Nothing ever sticks to the Teflon president
Fifa chief Sepp Blatter is the consummate politician who has a knack for turning even the most damning scandal to advantage
Sam Boden and James Montague
Sepp Blatter is not a king. He is not a chancellor or a viceroy and he is, most assuredly, not a congressman or people's representative. Technically, Blatter is a president, the president of Fifa, soccer's global governing body. To use that label alone, though, is to sell short the dominating (if not domineering) stature with which Blatter rules. Think of it this way: how many people can arrive in virtually any country with a minimum of pomp or protocol and then request an audience with the head of state, and receive one?
Blatter can. (And he has. In the past few months he has met with the president of Cuba, the prime minister of Guinea and the president of South Africa.) Such is the influence of soccer around the globe. In more private moments, Blatter has likened Fifa to a sovereign nation. He may not be so far off: after all, Fifa has its own flag and anthem. And it has, in Blatter, an outspoken and commanding figurehead who has led it through periods of prosperity, and a fair bit of shame and scandal, too.
In nearly four decades with Fifa, however, Blatter has never overseen an issue as hotly debated as the one in front of him now. Last week in Zurich, Blatter presided over a meeting of Fifa's executive committee, which consists of 25 voting members who essentially make soccer's most important decisions. If Blatter has his way, one of the issues called for a vote will be whether to shift the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from its traditional summer schedule to the relative cool of the late autumn and winter in the Middle East.
Despite the large (and loud) group of soccer officials preaching pragmatism and patience before a potential move, Blatter, who declined to comment for this article, has made it clear that he believes a change in dates is necessary. Doing so will disrupt schedules around the world, but when Blatter states a preference, that has historically meant only one outcome is possible.
"Put it this way," said Alan Rothenberg, the former president of the United States Soccer Federation, who has known Blatter for more than 30 years. "In the mid-2000s, after the success of the '94 World Cup, I was asked by Morocco to help them win the bid for the 2010 World Cup."
Even though Blatter was publicly neutral, Rothenberg said, it was clear he was intrigued by South Africa as a potential host. "So I went to him beforehand and asked if it would bother him for me to do this, to work with Morocco," Rothenberg said. "He said, 'No, no, of course. Go ahead and do it'."
The night before the vote, after Morocco had made its final presentation, a confident Rothenberg said he thought, "We've got this locked up." Then he hesitated. "To this day I'm not sure what happened, but I suspect that Sepp was doing some things to make sure that people voted the way he wanted," Rothenberg said. Then he sighed. "I don't have to tell you what happened."
South Africa won the vote, 14-10.
There are 208 members of Fifa, and Blatter has worked for the organisation in several positions for decades. Not surprisingly, opinions of him run the gamut from saviour to scoundrel.
Some consider him a visionary for what he has done to expand the reach of the game to less developed countries and regions shredded by strife. Others describe him as an entrenched overlord who revels in Fifa's lack of transparency. More casual observers might find him entertaining, a man who appears to have no internal filter: in recent years, he has noted that a female member of the executive committee is both "good and good-looking"; advised fans in England to pray to God if they ever hope to host the World Cup again; and suggested, apparently jokingly, that gay fans who attend the World Cup in Qatar "should refrain from any sexual activities" because homosexuality is illegal there.
Whatever one's opinion of him, a trait mentioned by almost all who know Blatter is his political savvy.
His strategy is not subtle. While Fifa's financial power base might be in Europe, which is home to soccer's richest players, clubs and leagues, Blatter, a Swiss, is far from beloved there. Rather, he is known for currying favour, and votes, in Africa and Asia, seeing the future of the game in its two most populous confederations.
Optimists point out that those countries have greater needs than the European powers, and so the attention is merited. Cynics note that Fifa rules play into the hands of a smart politician: the 25-member executive committee consists largely of representatives of Fifa's six confederations, but Africa (four) and Asia (four) together have more votes than Europe (seven). That gives Botswana, Iran and Thailand as much voice as, say, Germany, England and France.
Shaping a message has been a perpetual part of Blatter's background even if his professional career has been eclectic. Though his playing career was limited to Switzerland's amateur leagues, his primary fame has come from his work in soccer. Since 1975, he has risen from technical director for Fifa to general secretary to president in 1998. A polyglot who speaks German, French, English, Spanish and Italian, Blatter conscientiously built a deep network of influence as he advanced.
Rothenberg worked with Blatter while leading the 1994 US World Cup host committee, and he recalled that even then, while still an underling to the former Fifa president Joao Havelange, Blatter "combined the talent of being the executive and operational head with also being a political mastermind".
Defenders of Blatter are quick to note his achievements. He has taken the game's biggest prize to virgin territory, overseeing the first World Cups in Asia and Africa, and the awarding of the first to post-communist Eastern Europe, in Russia in 2018.
One of his first acts as president was to push through the recognition of Palestine as its own soccer-playing nation, when Fifa became one of the only major international organisations to recognise the Palestinians in this way. Blatter has also been at the forefront of getting Israeli and Palestinian representatives to discuss easing the tight restrictions on athletes in that region, and he has twice committed money to having a stadium in Gaza rebuilt after conflicts with Israel.
