Listen to this article
Some people think the big decisions in the world are made by unseen rich men in dark rooms – the “gnomes of Zurich”, as the late British prime minister Harold Wilson called them. When you meet Peter Hargitay, you suspect that’s right. Specifically, the Zurich businessman may determine who gets to host soccer’s World Cup in 2018. With England, China, the US, Australia, Russia and Mexico expected to bid for the tournament, this could be sport’s fiercest bidding race ever.
Hargitay – debonair moustache, pin-striped suit, imposing bulk – buttonholed me last Monday on the sunny terrace of Fifa House in Zurich. We were in his natural habitat: the International Football Arena, an annual conference for the unseen rich men who run football. Hargitay handed me a business card that declared him “special adviser” to his close friend Sepp Blatter, president of the global football authority Fifa. Then he dug out his new card: “chairman & CEO” of the European Consultancy Network, or ECN. Hargitay and the long-serving Fifa official Markus Siegler are leaving Fifa to set up together as lobbyists. Three countries hoping to host the 2018 tournament have asked ECN to represent them. In the coming weeks, ECN will choose one of the three as its client. That choice could determine the World Cup venue.
Why? “Forget marketing, forget promotion,” said Hargitay. “The target audience is not the world. The executive committee of Fifa is 24 men, one of whom is Sepp Blatter.” And these 24 men award the World Cup.
Hargitay went on: “It’s very important, you know, to be close to Blatter, to make sure he values the bid that comes his way. I don’t think that in the consulting business anybody has better access and better knowledge of the 24 men than Markus and me. We have built a level of trust with a lot of them. Over the years you develop, you might even say, friendships.”
I said: “So you sit down a committee member...” Hargitay interrupted: “I don’t know if I sit him down. I don’t want to go into details of how this is done. It’s a classic lobbying job. Totally above board.”
Hargitay said the winning bid must be technically excellent, but that several bids would be. The US, for instance, would “make a bloody good bid. Maybe the country that will not be the best bidder can pull it off. That is where a good adviser will come in. Football is just a product like anything else. It goes without saying that I love the game.”
Clearly Hargitay’s speech was intended to advertise his value as a lobbyist. “It’s 24 men,” he kept saying. Yet given how Fifa has historically made decisions, his description sounded all too plausible. I said that if that was how the World Cup would be awarded, it was depressing. “Why is it depressing?” asked Hargitay. “It’s a selling opportunity for me.”
* * * * *
Peter Kenyon, Chelsea’s shaven- headed chief executive, despite his gentle Lancashire accent, might be another “gnome of Zurich”. Every November, Kenyon roves the International Football Arena, ritually praising Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich.
I asked Kenyon about the recent departure of Chelsea’s coach Jose Mourinho. Earlier that day, when someone had mentioned “speculation” that Mourinho and Abramovich didn’t get on, Simon Greenberg, Chelsea’s communications director, had grinned and said: “Wasn’t speculation.” Surely, then, the departure of a winning coach, beloved by Chelsea’s fans and players, suggested that the club was now Abramovich’s plaything?
“This is not a plaything,” said Kenyon. “Jose gave us a fantastic three seasons. It was time to move on. It was a discussion between him and me, a mutual decision.” Among Chelsea’s players, “there was an upset, which was inevitable given the closeness of the relationship.” But “as professionals, they have rallied.”
The new coach, Avram Grant, is Abramovich’s friend. Kenyon counters: “Avram Grant will demonstrate he is his own man. You’ve got to give him credit. He’s gone seven games without losing.”
Chelsea think globally but do they have significant foreign revenues yet? Kenyon said: “It’s not significant, and won’t be for another five, six, seven years. We are getting [foreign] money from TV. The record revenues as a league – a big portion of that is that the Premier League is on TV in 200 countries.”
In January, said Kenyon, Chelsea expect to announce annual revenues of about £200m – joint highest in the world with Real Madrid and Arsenal, and £80m more than when Abramovich arrived in 2003. “So our business model actually is working. We’re on track to break even by 2010.” Would he bet on achieving that? “If I were a betting man,” he guffaws.
Why is the Premiership more popular abroad than the Italian or Spanish leagues? In the Premiership, said Kenyon, “there are three leagues going on any one weekend”. The top teams are battling for the title; the next tier for a European place; and the bottom clubs to stay in the league. Partly because TV income was shared relatively equally, anyone could beat anyone: “It is uncertain on a game-by-game basis. It might not be uncertain over the overall season.”
Minutes later, Kenyon was chatting at a bar table with a long-haired Scot named Mel Young, founder of the homeless World Cup. You do get some surprising gnomes.