Sepp Blatter: FIFA boss who wanted to leave through ‘front door’

CNN  — 

Sepp Blatter rises at dawn and goes to sleep 18 hours later. During his waking hours FIFA’s 79-year-old president has fulfillled his duty as the most powerful man in world soccer, meeting the presidents, princes, dictators and oligarchs who seek reflected glory from the world’s most popular game.

But not for much longer.

Despite winning a fifth presidential term last month, Blatter said Tuesday he would resign from his position amid an ongoing corruption scandal.

An Extraordinary Congress will be called to elect Blatter’s successor, which will take place between December 2015 and March 2016.

Critics and allies alike agree on one thing: Blatter has been a consummate politician who has survived 17 years of scandal, accusations of corruption and the rise and fall of internal political challengers.

But all that changed last week after a dawn raid at an upscale hotel on the shores of Lake Zurich ahead of Blatter’s re-election.

Nine FIFA officials, as well as five sports media and marketing executives, were charged by U.S. prosecutors over alleged kickbacks of more than $150 million dating back over 20 years.

Not that it affected Blatter’s ability to win the presidential contest which came after Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein withdrew from the second ballot after losing the opening round 133-73.

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The arrests came at the behest of the FBI, which had been investigating FIFA executives since 2011 and the crime fighting organization’s director, James Comey, delivered a withering assessment of the corruption at the heart of the game.

Accusations of corruption, kick backs, bribes and villainy have long been circulating about FIFA, but it took an FBI investigation, and the threat of jail, to break through the wall of silence.

It is, by far, the biggest scandal to face world soccer and to face FIFA, an organization that Blatter built in his image, and which is imprinted into his marrow.

Yet, as the scandal dominates headlines in every corner of the globe, many questions remain. How did Blatter manage to stay in power for so long and why has he courted such loyalty and revulsion? And, most importantly, can he survive his biggest battle yet?

The “Uwe Seeler of Upper Valais”

Sepp Blatter was born in 1939 into a working class family in the small, majority German speaking Swiss town of Visp.

Blatter was himself a promising young footballer, playing for FC Visp in Switzerland’s top league, which was then all-amateur.

In one hagiographic profile of Blatter’s playing days in FIFA’s in-house weekly magazine, he was described as a “feared top-flight striker” who had earned the nickname the “Uwe Seeler of Upper Valais,” after the West German international striker.

It also detailed how Blatter was once the Valais sprint champion in 1956, having run the 100 meters in 11.7 seconds.

A succession of administrative jobs followed, including general secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. After a stint at the watch making company Longines, he joined FIFA in 1975.

FIFA was a different beast in 1975. Sir Stanley Rous, the British former president had only just stood down, replaced by a non-European for the first time – former Brazilian Olympic swimmer Joao Havelange.

FIFA only had 11 employees back then – Blatter was the 12th – and a relatively modest building in Zurich. There were no youth or women’s tournaments and scant resources to go around.

“When Havelange was elected in ’74, there was no money,” Jerome Champagne, a former adviser to Blatter who announced his candidacy for FIFA president earlier this year but failed to win enough votes to stand, told CNN.

“It was a Euro-centric organization who tried to find compromise on apartheid. Then someone from outside Europe comes in, wants to recognize the football association of the People’s Republic of China and to expel the South African FA because of apartheid.”

Havelange hired Blatter to sign the first marketing contracts and create the first development projects.

Six years later Blatter had replaced Dr. Helmut Kaser as general secretary and had begun a process that would go on to form the base of his future political power: monetizing FIFA in a way that hadn’t been seen before, and distributing that wealth away from its European power center.

“For 40 years Blatter helped the development of football in Russia, China, from Colombia to Vietnam, from Ethiopia to Panama,” added Champagne. “If you help a country for 40 years, friendship and trust are built.”

Blatter has rewarded their loyalty, too.

When he joined 40 years ago, FIFA had 144 members; now it has 209. Each federation has its own vote and each is worth exactly the same within FIFA’s congress, which votes who vote for the president.

That means that a vote by the Cook Islands (population 11,000) and China (population 1.4 billion) has equal weight and equal power when it comes to spreading its financial success.

