WITH high-ranking Fifa officials facing charges of bribery, fraud and money-laundering, it’s squeaky bum time for the organisation’s all-powerful president, writes Dani Garavelli
IT TAKES some nerve to stand at a podium – while the world is braying for you to go – and condemn the corruption within the organisation you lead as if you were a dispassionate observer as opposed to the person who bears the ultimate responsibility for the way it has conducted itself.
Giving Qatar the World Cup was whiffier than a plate of Swiss cheese
But then Sepp Blatter has a gift for brazening it out. For 17 years, he has been like a swan gliding through an oil slick; all around him lie the carcasses of greedy gulls, caught in the grease and dirt, while his own feathers remain pristine and unruffled.
As the US Justice Department last week laid charges involving bribery, fraud and money-laundering at Fifa, the 79-year-old was maintaining his customary attitude: a blend of bemusement and resolve, as if he couldn’t quite believe such activities could have taken place on his watch, but now they’d been drawn to his attention, he was determined to sort them out. Forget the fact that rumours of dodgy dealings have dogged the organisation ever since he was first elected president in 1998, or that the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar was whiffier than a plate of Swiss cheese. At the opening of the Fifa congress, he continued to portray himself not as the shamed boss of a dysfunctional organisation, but as the only man capable of cleansing Fifa of its past. Such is his ability to dissociate himself from the maelstrom around him that his refusal to withdraw from this, his fifth election, was entirely predictable. As was his victory over his only rival Prince Ali bin al-Hussein.
Of course, Blatter’s triumph doesn’t mean his troubles are over. With nine Fifa officials and five executives of sports management companies indicted on 47 charges involving £97.5 million in illegal payments, a separate Swiss inquiry under way, and English FA chairman Greg Dyke and Uefa president Michel Platini calling for a boycott of the Russian competition, the scandal could still destroy him. Even so, to have survived so long in the face of mounting controversy and public antipathy is astonishing. So how has Blatter done it? What is it about this short, stocky and often eccentric man that has made him so impervious to attempts to bring him down?
To some (mainly those in developing territories that benefit most from Fifa’s munificence), Blatter is a revered, almost God-like figure. Dominican Republic FA president Osiris Guzman does not appear to have had his tongue in his cheek when he compared him to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Jesus. Nor did Guinea-Bissau FA president Manuel Nascimento Lopes blush when he suggested criticism of the Fifa president was tantamount to blasphemy.
Closer to home, however, Blatter is more often portrayed as Ernst Blofeld, stroking his cat in the organisation’s £150m headquarters in Zurich. Or as a Mafia godfather prepared to take out anyone who gets caught or breaks the code of silence. Andrew Jennings, the Scottish investigative journalist who has written many exposes on Fifa, called his latest book on the organisation Omerta; its front cover carries an image of Blatter in a dark suit and shades.
In the flesh, the Fifa president does not appear so sinister; with his bald pate, twinkling eyes and a tendency to peer over the top of his spectacles, he comes across more like a congenial uncle. Those who have met him talk of his charisma, but – like many an uncle – he is also embarrassing.
Take his attitude towards women: EA sports game Fifa 16 may be embracing women’s football, but thrice-married Blatter – a one-time president of the World Society for Friends of Suspenders – will be remembered for suggesting female players should wear tighter shorts. His thoughts on racism – there is no real problem and any on-field incidents should be settled with a handshake – and on homophobia in Qatar – gay fans should refrain from sexual activity – have been equally regressive.
A sometime wedding singer, Blatter still likes to perform; when he did an impromptu dance with model Fernanda Lima during the World Cup in Brazil, he looked like a less sprightly Bruce Forsyth urging Anthea Redfern to “give us a twirl”. But even his comedy routines cause offence. Asked, at an Oxford University debate, if he preferred Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, he mocked Ronaldo, doing an impression of him “acting like a commander on the field of play”. Ronaldo was not impressed.
Most of the offence taken at Blatter, however, revolves around his refusal to take responsibility for the culture of corruption that has persisted throughout his tenure as general secretary and then as president. So routine is the booing of Blatter, he refrained from making a speech during the World Cup opening ceremony in Brazil for fear of being shouted down.
The extent to which controversy has followed Blatter would be difficult to exaggerate. That first election victory, in 1998, was rumoured to have been secured after bribes were allegedly doled out in return for support. His 2002 candidacy also took place against a backdrop of rumours, with Fifa’s then general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen handing a dossier alleging financial mismanagement to the Swiss authorities. They later closed the case having found “no criminal behaviour”. Zen-Ruffinen was removed from his post. Then, in 2011, a Panorama investigation, led by Jennings, accused Fifa officials of accepting $100m in kickbacks from sports marketing company International Sports and Leisure (ISL), which later went bankrupt.
