The Autumn of Football’s Patriarch
By Andrew Jennings
Sunday February 14, 2010
THE OLD MAN, he’s 74 in a few weeks, sits upright in his uncomfortable leather chair and gazes towards his interviewer a yard and a half from his eyes. He’s been waiting many months for her and, appreciating her good fortune, she is reverential, notebook on her knee and pen in hand but only the audio recorder balanced on the arm of her matching chair can capture the nuances of his long-rehearsed delivery.
All must be in its place for the set-piece, decorating his life’s narrative. Behind his head, a replica golden World Cup Trophy. On the coffee table is a branded banner, maybe 18 inches high, with his final attempt to be taken more seriously than he knows he deserves, the contrived slogan ‘For the Game, For the World.’
He is dressed as the mortician would like to receive him, pale blue shirt, slightly darker tie, dark suit, skull polished, remaining hairs smoothed back to his neck. Outside the polished aluminium window frame it is still late winter on the bleak hill above Zurich.
The way the reporter writes her story, she’s from Al-Ahram in Cairo, he leaves his farewell to the end. Hell! Skip the endless column inches – we’ll be back later – he’s announcing his likely decline and death and that’s the news we’ve waited too long for! Here we go, down the page.
CURVED EXECUTIONER’S SWORD
Over-shadowing the endgame of Patriarch is the flapping jalabiyya of the man who once bankrolled him but now, between mouthfuls of honey, dates and coffee, practices swinging the curved executioner’s sword.
‘With Mohamed, we had a wonderful time together as friends up to the last congress in May,’ says Patriarch. ‘All of a sudden our friendship was broken. Ask him, why? I don't know.’
OH YES HE DOES. Patriarch went behind the back of the man from the Gulf, and 14 months from now there must be retribution in football’s Chop Square. Such an inept manoeuvre shows the Big P is losing his touch. To mock a man backed by an Emir’s billions is unwise.
The alliances that will form the death squad are still being negotiated. There’s a second shadow, a kimchi billionaire of heavy industry and politics from the Far East and nearer home, dangerously near, across a few Alpine ranges to the south and closeted with his advisors in his modern palace overlooking Lac Geneva, the third shadow of a charismatic, curly-haired, beautiful former athlete.
Unlike Patriarch, this man’s tie, shirt collar and jacket always look dishevelled, as if he’s come straight from a kickabout in the car park. In his homeland, France, he cannot walk the streets without being mobbed. Patriarch never knew such popularity, such love.
In his prime Patriarch was blessed with a superficially warm smile for the public but it masked the mean-spirited, spiteful backstabber at his private desk with subordinates to carry out the sackings and the deferential secretaries.
SHAGGED A FEW
He shagged a few of them over the years but was too old for the come-later lissom blonde who has gone off with an architect. Some female employees felt his small hands in the elevator, others discovered his flamboyant late night welcome to the presidential suite with the silk dressing gown flung open in slow motion.
When his long-time Polish girlfriend Ilona walked out in late 2008 he knew his game would henceforth be going down, not up. Increasingly disorientated, he has fumbled his way through recent public appearances.
He giggled away concerns of John Terry’s philandering as ‘Anglo Saxon’ exceptionalism. ‘If this had happened in, let's say, Latin countries, then I think he would have been applauded.’ There was a kind of group holding of breath. Then embarrassment rippled across the world.
A man who has worked with him for much of two decades and watched him when he didn’t, says Patriarch is now a confused specimen. ‘In his own mind he casts himself as a victim, now doubting he can anymore walk on water.’
When Patriarchs summon God to support their cause, you can hear the mortician cough and reach for his measuring stick. ‘If I'm still wanted by the congress and God will give me health I will go, but if the congress says no, then I will say 'thank you,’ meaning he’s undecided when exactly to reach for his coat and turn in the car keys.
Uh huh. Why did she wait so long to give us this second, fin de siècle announcement. It is because she defers to the Great Dictator but we are the lucky ones because she lets him dictate his obituary as he would wish it were constructed for his favourite newspaper, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.