And that success is vast: After the last World Cup in Brazil, almost solely through World Cup TV rights and sponsorship deals, FIFA brought in close to $6 billion, leaving it with $1.5 billion in the bank.


A recent investigation by Bloomberg outlined just how some of the money funnels down into each individual federation, revealing a network of patronage that has kept those who vote on the FIFA presidency loyal to Blatter.

Each national association receives an annual grant of $250,000 as well as a one-off $500,000 payment linked to World Cup profits. FIFA executive committee members get $300,000 a year, plus $500 per day for expenses. The package for being on FIFA business includes five-star hotels and first-class flights.

“The one thing you have to remember about how people stay at the top of organizations is: how many people’s support you need to stay in power,” explained Alastair Smith, professor of international relations at New York University in answer to a question about the skills you need to hold on to power.

“Many are from poor and very small countries, countries where corruption is endemic,” added Smith, who co-authored “The Dictators’ Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.”

“Since the organization has a ton of money and few checks, there are many private benefits for you, not many for the good of association. First class travel. Free tickets. They don’t necessarily lead to good governance, but it helps that person.”

But the huge sums of cash floating around world football played a part in begetting epic corruption cases.

The 100-page plus U.S. Department of Justice charge sheet contains an alleged trail of dirty cash that crisscrosses the globe for two and a half decades.

Most of the corruption the indictment outlines is connected to marketing contracts – TV rights deals with broadcasters that are only agreed on after a significant bribe is paid to secure their exclusivity.

One case in point is the 2016 Copa America, which will be held in the U.S. for the first time. It is alleged that a staggering $110 million dollars of bribes were paid out connected to the tournament.

Other allegations have been made. Former executive committee member Jack Warner is accused of taking a $10 million bribe to vote for South Africa’s 2010 World Cup.

He presented himself to police in his native Trinidad and Tobago and spent the night in jail after he was set bail at 2.5 million Trinidadian dollars.

Prior to going to the police, Warner had protested his innocence.

How FIFA came to this is a story worthy of a spy novel. The whistle was blown by Chuck Blazer, the American former general secretary of CONCACAF, soccer’s governing body for North and Central America as well as the Caribbean.

Last November a New York Daily News investigation gave a hint of what was to come.

Blazer didn’t have a Damascene revelation about corruption in FIFA, they reported. After all, this was a man who, according to an internal 2013 CONCACAF report had received $15 million in hidden commissions over the past 15 years.

His office had somehow run up a $29 million credit card bill. Such was his opulence that CONCACAF was paying $24,000 a month for two apartments in Trump Towers.

One was for Blazer, and one for his pet cats, leading one U.S. commentator to dub his second apartment “Chuck’s Cat Shack.”

Blazer had reached a plea bargain with the FBI and IRS over corruption allegations and $11 million of undeclared income he had not paid tax on.

At the 2012 London Olympics, the New York Daily News reported, Blazer was wearing a wire, recording conversations with FIFA executives, gathering more evidence. Blazer is currently gravely ill in hospital with colon cancer.

Yet for all the allegations that have been made, one name is absent from the indictment – Blatter.

Once again, he has remained untouchable, though that might change given Swiss prosecutors say they will question everyone, including the FIFA president if necessary.

World Cup controversy

Today, on the outskirts of Zurich in a gleaming modernist temple, next to the zoo, almost 300 people now work at FIFA’s headquarters. The beautifully designed building cost $253 million to build.

It was here that arguably the most controversial moment of Blatter’s presidency took place – the moment in December 2010 when he revealed the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals, Russia and Qatar.

The winners made sense to those within FIFA who had understood Blatter’s globalist vision.

But everyone else was incredulous.

For one, the vote had been tainted by corruption allegations against several executive committee members.

Allegations of vote swapping between bids and a wider suspicion that Qatar – a country where the temperature hit 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in the summer – had used its fabulous gas wealth to outspend its rivals for the right to host the finals had confounded many.

Of the 24 members of FIFA’s executive committee who had a vote on who should host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals, two were suspended before the vote even took place over a British newspaper sting that suggested cash for votes.

