Belfast Telegraph

Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce: 'Sports stars do more to bring us together than politicians'

Adrian Rutherford speaks to Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce about his remarkable journey from ball-boy at Cliftonville to the corridors of power at football's governing body and the issues facing the sport today.

Q: You are a senior figure in world football, but how did your passion for the sport actually begin?

A: I played football as a youngster, but my real love was going to watch Cliftonville FC.

I also played cricket just across the road at Cliftonville cricket ground.

The groundsman worked at both the cricket club and the football club. When I was seven he asked if I would like to be a ball-boy at Cliftonville FC, which I jumped at.

As it turned out, I'd be there for the next 63 years and counting. I still stand in the same spot.

No matter where I am in the world, my heart is still with Cliftonville, and whenever possible I always try to get back for the match.

Q: You were actually better known as a cricketer in your early years?

A: I played football up until I was 13 years of age, but I developed pleurisy – a chest complaint – and the doctor advised me to stop.

My other love was cricket, and I played it at Ballymena from 1971 to 1986, captaining them for six years. During that time we came from Section Three to Section One in the Northern Cricket Union.

I also managed the Ireland U19 cricket team in the world championships three times.

Q: So how did a man who grew up on the terraces at Cliftonville FC and played more cricket than football end up as vice-president of Fifa?

A: In 1973 I was asked to join Cliftonville FC, and in 1978 I became its vice-chairman, becoming chairman 10 years later in 1988. I was chairman when we won our first league title in 88 years under Marty Quinn.

Because I was president of the Irish Football Association, a position I held between 1995 and 2007, I stepped down as chairman of Cliftonville in 1998. I was later made president of Cliftonville.

Fifa has a British vice-president, and in 2007, following the retirement of David Will, I was put forward to replace him, along with Geoffrey Thompson, the English candidate.

Agreement couldn't be reached on who should get the position, so it was agreed that we would share it and I would do the second half of the term, from 2011 to 2015.

Q: What actually is a Fifa vice-president, and what does the role involve?

A: My role as vice-president of the Fifa Executive Committee involves taking part in the discussions and debates about world football.

It is about carrying out ambassadorial duties and making an input into the running of Fifa and world football.

I am also chairman of the Fifa Referees' Committee and vice-chairman of the Media Committee. It keeps me very busy. I'm also expected to attend the Executive Committee meetings at Uefa, where I'm chairman of the Youth and Amateur Committee.

Q: Are you still planning to step down next year?

A: Yes. There comes a time in your life when you want to do other things, and I've made up my mind on that.

I want to spend more time with my wife, Hazel, and my family. We celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary earlier this month.

The travelling also takes it out of you.

Q: You were injured in a bomb attack in the early 1970s – what happened?

A: I am very fortunate to be alive today. On my second wedding anniversary in 1971 I was working for SunLife in Bedford House in Belfast.

A bomb went off as I walked through the door. My leg was broken in three places and I ended up in the Royal. I was in a plaster for 10 months.

Freddie Jardine, who has been at Cliftonville longer than I have, was the physio and he helped get me back on my feet.

What I will say is that it never changed me as a person. I never became bitter in any way.

In fact, it strengthened my belief that people should come together to sort things out. Looking back now, what did all that violence achieve?

Q: How important has sport been in Northern Ireland?

A: I believe our sportspeople have done more to bring this country together than many of our politicians.

Look at Rory McIlroy, George Best, Barry McGuigan.

People in sport have portrayed this country in a much better light than our politicians.

Unfortunately, to this day, it is still the case.

Q: You left as Irish FA president in 2007 under a cloud. Many feel you were shafted. Did it hurt?

A: I'll be careful what I say here. I was very disappointed with the way that it happened. The vote was split 23-23, and I decided to walk away.

I still don't know why it was done. I felt I had devoted a big part of my life to the job.

However, I'm now the honourary life president of the IFA and I want to see things improve, especially on the football pitch.

I will do anything to help, but I don't get involved in the decision-making.

Q: Do you believe the Northern Ireland team is on the right track?

A: I honestly hope so. There has been a lot of work put in after a few difficult years. Hopefully, Michael O'Neill can get things going on the pitch.

For the first time, the next European Championship will have 24 teams, and the third team in each qualifying section has a chance to make the finals.

Realistically, we are in a group where we have a chance of qualifying, especially after the great start we made in Hungary.

If we don't finish in the top three, the future could be very bleak.

People say Northern Ireland doesn't have the players. I think we do in terms of defenders and midfielders, but we need more people to score goals.

Q: How do you rate the job Michael O'Neill has done since becoming manager in 2011?

A: He has taken over a very difficult job, but so did Lawrie Sanchez. He took over when Northern Ireland hadn't scored a goal in 14 games.

A manager has not only to motivate players but make sure that the tactics are right. Sanchez had a tremendous record, and he was able to mould a team together and get them playing as a unit.

That is hopefully what Michael can do.

I don't think the team is as bad as some people say.

Look at Roy Carroll, Gareth McCauley, Chris Baird, Steven Davies – these are players who are competing at a high level.

