As president for 17 years of the governing body of the world’s most popular sport, Sepp Blatter is called “the most powerful person in sports.” The admiration is, at best, grudging. To the London Guardian he’s “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century.” The Daily Mail calls him “a smug, self-righteous Zurich gnome.”
What’s emerging – yes we’ll soon be calling it Blattergate – is that the president of FIFA heads a worldwide soccer empire that the U.S. Justice Department believes committed at least $150 million worth of fraud and money-laundering in 24 years.
The Attorney General’s office last week indicted six current and three former officials of FIFA. Also indicted were five corporate officers accused of delivering illegal payments. The FBI researched records in American banks to connect the dots.
Although Blatter himself was not named in any charges, some of his closest associates were arrested in Zurich, to be extradited to the U.S. The New York Times reported that the FBI is investigating Blatter along with his indicted lieutenants.
Blatter on Friday won a fifth term as FIFA president, but four days later he announced he will resign. He said he will remain in office until a new president is chosen, in 6-9 months. You might want to bet the Under on that.
In a hastily called news conference in Zurich, Blatter read, in French, from a prepared statement: “FIFA needs a profound restructuring.” He left the podium without taking questions.
Michael Platini, president of EUFA, the European regional soccer federation, had said teams in his domain were considering pulling out of the World Cup if Blatter stayed in power. After the resignation of his former mentor, Platini said, “It was a difficult decision, a brave decision, and the right decision,”
British Prime Minister David Cameron had also called for the resignation of Blatter, who did gain an endorsement from Vladimir Putin. Perhaps Putin can be a character witness if Blatter eventually goes to trial.
In a recent interview with a Swiss newspaper, the 79-year-old Blatter compared himself to a mountain goat so rugged and resilient that he “cannot be stopped. I just keep going.”
Those who know him cite numerous factors in his resilience. He speaks five languages fluently and is a shrewd global diplomat. He’s used FIFA’s seemingly limitless financial resources to dispense favors, especially in Africa and Asian-Pacific islands, where his 111-year-old organization has built numerous soccer facilities.
He’s a sort of Robin Hood, or a Huey Long shaking down the wealthy and giving to the poor, whose votes keep him in power. His incessant affability helps. Said one of his African allies: “If you’ve ever met him, he will recognize you in a crowd.”
He’s a master of smoke and mirrors, deflection and illusion. He continually pays lip service to transparency. In 2011, after a run of scandals, he authorized a committee to propose reforms, but he quashed its report when it recommended disclosure of all cash given to FIFA officials.
In a sport that’s rising in popularity with the young, Blatter seems tethered to the 1960s. In 2004 he said women soccer players should play in “tighter shorts” to increase interest. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes,” he said, “like they do in volleyball.”
The world is not blind or deaf to his foolishness and immorality. But he’s as slippery as an eel.
A member of Parliament, Roland Buechel, told the BBC: “Nothing ever sticks to him. There is always someone between him and the bribes.”
Of all the pressures on him to resign, the most impactful came from major sponsors such as Visa, which did not want to be associated with such a polarizing figure.
Blatter and his FIFA-dom were under the radar until he awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and – even more suspicious — the 2022 Cup to Qatar, a country most Americans had never heard of (I know, that says as much about us as about Qatar).
It’s difficult to imagine a majority of 209 FIFA countries prefer the World Cup in Russia or Qatar instead of the U.S., which very much wants it. Soccer is surging in Marketplace America. Western Europe and Latin America can appreciate the economic jolt the sport will receive when World Cup games are played in New York and LA. Not so much in Qatar.
So when we didn’t get a World Cup, an FBI investigation ensued, and the Swiss government was eager to snoop right along with ours to try to track the bribes.
But Blatter’s undoing may be more about his giving than his receiving. With Putin and Qatar he linked FIFA to humanity’s dark side at a time when global order teeters more than usual. What could be next, a World Cup for Syria?
Qatar gets uglier all the time: cruelty and death to hundreds of workers on construction sites.
Journalists trying to investigate have been detained and detoured by the government. Still, the Washington Post revealed that more than 1,200 migrant workers have died in Qatar while working on World Cup-related projects.
Putin expressed concern that opposition to Blatter and his cronies is part of a conspiracy to rescind Russia’s 2022 Cup. It’s doubtful anyone will try to do that, re-start the Cold War over soccer. Qatar, however, could be vulnerable.
As long as nobody blabs, Blatter could avoid prosecution. But you have to expect that when the FIFA Nine are interrogated (can they be water-boarded?), someone will sell out Blatter in a plea for lesser punishment.