IN THE past few days, two continental potentates who were virtual dictators of their empires have fallen from grace.
By a remarkable coincidence both men are 75, both are rich, both had early careers involving publishing, both are known for their “interesting” love lives, both have been regularly caught up in financial scandals, both have made highly publicised gaffes, and most curious of all, both spent time in their twenties as crooners, one on cruise ships and the other at Alpine weddings.
The difference between Silvio Berlusconi, lately prime minister of Italy, and Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, president of football’s world governing body Fifa, is that the former resigned while the latter has no intention of doing so. Unless Fifa’s main sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Adidas and Castrol, pull their massive finances out of the world’s most popular sport then Blatter will survive his latest foray into outrageousness, remarking that on-field racism could be resolved with a handshake.
Most criticism has come from England, perhaps linked to the fact that Blatter presided over the process that awarded the hosting of the 2018 World Cup to rival bidder Russia. But as anger grows around the world, it is clear that his patently absurd “there is no racism” remark will haunt Blatter for years.
He has a case to answer. Section 7 of the Code of Ethics for all Fifa office-bearers states: “Ofﬁcials may not offend the dignity of a person or group of persons through contemptuous, discriminatory or denigratory words or actions concerning ethnicity, race, colour, culture, language, religion or gender.” With his comments already described as a “licence for racist abuse,” Blatter will face demands for more than just the apology he issued on Friday. It will take all this dapper autocrat’s undoubted charm and political nous to walk away from this latest imbroglio.
Cleverness – he speaks at least four languages – charm and a certain charisma have been the tools of his trade since his youth. He really was an Alpine wedding singer in his native Switzerland, a job he apparently performed very well. Born in Visp in the Valais canton, Blatter was the son of a chemical factory worker who told him “you’ll never make a living from football”, and denied him the chance to sign professional forms for his local team, as fathers could do back in the early Fifties. Nevertheless, Blatter remained a keen amateur player into his mid-thirties and, with a fortune now estimated at eight figures, he has certainly proved his father wrong.
Turning his attention to his studies, Blatter graduated with a business degree from the University of Lausanne. He tried his hand at sportswriting, before turning to public relations and becoming head of publicity for his local tourist board. His talent for administration was spotted by another sport, and he became general secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Association.
His love of football – for all his faults, no-one can accuse him of not being passionate about the game – had never dimmed and he joined the board of Swiss club Neuchatel Xamax. Shortly afterwards he accepted an honour connected to another great love of his, and became president of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders – the lingerie kind.
Recruited by the Swiss watch firm Longines, Blatter was involved in its development of timing facilities for the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. Prior to the latter event in Montréal, the fact that the International Olympic Committee and Fifa are both based in Switzerland meant Blatter was already familiar to football’s governors and was recruited as a technical director.
He hitched his star to João Havelange, the Brazilian double Olympian, albeit in swimming and water polo, who succeeded England’s Sir Stanley Rous as Fifa president in 1974 and came to dominate world football for 24 years.
For most of that time, Blatter was Havelange’s trusted servant as Fifa general secretary, and even though many questions were raised about Havelange’s personal financial dealings, football stayed quiet as money began to pour into the Beautiful Game at an astonishing rate. Financial misconduct on the part of Blatter was alleged but never proven.
Havelange was supposed to be succeeded by Uefa president Lennart Johansson, but Blatter outmanoeuvred him and became eighth president of Fifa in 1998, a job that grants access to popes, prime ministers and presidents alike.
He fell out with former goalkeeper Pope John Paul II, however, over his tangled love life. A Roman Catholic, Blatter’s fondness for pretty younger women has seen him thrice married and twice divorced, the Vatican refusing him permission to marry therapist Graziella Bianca – 30 years his junior – in church in 2002. Much earlier, Blatter had married Barbara Kaser who gave birth to his only child, daughter Corinne.
Also in 2002, the biggest scandal which Blatter somehow weathered was the collapse of Swiss marketing firm ISL, which cost Fifa $50 million. Again nothing was proven against him.
There is much good that Blatter has done, such as bringing more money into football and spreading it across the world. He was also behind the Fair Play award scheme which has raised the issue of fans and players’ behaviour – which makes it all the more puzzling why he should make his recent remarks.
He is regularly named among Forbes magazine’s annual list of the 70 most powerful people on Earth. Fifa’s website boasts of the fact that he is ranked 63, five ahead of the only other sporting figure, International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge.
The question that has been raised many times about Blatter is whether all his power has gone to his head. His appetite for work shows no sign of diminishing as he still works a regular 14-hour day, but he seems unable to stop interfering. Uefa in particular is known to be upset at his activities, and the smell of financial scandal has never gone away.
Blatter is due to stand down after the 2014 World Cup. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, like Berlusconi, he may soon be shown the red card.