Since then, even more members of the executive committee who voted that day have left under a cloud. Ricardo Teixeira, Issa Hayatou and Nicolas Leoz were alleged in a BBC documentary to have taken bribes connected to ISL, FIFA’s marketing arm which collapsed in 2001.

Hayatou denied they were bribes; FIFA’s own investigation confirm that Teixeira and Leoz were among those who received payments.

The case had haunted Blatter but he was cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal ethics report, while both Teixeira and Leoz have since resigned and are now implicated in the new Department of Justice indictment.

Warner and Mohamed bin Hammam, a former ally of Blatter’s who ran against him in the 2011 FIFA presidential elections, were suspended from the organization over allegations of vote buying. Blatter was left to run for his fourth term unopposed.

Warner resigned, with FIFA stating that “as a consequence of Mr Warner’s self-determined resignation, all ethics committee procedures against him have been closed and the presumption of innocence is maintained.”

Bin Hammam was later banned from all football related activities for life. Bin Hammam has denied the allegations; Blazer himself also stepped down from CONCACAF.

But the questions over the 2018 and 2022 bids just won’t go away. A few hours after Swiss law enforcement officers burst in the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, Swiss prosecutors announced that a criminal investigation was to take place into the bidding process for 2018 and 2022.

Power politician

There have been limited attempts by FIFA to reform itself. Such was the culture within the executive committee that Blatter appointed Mark Pieth, a law professor, to lead an independent governance committee to look at how FIFA ran itself.

“He is a very ambiguous person, as all power people are, but it is too simple to say he is a dictator,” said Pieth, who met Blatter on several occasions.

“He is very, very much a power politician. Like all these people running large states and international bodies.”

Pieth’s report included seven key recommendations, including an independent ethics body, term limits and stringent ethics checks on new executive committee members.

Some of these were implemented, Pieth said, but many others were opposed by European governing body UEFA.

“I would not call Blatter corrupt,” Pieth said of his time working with Blatter. “I would say he is head of a patronage culture. He hasn’t taken anything undue. He doesn’t need to.

“He’s about power. It is not about wealth. The major issue is a cultural change. On paper it looks quite good. The cultural change has not taken place.”

Yet despite the controversy over the 2018 and 2022 World Cup vote, the series of corruption allegations that had dogged his close associates but left him relatively unscathed, Blatter decided he would seek a fifth term.

Almost immediately he was showered with support from the associations who have benefited most from his tenure, one official even comparing him to both Jesus and Nelson Mandela.

He has been praised for the rise of soccer in Asia and Africa, who have both hosted their first World Cups on Blatter’s watch, as well as the massive soccer field building program, funded through the Goal Project. But all of that has been drowned out by the FBI investigation.

The only rival still standing against Blatter is Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein. Others have come and gone, such as former Portugal international Luis Figo.

“I have witnessed consecutive incidents, all over the world, that should shame anyone who desires soccer to be free, clean and democratic,” said former Portugal international Luis Figo, who had hoped to stand against Blatter before standing down to give Prince Ali a better chance of winning.

“I have seen with my own eyes federation presidents who, after one day comparing FIFA leaders to the devil, then go on stage and compare those same people with Jesus Christ. Nobody told me about this. I saw it with my own eyes.”

UEFA chief Michel Platini had backed Prince Ali, even though the affable young reformist’s chances of unseating Blatter had been slim.

“He is simply afraid of what is next because he has dedicated his life to FIFA,” Platini said of Blatter in an interview with L’Equipe.

Blatter would have been 83 if he had completed a fifth term.

“People like power and they like the perks that go with it,” said Professor Smith. “It’s very hard to step down from power. Think King Lear. It is difficult to get a soft landing. Death or natural retirement through incapacity is the only reason they will leave.”

With all the negativity, all the abuse, why decide to run again?

“I said this to him: ‘Why are you doing all this? You don’t have to. You could end your career now and live a good life,’” said Pieth, recalling one of his last conversations with Blatter.

“I want to leave through the front door,” Blatter replied, “and leave with a clean house.”

Whether Blatter will achieve both those wishes remains to be seen.

Complete coverage of the FIFA controversy