Most previous inquiries have been internal and all have cleared Blatter of any wrongdoing, though his handling of the ISL scandal was criticised as “clumsy”. Nor has he been implicated in the current investigations, although Swiss prosecutors have said he may be questioned in the coming weeks. But it’s interesting how many of his former allies have been disgraced: Blatter’s predecessor (and staunch supporter) Joao Havelange and Havelange’s son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira were found to have accepted bungs from ISL, while Blatter’s Concacaf (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) associates Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer have also been linked with wrong-doing. Warner has been indicted. Blazer, a great grizzly bear of a man who kept parrots in an aviary in his office in Trump Towers, New York, pleaded guilty to a raft of charges and turned informant. Blatter hasn’t been to the US since Blazer started co-operating with the Feds, giving rise to speculation he is afraid of being arrested.
But if charm can’t explain Blatter’s capacity for survival, then what can? This question is a bit like Mrs Merton asking Debbie McGee: “What attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” It’s all about money and power, with a dash of ruthlessness thrown in for good measure.
With its World Cup tournaments watched by almost a billion viewers and its football development programme handing out millions of pounds a year, Fifa is a global cash cow with benefits for all: its executive, its 209 national football associations, TV companies and sponsors. It’s not an organisation where the dispensing of largesse is a discreet affair: it’s a vulgar, look-at-my-wad place in which everyone is living it large on expenses and boasting about just how much cash they have to splash (although Blatter is not so open about his own salary).
Nor is it short of chutzpah: last year it invested £15m in United Passions, a film about Fifa, starring Tim Roth as Blatter. The film has not yet been released in the UK, but previews suggest that, in as much as Fifa’s current woes are acknowledged at all, it is presented as a hapless victim, unable to cope with the onslaught of corporate cash that came its way as a result of football’s commercialisation.
According to Bloomberg magazine, Blatter told the annual meeting of Concacaf last month that since 1999, Fifa had awarded more than $330m to its 35 regional members. The forecast for the next four years was another $150m-$180m. The “so-long-as-you-keep-supporting-me” caveat was understood. In such a climate, it’s little wonder greed flourishes.
The beauty of the system, so far as Blatter is concerned, is that each of the 209 member countries has one vote; footballing giants like Brazil have the same say as footballing minnows like Montserrat, but the smaller nations are easier to influence, especially since no-one monitors too closely how the money is spent. For example, the Cayman Islands – whose men’s team is ranked 191st in the world – has received $2m since 2002 for a new headquarters and pitches. The headquarters has been built, but the only field is having to be relaid with artificial turf after the land proved too salty for grass. The team rarely plays international matches, but in Fifa terms, it is extremely powerful. Its head of football, Jeffrey Webb, who was Warner’s successor as president of Concacaf, is one of those indicted.
This is pork barrel politics, but it works. In Africa, Blatter has won support because he presided over the first World Cup to be held in the continent and funded myriad projects; he is widely perceived as having rid football of its Eurocentrism.
Quite how he manoeuvred himself into such a position of power is a mystery; born in Visp in Switzerland, the son of a chemical factory worker, he studied business at the University of Lausanne, but his early career was pretty average: he did a stint as a sports writer, before becoming head of PR for the local tourist board and general secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. Then, when he was working for Swiss watchmaker Longines, he became involved in the organisation of the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games.
Once at Fifa, his naked ambition began to show; having joined as technical director, he married general secretary Helmut Kaser’s daughter (she was Blatter’s second wife; Kaser disliked his flashiness and refused to attend the ceremony) then, with the help of Havelange, took his job, which he held on to until he became president.
Opinions vary on whether Blatter is driven by money or status, but the consensus is that his success is largely down to his instinct for people’s weaknesses, his ruthlessness and a commitment to Fifa that borders on pathological. “When it serves him – and his power is at stake – he will do almost anything to defend it,” Gerhard Aigner, former secretary general of Uefa has said.
Blatter has been aided by circumstance too; he is lucky Fifa is based in Switzerland, a country which places a high premium on privacy and has been none too quick to investigate possible infringements. And most of the people who know his vulnerabilities are enmeshed in the overarching culture. Platini can shout the odds, but he voted for the World Cup to be held in Qatar and Uefa is not squeaky clean.
Indeed, every sporting institution and event is susceptible to corruption. The Olympic Games – which provide a huge boost to the host country – are also beset by rumours of bribery. The biggest scandal involved Salt Lake City’s successful bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2002. In all, ten members of the IOC were expelled and another ten were sanctioned over accepting gifts from the Salt Lake Organising Committee. Like Blatter, the then president of the IOC, Juan Samaranch, who held the post for 21 years, was cleared of wrongdoing. Unlike Blatter, he didn’t stand again.
On Friday, Blatter was elected a fifth time as anticipated, but no-one hailed it as a victory for democracy. He won 133 of the 209 votes, but he has a crisis on his hands.
As the seven Fifa officials arrested in Switzerland await extradition, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office has offered its assistance to the US and Swiss inquiries and Uefa is clamouring for reform. Blatter has promised a “road map”, but he has said that before. Then, a leading Fifa adviser resigned, claiming even the most anodyne proposals were being watered down.
Despite the pressure, or maybe because of it, he has been upbeat to the point of hysteria. In his acceptance speech, he prayed to God and/or Allah for help, suggested the committee needed “ladies” and chanted: “Fifa, let’s go.” At almost 80, there’s no doubting Blatter’s energy, but even if he escapes this scandal unscathed, it seems unlikely this old dog is capable of learning new tricks. «