Blatter departs after scandal-ridden reign as FIFA president

The 79-year-old leaves his position with more answers likely to follow on the reasons why he resigned as president of soccer’s world governing body.

On Friday the stage was all his. Sepp Blatter stood victorious under the bright lights on the stage of the Hallenstadion in Zurich after winning an unprecedented fifth term as FIFA president. He posed triumphantly for pictures with the delegates who returned him to office. He looked unassailable. Now something extraordinary has happened. What Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein could not do at the polls, Blatter has done to himself. He has resigned as FIFA president and will depart 40 years after first walking those corridors of power.

Blatter might well have had time to consider the implications of another four-year term over the weekend with much of the western world’s ire directed against his organization and him personally. FIFA and Blatter are detested. Any attempt by either to present an image of reform and transparency is taken as dubious. He might well have had a flash of conscience though and reasoned that now is the time for genuine reform while also recognizing his own limitations in that regard. If so, good for him.

“FIFA needs a profound overhaul,” he said on Tuesday. “While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football – the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at Fifa. Therefore, I have decided to lay down my mandate.”

Or maybe he now feels the waters lapping at his ankles. The latest revelation in the fallout of last Wednesday’s dawn arrests of seven FIFA officials and subsequent publication of U.S. Department of Justice documents is that Blatter’s right-hand man, general secretary Jerome Valcke, has finally been fingered.

Valcke, it is alleged, received in 2008 a request from the South Africa Football Association by order of the government to withhold $10 million intended for the World Cup’s local organizing committee and divert it instead to Jack Warner’s CONCACAF accounts for something called the “Diaspora Legacy Programme”. FIFA denied that Valcke was responsible for what the U.S. DOJ has described as a bribe. The Swiss Office of Attorney General says that Blatter is not under investigation while the U.S. DOJ will not comment.

Contrast Friday’s euphoria with the sorrowfulness of Tuesday. If there was triumphalism in Sepp Blatter after he forced Prince Ali to concede the presidential election there was despair in his address to the few media representatives who managed to rush to Zurich for the hastily convened conference.

It was seismic. It was unthinkable. It was low key and somber. Sepp Blatter is the great survivor no more. There will be a FIFA presidential election soon and, for the first time since 1998, Blatter will take no part in it.

“Since I shall not be a candidate, and am therefore now free from the constraints that elections inevitably impose, I shall be able to focus on driving far-reaching, fundamental reforms that transcend our previous efforts,” he said.

FIFA needs reform, better governance and a new way of doing things. It had grown monstrously big and bent under Blatter and he knows it. Any attempt to reform FIFA with Blatter still at its head would be doomed to fail. He has turned FIFA toxic and turned himself into a pastiche. Nobody can believe a word out of his mouth.

It is not strictly accurate though to say Blatter, as president, was a dictator. He presided over FIFA’s rise from mere governing body to an entity sitting on $1.4 billion cash reserves. The graft did indeed continue to flourish on his watch, of that there is no question, but he himself kept everybody sweet if not afraid.

He inherited his FIFA mandate from the altogether more threatening Joao Havelange, the Brazilian who defeated Englishman Stanley Rous in the 1974 presidential election to wrest control of world football from the traditional football nations of Europe. Havelange, through a combination of multiplying sponsorship and broadcast income and patronage of developing nations, enriched FIFA and himself. He stayed in power until 1998 when his self-appointed successor to the role, Blatter, came to the fore.

Blatter had been general secretary for 17 years but even in that job, as in his presidency, corruption happened around him. FIFA’s broadcast partner International Sport and Lesiure collapsed in 2001 with Havelange, son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira and Paraguayan big-wig Nicolas Leoz all found to have taken lucrative bribes through the 1990s.

Blatter was alleged to have passed at least one such bribe intended by ISL to reach Havelange through FIFA accounts. This alleged misdemeanor was written off as “clumsy” by the adjudicatory chamber of FIFA’s ethics committee in 2013 following American prosecutor Michael J. Garcia’s investigations and no more was made of it.

The allegations would not cease as much as Blatter tried to make out they were attacks by bitter, spiteful American and British media. Former general secretary Michael Zen Ruffinen alleged in 2002 ahead of Blatter’s first re-election victory that finances had been mismanaged on the Swiss’s watch.

The 2011 presidential election was played out against the unedifying backdrop of Mohamed Bin Hammam and Jack Warner allegedly bribing Caribbean Football Union delegates in order to shore up votes for the Qatari candidate.

That country of Qatar has presented Blatter with the most profound, damaging episode of his FIFA career. Half of the Executive Committee members who were on the panel deciding the destination of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals, in Russia and Qatar, respectively, have resigned in disgrace since the vote was alleged to have been bought, their reputations in tatters over allegations and charges of impropriety. The Swiss OAG is now investigating the awarding of those tournaments for criminal mismanagement and money laundering.

“The Executive Committee includes representatives of confederations over whom we have no control, but for whose actions FIFA is held responsible,” said Blatter.

He could not recover, politically, from the FIFA decision to award the World Cup to Qatar in particular. The tiny giant looks to be an unsuitable host for a global football tournament on this scale, both logistically and in terms of worker safety, and to put it there instead of more adequate candidate bids was seen as one step too far.

Blatter rode out the ensuing investigation by Garcia. He, in a sense, remained unimpeachable even as all his former allies dropped like flies around him. Blatter retained widespread support from the floor as evidenced by his decisive election win. One hundred and thirty three national associations returned him to office on Friday, but it was those among the 73 who went against him who ultimately held more sway.

It all began with accusations of bribery and that’s how it ends. When Blatter defeated reform candidate Lennart Johansson in the 1998 elections, he did so amid murky allegations that 20 delegates were each paid $20,000 to secure their vote.

Blatter tried to the end to present himself as the man to see FIFA through stormy waters again. His resignation speech did similar. It highlighted the good he had done and the good he still intended to do.

“We need deep-rooted structural change,” he said. “The size of the Executive Committee must be reduced and its members should be elected through the FIFA Congress. The integrity checks for all Executive Committee members must be organized centrally through FIFA and not through the confederations.

“We need term limits not only for the president but for all members of the Executive Committee. I have fought for these changes before and, as everyone knows, my efforts have been blocked. This time, I will succeed.”

The trouble for Blatter is that, during his reign, people never believed he could nor would deliver genuine reform. There is that reported $15 million salary and expense account, the private jets, the wining and dining with the world’s well-heeled. He has grown accustomed to a lifestyle far out of the reach of the average football administrator. Change was a lot to ask for. It is the life he gave his loyalists too. The crumbs they dropped from their tables of plenty, however, have now attracted big, damaging pests.

That FBI investigation has been described as just the beginning. As far as the Sepp Blatter reign goes, it is the end. While the national associations in opposition congratulate themselves on a job well done, it is a victory for the Feds. They have fingered those close to Blatter and brought his house crashing down. The fallout of the investigation, which began with the capture of former CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer on tax charges, could yet lead all the way to the president’s door.