As FIFA’s leader, Sepp Blatter has been praised for extending soccer’s reach to less developed nations, but widely criticized as tone-deaf and dictatorial, an unworthy steward of the global game.
If Wednesday’s sweeping arrests of several FIFA officials at a five-star hotel in Zurich turn out to be the moment when everything finally started to unravel for Sepp Blatter, it would be hard to imagine a more appropriate setting. Blatter, the president of soccer’s governing body, has long been accused of running his organization like a Swiss bank, providing a minimum of transparency when it comes to the billions of dollars that flow into and out of its coffers every year.
Blatter has worked at FIFA since 1975, rising from technical director to general secretary to president. As FIFA’s leader, he has been praised for extending soccer’s reach to less developed nations, an effort that included bringing the World Cup to Africa for the first time. But Blatter, who was not indicted, has also been widely criticized as tone-deaf and dictatorial, an unworthy steward of the global game.
“He’s part James Bond baddie, part Mayor Daley-style machine politician writ large,” said Roger Bennett, co-host of “Men in Blazers,” a soccer program on NBCSN.
Blatter has been dodging scandals almost from the moment he was elected president of soccer’s global governing body in 1998 — and his campaign that year was accused of bribing African delegates to secure victory. He denied he was involved in any wrongdoing.
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The Justice Department may be hoping that a few of the FIFA executives named in the indictment will implicate Blatter, in much the same way that law-enforcement officials often start by going after the lieutenants in organized-crime rings.
It is also possible that the arrests were timed in part to create pressure on Blatter to withdraw from Friday’s election for president, when he is widely expected to win a fifth term. That would be uncharacteristic of Blatter, who has made a career of remaining above the swamp of corruption — embezzlement, bribery, vote-buying — that forever seems to be engulfing his organization.
“A lot of people have asked me why Sepp Blatter wasn’t involved in this seemingly historic day, and the answer is, that’s how true power works,” said Alexi Lalas, a soccer analyst and a former player for the U.S. men’s national team. “It’s called plausible deniability.”
For the moment, Blatter, 79, does not seem to be treating this scandal any differently than any of the others that have unfolded on his watch. The organization has said the election will go on as planned.
Asked about Blatter’s state of mind at a news conference in Zurich, FIFA’s director of communications, Walter De Gregorio, described him as “quite relaxed.” He quickly clarified this characterization, noting that the president was not “dancing in his office.”
Several hours later, Blatter released his own statement in support of the American and Swiss investigations into his organization.
“Let me be clear,” he said, “such misconduct has no place in football and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game.” He did not appear at the news conference or make himself available for interviews.
Based on a hill outside Zurich, FIFA is a nonprofit organization with fewer than 500 employees. Its modest size belies its outsize influence as the organization that determines which nation will host the world’s most popular sports event. (Some 3 billion people watched the 2014 World Cup.) And it is FIFA that oversees the broadcast rights to the tournament and accepts the corporate sponsorships.
Blatter owes his job security in part to the structure of FIFA. It is nominally a democracy, though without term limits or meaningful oversight. Each of the group’s 209 member nations gets one vote for president, which means that countries like Botswana or Trinidad and Tobago have as much say in who runs the organization as Germany or England. Given how much money FIFA has at its disposal to dole out to impoverished countries in need of new soccer facilities, it is a setup that tends to produce entrenched leaders — effectively a system of patronage and fiefdoms.
“You have vast sums of money being doled out to tiny, tiny locales,” said Bennett. “When you have that kind of situation, it enables the leader to wield power in a way where there are absolutely no checks and balances. It’s almost medieval.”
Blatter came under intense scrutiny in the wake of FIFA’s decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. The choice of Qatar seemed especially problematic, given the country’s lack of infrastructure, its record of exploiting migrant workers and its triple-digit summer temperatures.
In the face of mounting criticism, including allegations that Qatar had bribed members of FIFA’s executive committee, the organization conducted an internal investigation into the closed-door bidding process that preceded the awarding of the tournaments. When the resulting 400-plus-page report was not made public, its author, the former U.S. attorney Michael J. Garcia, resigned in protest from FIFA’s ethics committee. (FIFA did release a summary of the investigation, clearing Russia and Qatar of wrongdoing. Garcia criticized it as inaccurate.)
Born in the Swiss Alpine village of Visp, Blatter studied economics at the University of Lausanne. After a stint in the military, he worked for the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation and for the watch company Longines. His mentor at FIFA was the organization’s former president, João Havelange, an Olympic swimmer from Brazil.
Since succeeding Havelange, Blatter has weathered a number of allegations of corruption, while also producing something of a blooper reel of gaffes. He once quipped that female soccer players should wear tighter shorts to raise the game’s profile and suggested that players who have been victims of racially motivated abuse should “shake hands” and get on it with it.
Blatter’s only opponent in Friday’s election is likely to be Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, a member of FIFA’s executive committee. Luis Figo, a former star at Barcelona and Real Madrid, took his name out of the running last week.
“This process is a plebiscite for the delivery of absolute power to one man — something I refuse to go along with,” Figo said.
Figo was not the only retired player to lash out at Blatter and FIFA’s electoral process recently.
“Under Sepp Blatter, FIFA has become a disgrace and a painful embarrassment to those of us who care about football deeply,” Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona wrote this week in an op-ed for London’s Daily Telegraph.
The criticism — and the litany of charges being leveled against FIFA — seem unlikely to induce Blatter to step down.
“From a reputational standpoint, I don’t think it could get any worse for him, nor do I think that he would care if it did,” Lalas said.