Not far from where Sepp Blatter oversees his empire at the headquarters of soccer’s world governing body, seven of his FIFA cronies sit in jail cells in Zurich, Switzerland, awaiting extradition on corruption charges.
Blatter must have feared that he, too, would soon be stuck behind bars. Maybe he woke up in the middle of a nightmare in which he was forced to wear a jumpsuit and eat prison cuisine. Maybe he realized he wouldn’t be able to buy himself out of this predicament, not even by dipping into FIFA’s $1 billion “reserve fund.”
On Tuesday, four days after Blatter was reelected to a fifth term to continue running his totalitarian regime, four days after he insisted he was not to blame for the latest scandal to engulf FIFA, he stepped to the microphone at a hastily arranged news conference and announced he would resign.
The most powerful executive in sports will be replaced within a matter of months but it will take far longer to fix the beautiful game that he has sullied during his 17-year reign.
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“We need deep-rooted structural change,” Blatter said, mentioning term limits as a needed reform, an interesting suggestion from a man who was determined to be president for life.
Four days after Blatter defiantly declared “I will be in command of this boat called FIFA and we will bring it back to shore,” he conceded that the 133-73 vote by FIFA members “does not seem to be supported by everybody in the world of football.”
Blatter’s attempts at face-saving rhetoric fell flat. He stepped down before he was taken down. Better to give a farewell speech now about his love for FIFA than be escorted from the podium later by an FBI agent delivering an indictment.
No doubt Blatter felt the net closing in on him, the big fish in U.S. Department of Justice and Swiss investigations of bribery and bid-rigging in soccer. Two days before he was reelected, Swiss police arrested seven soccer officials — including two FIFA vice presidents — at their Zurich hotel. They were among 14 named in a 47-count, 161-page indictment handed down by U.S. prosecutors. Swiss investigators seized documents from FIFA offices as part of their probe into the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, choices so strange and awful that they were presumed to be arranged with multimillion-dollar handshakes.
On Monday, Blatter’s top lieutenant, Jerome Valcke, was identified by U.S. authorities as the “high-ranking FIFA official” in the indictment linked to $10 million in bank payments believed to be a bribe to ex-CONCACAF president and ex-FIFA vice president Jack Warner for his help in securing South Africa’s winning bid for the 2010 World Cup, according to The New York Times. Valcke has not been charged and said he didn’t authorize the three payments. South Africa’s bid chief Danny Jordaan said the money was a payment into a Caribbean soccer development fund.
Valcke was fired in 2006 as FIFA’s marketing director when he was involved in a coverup over a sponsorship deal but was rehired by Blatter as secretary general in 2007.
When asked last week whether he was the unnamed person in the indictment, Blatter said: “Definitely that is not me. I have no $10 million.”
But investigators are following the money, and the money is getting closer to Blatter. A laughingstock once again, Blatter was feeling pressure from U.S. and Swiss prosecutors and corporate sponsors. Had he remained in office, FIFA faced further erosion of its credibility, boycotts by its European members, possible disintegration.
It’s shameful that Blatter, 79, was reelected in the first place, and demonstrates that FIFA still needs a deep cleaning. The first step of the overhaul is being launched by the United States, a nation where the domestic form of football — not the global game of football — is the most popular sport.
The U.S. Justice Department’s aggressive use of the RICO Act prompted Warner to say American law enforcement was seeking revenge after losing its bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
“I could understand the U.S. embarrassment,” Trinidad’s Warner said, adding that one should “take your losses like a man.” He also insinuated that the United States is trying to force its rival Russia to give up the 2018 World Cup.
Warner made these accusations of U.S. conspiracy on his website, while holding up an article from the Onion, headlined “FIFA Frantically Announces 2015 Summer World Cup in the United States,” a fake news story poking fun at FIFA’s attempt to placate the United States.
Warner didn’t get it. He thought the satire was real. Warner was purged from FIFA, but he was once one of Blatter’s most powerful pals — which gives an indication of just how embedded FIFA’s leadership problems are.
“If you are faced with an abscess, simple medication does not suffice,” FIFA medical director Michel D’Hooghe said in reference to Blatter. “You have to cut it open.”
The cutting has begun.