ZURICH — Meet Sepp Blatter. Still the most powerful man in the world’s most popular game, scandal be damned.
You could also call the 79-year-old Swiss national a survivor, after he clung to his job as FIFA’s president Friday. He won a fifth term despite a week marked by arrests, investigations in the United States and Switzerland and questions about whether he was the right man to rebuild the reputation of soccer’s governing body.
It wasn’t a slam dunk, and Blatter failed to get the required 140 votes in the first round of voting to prevail. (He got 133, compared to 73 for Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein.) But with the writing on the wall — since Blatter would only need a simple majority of votes in the next round to win — Prince Ali conceded.
“I take the responsibility to bring back FIFA,” Blatter said, promising he would leave after his four-year term ends. “And I am convinced we can do it.”
Just how did Blatter survive?
He is a masterful political operator and his knack for getting off clean amid scandal — or at least without being directly tied to wrongdoing in the soccer world — is uncanny.
Then there’s the matter of the voters and their loyalties to Blatter.
Part of it is the system itself: There are 209 member associations within FIFA, and each of their votes counts the same. That means a vote from China, with about 1.4 billion citizens, carries the same weight as a vote from the Cook Islands, with about 11,000 citizens.
And, corruption or not, the FIFA gravy train provides quite a bit of gravy. The organization’s executive committee members get $300,000 a year plus $500 per day for expenses. If you’re on official FIFA business, you can expect flying first class and staying in five-star hotels.
The member associations benefit big-time, including $500,000 payouts linked to World Cup profits. That’s a sizable chunk of change that goes a lot further in places where there are fewer people to share it.
No surprise, then, that many of these organizations — especially in Africa, Asia and the Americas — have been loyal to Blatter, given his commitment to divvying up the largesse of FIFA, which has $1.5 billion in the bank.
Blatter said ‘evolution,’ not ‘revolution’ needed
Blatter didn’t mention such (perfectly legal) perks in the run-up to Friday’s election, though he did reference the recent investigations, asserting that alleged corruption at FIFA was a result of “a few” individuals, not the whole organization.
“I’m willing to accept that the president of FIFA is responsible for everything, but I would like to share that responsibility with you,” he told voters at the 65th FIFA World Congress. “We cannot possibly supervise everybody that’s in football.”
The soccer world, more than ever, needs “needs a strong (and) experienced leader” like himself to restore trust, Blatter argued. He urged voters to give him a chance to do that, but didn’t promise any sweeping reforms.
“We don’t need a revolution,” he said. “But we still need, and always need, evolution.”
Entering this week, there’d been little doubt Blatter would extend his 17 years on the job. Yes, FIFA and soccer officials generally had been tied to plenty of sketchy antics. But none of it seemed to stick to the top dog.
But the announcement Wednesday that U.S. authorities had indicted nine FIFA officials as well as five sports media and marketing executives over alleged kickbacks of more than $150 million dating back more than 20 years changed the narrative. So, too, did Swiss authorities announcement the same day that they were conducting their own investigation into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process.
Suddenly, it seemed, Jordan’s Prince Ali had a chance. Granted some groups — like the Asian Football Confederation and Confederation of African Football, with 100 votes between them — stood by Blatter. But many others stepped away from him.
In his own speech Friday to voters, Prince Ali referenced criticism that FIFA is “morally bankrupt” and an “avaricious body that feeds off the game the world loves.” Big change — including at the top — is needed, he said.
“I will not hide among your ranks when things are bad, stepping forward when things are good,” he said. “If you give me the honor of your vote, I will take full responsibility and hold myself accountable to all of you and to the world.”
European football chief had vowed action if Blatter wins
Prince Ali’s pitch wasn’t enough.
One thing that definitely won’t change on Sepp Blatter’s watch, he insisted Friday, is the location of next two World Cups.
That is 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar, an Arab nation with little soccer history, scorching summer temperatures (which have spurred the event’s start date to be moved) and, according to many observers, questionable labor practices — hundreds of workers, mostly foreign, have died in the rush to build stadiums there.
But even with Blatter living to see another day, how hurt will FIFA be by this whole ordeal?
There’s talk that big companies like Visa and Coca-Cola could abandon their sponsorships of events such as the World Cup because of the corruption cloud.
Political leaders, especially in Europe, don’t seem likely to embrace Blatter after his win. British Prime Minister David Cameron went so far Friday as to say Blatter “should go.”
“You can’t have accusations of corruption at this level and on this scale in this organization and pretend the person currently leading it is the right person to take it forward,” Cameron said.
Michel Platini — president of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body — said after a meeting Thursday that he’d asked Blatter to leave, only to be told it was “too late.”
The former French national player said that, if Blatter was re-elected, European nations could take action of their own. Some have even advocated for Europe and its sporting allies to pull out of FIFA entirely.
So what do they do now? The ball may be in Europe’s possession, but — for now, at least — it still belongs to Sepp Blatter.