Crucial elections FIFA Clings to its Flawed Leader

FIFA's members voted to elect their beleaguered president for a fifth term, despite the fact that several of his colleagues are now under arrest for corruption.
A demonstration against FIFA and Sepp Blatter.

Sepp Blatter may have won his bid to cling on as president of FIFA on Friday, the world of football will never be the same.

The World Cup, the once-in-four-years jamboree that is marked by street parties, celebrations and long afternoons watching football with friends, has lost its innocence, if indeed it ever had it.

This morning the grandees of football voted to give Sepp Blatter, the 79-year-old, Machiavellian president who has turned FIFA from a modest confederation of football clubs to a world power,  a fifth term in office.

Mr. Blatter promised that this term would be his last. In his victory speech, he also promised to restore FIFA's reputation.

"I will be in command of this boat of Fifa. We will bring it back off shore," he said.

His election was more dramatic than he had expected. He and his cronies had gathered in Zurich earlier this week for their annual congress, expecting to have the usual five-course dinners and fine wines and discussions about the state of football ahead of Friday’s vote.

But their plans were thrown into disarray early Wednesday morning when Swiss police swept into the five-star hotel Baur Au Lac hotel they were staying and arrested six senior officials. A few hours later, the U.S. Department of Justice said it was indicting 14 senior soccer officials on corruption charges, and the newly appointed Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a wide-ranging investigation into corruption at FIFA.

Allegations of corruption have swirled around FIFA for years but this is the first time the institution has been attacked in such a focused, comprehensive way, by a country that has the muscle to take down large corporations.

It is clear by now that today’s election was about far more than Mr. Blatter’s ability to govern football. It is about corruption, and about who controls the game.

Is it the European countries in the UEFA confederation, with their multi-million euro players and their powerful domestic leagues, who desperately want Mr. Blatter to quit. They have to accept Mr. Blatter. Next weekend they meet in Berlin ahead of the Championship League, to debate whether they now want to take part in the World Cup at all.

Does Mr. Blatter"s victory now mean football belongs to the newer, often poorer clubs in Africa and Asia, where FIFA has built so many new pitches and training centers?

They are not the entire organization; certain individuals who have forgotten that FIFA is based on respect discipline and a team sport with the same goal. Sepp Blatter, FIFA President

Or does it belong to the countries like Brazil and Argentina, which has sent out some of the world’s best players?

CONCACAF, made up of countries in the Americas, have traditionally been big fans of Mr. Blatter, who has worked hard to promote the soccer clubs in the region, but their ardour has cooled in recent days, partly because Mr. Blatter has distanced himself from their chief Jeffrey Webb after he was arrested during Wednesday’s raids.

Mr. Blatter has, during his term in office, cultivated the smaller, poorer countries in FIFA, recognizing, correctly, that these countries may have weak football clubs but they had large, soccer-mad populations and television stations that would be willing to pay for broadcasting rights to these tournaments. These populations were also attractive targets for World Cup sponsors such as Coca Cola and McDonald's.

FIFA operates on a one member one vote system. Voting is by secret ballot.

FIFA has 209 members, and a tiny country like Montserrat has the same voting power as Germany. The European members of UEFA, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all said they will not back Mr. Blatter. It was not enough.

Mr. Blatter's opponent, the Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah II conceded defeat Friday night.

Well. at least I tried. Ali Bin Al Hussein.

 

Mr. Blatter  first joined FIFA in 1975, Since becoming president in 1998, he has secured his power base there by creating a billion dollar empire. In the 1970s, there were fewer than 20 employees. Now there are just under 500. In the four-year cycle between 2010 and 2014, FIFA made a gross of about $5.72 billion.

Now it is a sprawling, multi-tentacled giant. Mr. Blatter said in a speech Friday, before his victory, that neither he nor FIFA should be held responsible for some of its officials. Of those arrested, he said: "They are not the entire organization; certain individuals who have forgotten that FIFA is based on respect discipline and a team sport with the same goal."

The fundamental problem is that, although FIFA is a multi-billion dollar entity  with the power to move markets and to influence politics, it is totally unaccountable. In April Bloomberg reporter Tariq Panja tried to find out how much Mr. Blatter is paid via its annual report. Markus Kattner, FIFA’s head of finance and administration told him: “We have hidden it so you cannot find it. We’re not publishing it, first of all, because we don’t have to.”

In its reports, FIFA boasts about over $1 billion spent on “solidarity” programs which in reality mean giving local politicians large sums of money in the hope that they will spend some of it on a local soccer pitch.

The World Cup is now political in other ways too. A national team’s success can boost a government, and even a country’s GDP.

Germany’s win in the summer of 2014 created a feel good factor that helped boost its image as one of the most successful, confident countries in Europe.

FIFA may technically be a non-profit, stateless entity, but it now too powerful, and omniscient to be left alone. Mr. Blatter recognized this change. In his speech Friday he said: "FIFA has become a business. It is no longer a club as it is in the Swiss civil code, like a swimming club or a fishing club."

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned on Thursday that FIFA had to act.

“Corruption poisons politics and it poisons sport. If football is meant to serve as a model then this must be cleared up. If the football world does not manage to cleanse itself of this, then government agencies have to step in."

The corruption charges focus now on FIFA’s decision to award the World Cup to Russia in 2018 and to Qatar in 2022; a move that has been criticized, repeatedly and loudly, by many countries. FIFA itself commissioned a report into the bidding process then suppressed its contents, causing the report’s author, U.S. attorney Michael Garcia to quit in protest.

A country that hosts the World Cup is the center of attention during the weeks of the tournament. Little wonder that the right to host is a sought-after prize and one that governments are willing to pay for.

Russian president Vladimir Putin meanwhile has already accused the U.S. of overstepping its authority to investigate FIFA, calling the prosecution of FIFA officials “yet another obvious attempt to spread their jurisdiction to other countries.”

 

Meera Selva is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]