flow.
Will you be putting yourself forward for the Fifa presidency again when Blatter steps down in December?
It is time now for all the stakeholders and the federations to think and set the right profile. Only then should the quest for the right person start.
What do you think the current investigation and allegations about Fifa’s senior officials mean for the future of the organisation?
I fear these investigations will produce even more stunning results. Fifa will have to completely regenerate itself in order to survive and emerge as a transparent and efficient organisation.
What impact does corporate sponsorship have on local businesses when countries are awarded the World Cup?
There are a lot of studies on the economic impact of the World Cup. From the small businesses’ point of view, the flow of thousands of fans is a great opportunity to increase revenues but people and small businesses also have to prepare for the downturns and challenges involved.
What do you think of the suggestion if change is not instigated in Fifa, powerful governing bodies like Uefa might choose to break away and become self-regulating? Do you think it is possible another governing body could wrestle power away from Fifa?
FIFA is an association of associations so if a large number of associates are not happy with the association they’re part of, there is always the possibility to move in another direction. I feel this could well be avoided with new leadership and governance implemented in Fifa.
Do you think Fifa has a duty to show social responsibility? Is it more than just another business?
Yes I do. Sports has a very important role in our society and football in particular, with its fantastic ability to draw the attention of millions of passionate fans, has an even bigger responsibility to lead by example, set out good trends and echo the good values and true nature of sports.
What do you think of Qatar hosting the World Cup when more than 1,000 migrant workers have allegedly died building stadiums for the tournament? And what of the World Cup being held in Russia, which is in direct military conflict with several of its neighbours and has a poor record for freedom of speech?
When I mentioned the requirements a country must comply with to bid for the World Cup hosting, there is room for demanding human rights and international law respect. To me, human rights are not negotiable and if Fifa should give the example, the rules must be strict on that area. Having said that, it is obvious football cannot solve all the problems in the world but we can at least draw the attention of people to important matters.
Do you support calls to boycott the Russian and Qatari World Cups? Do you think there is any basis to allegations of bribery and corruption in awarding them the World Cup?
I do not know the dossiers in detail. I would very much like to read the full version of the Garcia report. I fully support the idea of investigating everything that has to be investigated. After this is done, let us see what kind of actions must be taken.
Barcelona recently won the Champions League. Do you still cheer for Barca, despite the rough ride you received from their fans after transferring to Real Madrid?
I have not forgotten the great moments I spent in Barcelona. I spent five years there and another five amazing years in Real Madrid. Of course, the way the story of my transfer from Barcelona to Madrid was told turned a lot of Barca fans against me but I know what happened and the people who were then in charge of Barcelona also know. I have no hard feelings whatsoever toward Barcelona but I am a Real Madrid fan and will keep being one.
What did it feel like to be the most expensive footballer in the world following your transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid?
I was not thinking about that at all. I knew and warned Barcelona’s board that Real Madrid was ready to pay the release clause for having me there. The way Barcelona directors dealt with the process and the way Real Madrid’s presidential candidate presented the project in which I would be an important person convinced me to sign for Madrid.
You created the Luis Figo Foundation in 2003 to help support disadvantaged and disabled young people. What was it that inspired you to give back?
I was born and grew up in a working class family so I always had a clear notion that football gave me opportunities some of my friends and colleagues did not have. I felt I had the obligation to do something and give something back to the ones who need it most.
As chairman, how involved are you in selecting the projects your charity gets involved in?
I have competent people in charge of the daily activities but I like to be kept informed of everything we do and I always have the final say on strategic planning.
How important is it for you to get your own children involved in the foundation’s work?
Sometimes they do get involved with certain events but for the moment, they are more focused on studying and gaining the personal skills that will enable them to be young adults who are well educated and prepared for the future.