"Blatter always gave the green light to things that were good for the Palestinians and Israelis," said Jerome Champagne, who worked as Blatter's personal adviser and ran his successful re-election campaign in 2002. "When we started collecting money for the new stadium to be built in the West Bank in 2006, the first Palestinian stadium meeting Fifa's international requirements, he said, 'Do it'. Blatter was fantastic in the way he supported that fully."
Champagne, who was later forced out at Fifa, believes this will be a part of Blatter's wider legacy. "His legacy will be the universality of the game being taken to new territories and becoming the world's No 1 sport, unquestionably," Champagne said. "His difficulty will be the 'but' which will come after that. People will say: 'Blatter's done a tremendous job of promoting the universality of the game, but. ...' And that 'but' is the controversy and allegations."
In addition to his more innocent verbal missteps, there are numerous examples of Blatter's tendency towards tone-deafness. At last summer's Confederations Cup in Brazil, he responded to violent protests throughout the country by suggesting that demonstrators should not use soccer to further their causes - just as Fifa announced its official World Cup champagne provider.
Less benign are the allegations of corruption that have lingered over Fifa for years. Havelange resigned from Fifa after the organisation's ethics committee detailed his involvement in bribery schemes, and a significant number of former executive committee members, many of whom worked closely with Blatter, have also stepped down. Some cited ill health rather than looming investigations, and several continue to deny wrongdoing.
Andrew Jennings, a British journalist, has been pursuing Blatter and Fifa over allegations of corruption for more than a decade. Much of his work has covered ISL, a now-defunct company that held the rights to Fifa's enormous international marketing contract. The company collapsed in 2001, mired in debt. In the fallout it was reported by Jennings and others, and confirmed in a Fifa ethics report released in April, that bribes had been paid to members of Fifa's executive committee.
The report cleared Blatter of receiving any money, a verdict he accepted "with satisfaction", and to date he has not been linked to anything illicit. But Fifa's critics frequently note that Blatter has stayed remarkably upright as the people around him seem to topple amid charges of bribery, conflict of interest and other unsavoury activity.
"I tell you: I know Mr Blatter personally, he is not corrupt," Champagne said. "Maybe they have a few black sheep. But Blatter is not corrupt."
Nonetheless, he has been surrounded by scandal. Of the 24 men on the executive committee who were set to vote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids in December 2010, two were suspended and later removed for taking bribes before the ballot took place.
Blatter does not outwardly dismiss the notion that organisational change is needed, and he has attempted to bring Fifa a little closer to the modern standards of business ethics and operations through the formation of ethics committees. But there remains a question as to how committed he is to putting substantive changes in place.
That was the reason Alexandra Wrage resigned from Fifa's Independent Governance Committee this year. Wrage is the president of Trace International, an organisation that works with companies to help them raise their anti-bribery measures. She is an expert on compliance and best business practices and was, ostensibly, included on the Fifa committee to help engineer a significant overhaul.
Instead, Wrage described a reaction of "indignation" from Fifa executives at any significant proposals for change. She acknowledged that Blatter had made some positive moves with regard to governance - adding a two-chambered investigative committee was "a big step", she said - but "a lot of the really tough decisions, especially the ones that impacted Blatter himself and the people at the highest levels, were not implemented".
Ultimately, Wrage said, she felt compelled to resign from the committee because she did not sense a genuine desire for change from Blatter and his staff.
"It kept appearing that the decisions that impacted the most senior people were put off," Wrage said. "That sort of thing happened fairly frequently: you'd make a very robust recommendation and it would get scaled back. In many ways, it's bizarre: the public perception of Fifa and Fifa's view of itself don't seem to connect in any way. The disconnect is pretty alarming."
Against that background, world soccer's most powerful group met in Fifa's gleaming, state-of-the-art offices in a quiet suburb of Zurich at the end of last week to take a decision that could reshape the future of the game as well as Blatter's legacy. A tournament in January and February would clash with the Winter Olympics - the new IOC president, Thomas Bach, said he had spoken with Blatter and "there would be no conflict" - and one in November and December would disrupt not only Europe's top club competition, the Champions League, but also play in most major European leagues.
Equally problematic are the broadcasting agreements Fifa has signed and recent media reports of abuse and mistreatment of Qatar's huge migrant work force.
All of it piles up to be a considerable headache for Blatter, who insisted as late as last year that the 2022 World Cup must take place as planned in the summer. As the prevailing wind has changed direction, though, so too has Blatter.
Some believe that Qatar will be the final piece of Blatter's legacy, but even that is uncertain. Among myriad criticisms levied against Fifa is an absence of term limits on its presidency, and so it does not matter that Blatter is 77. It does not matter that he has been president for 15 years. It does not matter that he said before his last election that this would be his final one.
Ever the politician, Blatter has remained coy on his future. All that is sure is this: There is another election in 2015, and Blatter may not be done.
The New York Times