Q: One big issue in recent years has been the defection of players to the Republic. How disappointing is that?

A: We have had a major problem. Just look at Marc Wilson, Darron Gibson and James McClean.

I think Fifa are wrong on this. I think players should play for the country in which they were born, or their parents or grandparents were born – and that is where it stops.

Let's forget this passport situation. It's a one-way system because anyone in Northern Ireland can get an Irish passport.

I think sport should overcome all political barriers. One of my greatest wishes is for players to forget about political allegiance.

If a lad is born in Dungannon or Portadown, then he should represent Northern Ireland.

If someone doesn't want to play for Northern Ireland, I don't have a problem with that.

I do have a problem with people undergoing all the benefits of the IFA coaching system, playing for Northern Ireland at under-17 level, under-19 level and under-21 level, and then declaring that they don't want to play for Northern Ireland.

I hope that with the work that's going on involving Michael O'Neill, (elite performance director) Jim Magilton and the IFA, this situation will stop. I have a feeling it might.

Q: There has been debate about an all-Ireland football team for years, especially given the success of our rugby side. Do you think it is feasible?

A: No – and not for any political reason. I don't think that having an all-Ireland side would make a great difference to our qualifying chances. More importantly, men and women in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are given a wonderful opportunity to represent their country and play abroad.

If there was one team, 50% of these people would never have an opportunity of playing European or World Cup football.

We are talking about people all the way up from under-17 level. We are giving a lot of people a wonderful opportunity, and to deny half of them that chance would be a mistake.

Q: As a Cliftonville fan, you will have seen attendances at local football matches fall away in recent years. What can we do to boost our domestic game?

A: I still believe that the Irish League has a lot to offer. If I had a criticism of things which have happened in the IFA, it's that there are certain people who don't realise the importance of a thriving senior game to this province.

If a team is successful, people will come out and watch it, and there is no better example than the game between Cliftonville and Linfield earlier this month, where 3,000 people came along and the kick-off had to be put back 15 minutes.

I watch a lot of football, and some of the Irish League games are as good as anything you would see on TV. I think the product is there and fans should come out and give their teams a lot more support.

Irish League football also needs much more TV coverage than it is currently getting. It is absolutely disgraceful that UTV – our local TV station – barely even mentions the games.

Q: In the recent transfer window, English clubs spent £835m, including nearly £60m on one player, Angel di Maria. Falcao, the Manchester United striker, reportedly earns up to £346,000 a week. Is there too much money in modern football?

A: The money being spent is absolutely and totally crazy, and Uefa has to be applauded for bringing in Financial Fair Play, which forces clubs to spend within their limits.

Clubs are going to go bankrupt if they continue to spend the amount of money they are spending.

For any player to earn £300,000 a week in wages is totally crazy.

Q: Fifa president Sepp Blatter gets a lot of criticism in the Press. Is it fair?

A: No. Mr Blatter has done a tremendous amount of work in building Fifa into the organisation it is.

There is a lot of jealousy attached to Fifa.

Some of the people involved at the top level have been corrupt, and the major criticism of Mr Blatter is that for many years, these people appeared to get away with things that they shouldn't have.

However, 50% of the 2011 Fifa executive committee have now gone, and the reform process is working very well. Some of the criticism Mr Blatter has faced has been very unfair.

Q: Mr Blatter has said he will stay on as Fifa president. Is that the right decision?

A: I was in favour of an age limit and a maximum term of office. However, this was put to the Fifa congress and overwhelmingly defeated.

It's a democratic process, and if the majority of Fifa members decide that Mr Blatter should remain as president, that's their choice.

Some people will say that if you are fit and active, then why should you be forced to stop?

Q: Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, recently said that Russia should be stripped of the 2018 World Cup. Do you agree?

A: I believe that politicians should keep out of many issues – including sport – and leave decisions to those involved in the sport.

Q: But what do you think of Russia's candidacy?

A: I think it's too early to make any rash decisions. If the problems in Russia do escalate, then it could become an issue, and that is all I want to say.

Q: The 2022 World Cup is scheduled to take place in Qatar – do you think it actually will be held there?

A: Michael Garcia is carrying out a full investigation on the situation regarding the voting which took place, and I have no comment to make until his report is produced.

Q: Is it sensible to stage a World Cup in Qatar?

A: To take a World Cup to Qatar in the middle of the summer and expect players to play in 40 or 50 degree heat was absolutely ludicrous.

If the competition remains in Qatar, it has to be played in the winter.

It isn't just the players – think of the fans. You can air condition stadiums, but you can't air condition a whole country.

Q: England, with all its history and outstanding stadiums, has not hosted a World Cup since 1966. They missed out in 2018. They are now unlikely to host a tournament before 2030. Is that fair?

A: Personally, I would have liked to have seen England awarded a World Cup. They have the stadiums and the infrastructure to be able to host a World Cup at very short notice.

Obviously, decisions have been made, and it is now a matter for the English FA as to whether they want to bid for the next World Cup. They have indicated that they won't.

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