For Sepp Blatter, whose span at football’s world governing body has bridged an extraordinary 40 years, 17 as president, nothing has hurt him like the manner of his leaving. His recent, increasingly frantic pronouncements and a “small emotional breakdown” last month have been the closing moments of a flailing emperor, unable to believe his power has drained away.
Blatter prolonged his presidency for so long, breaking promises to step down in 2006, 2011 and this year, because he became wedded to FIFA, speaking of the organisation as his fiancee, and believed he was indispensable to its workings. It was planned to end, if at all, at a date of his choosing, with international plaudits and preferably a Nobel prize — never as a culprit found guilty of wrongdoing by an ethics committee he himself introduced.
To his supporters, of whom there do remain many within the dysfunctional “family” of football’s world governing body, Blatter is credited with a great legacy of developing the game globally, since he took on that job when he joined a broke, parochial administration as a charming, kipper-tied thruster in 1975. For football associations in Africa and other developing nations, the billions Blatter has delivered in development funds, and the expansions of the World Cup and other FIFA tournaments, opened up football.
They still remember as colonialist the rule of Sir Stanley Rous, FIFA’s English president until 1974, and the notorious accommodations he made with the South African FA during the apartheid era. Some agree with Blatter’s deep resentment of the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, characterising FIFA as a mafia-like racketeering organisation , pointing out that the roster of defendants now indicted for corruption were all involved in American football confederations. The investigation, after all, started with the Inland Revenue Services chasing up the unpaid taxes of Chuck Blazer, who raked in the bribes from his base in central New York.
To Blatter’s vehement critics — including some respected senior figures in European football who really loathe him — the ban by an ethics committee, which has found its backbone, represents the grubby reality of Blatter’s methods finally, far too late, catching up with him. To them Blatter was the Machiavellian master of power politics at FIFA, learning from his years working for the Brazilian João Havelange , who supplanted Rous and maintained his grip as president for an extraordinary 24 years until 1998, when Blatter won the election to succeed him.
Havelange, who took millions in bribes and kickbacks from FIFA’s deals with the marketing company ISL, demonstrated that a president needs a majority of the member football associations to vote for him. If he is then to control what the organisation does, he also needs support within the 24-man executive committee, principally representatives of the six continental confederations.
Blatter has been never accused of taking bribes; in fact he has been felled by the same ethics committee that upended the careers of some of his rivals for actually giving money illegally! It’s a delicious double irony his critics would no doubt savour.
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