Sepp Blatter – the man who stayed too long
After 18-years at the helm, FIFA’s eighth President is set to leave the football body facing its worst-ever crisis. Had he stepped down earlier, however, Sepp Blatter’s political epitaph would have been very different.
“My name is Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter.”
It is March 30, 1998 in Paris and I am on one of my first sports assignments. The multilingual Swiss administrator is confirming his candidacy for the FIFA Presidency, flanked by one of the best footballers Europe has produced.
After a meaty media conference in which it is said that Michel Platini, the former footballer, then in the final stages of preparing for a French World Cup, would become “executive sports director” of a Blatter-run FIFA, I remember thinking that the then FIFA general secretary, though not viewed as favourite, was an impressive candidate. Blatter’s declaration paves the way for “a fierce battle” with then UEFA President Lennart Johansson, a short article under my byline stated the following day.
Almost 18 years later and this formidably energetic man, who will turn 80 on March 10, is set – in all probability – to exit the football stage, pursued by many bears.
His legacy is what? An organisation facing an existential crisis.
Distilled down to that single line, his leadership has proved catastrophic for the governing body of the world’s biggest sport.
But by writing his career off in this way – as many no doubt will this week of all weeks – you miss the extraordinary story that has been football over the 40-odd years that Blatter has been part of it, as anything more than a speedy hometown striker said to have been nicknamed “the Uwe Seeler of Upper Valais”.
Football was the first sport to discover the 20th-century equivalent of the philosopher’s stone: it turned the base metal of a trivial weekend pastime for the working man into the gold of a global entertainment industry.
Blatter has been among the sport’s pilots-in-chief pretty much throughout this bumpy but vertiginous ascent and some, such as John Boulter, a former executive of Adidas, the sports goods manufacturer and FIFA sponsor, believe his navigational skills were for the most part both effective and impressive.
“Soccer owes Sepp a huge debt of gratitude,” Boulter says. “He had to live in a system with characters from different cultures, with different values and approaches to how life works. But he held it all together and made it work.
“If any CEO or chairman of the board of a major company had so increased value for his shareholders over 40 years, as Sepp has increased the value of football, he would be lauded as a hero and studied at Harvard Business School.
“Not the Messiah; but not a very naughty boy either.”
Any industry that takes off in this way – from gold mining itself in 19th-century California to new media in more recent times – acts as a magnet for individuals looking to make their fortunes. Football has been no different, as is being demonstrated week after week by the recent cascade of lurid disclosures and allegations.
Blatter is cut from a different cloth. Though he has doubtless enjoyed the comfortable lifestyle that his position and his famously undisclosed salary have allowed, I long ago concluded that the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself is not what makes one of the few sports administrators to have become a household name tick.
It does not surprise me in the least that the allegation that has apparently precipitated his downfall should involve a payment made to someone else, rather than one he received himself.
The keys to understanding Blatter, in my view, are two-fold: a) he loved power far more than he loved wealth; and b) he understood very early that football, far from being trivial, had the power to shape the world in some important ways.
One of his ultimate goals, so it has often been said including by a one-time confidant, was not to have x billion salted away in offshore bank accounts, but to be the first sporting figure to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, understandably, this notion is likely to evince only hollow laughter. But a stubborn belief that it might yet be attainable may be one of the reasons that he stayed on too long.
“I’m a team-player,” he claimed in that 1998 press conference – an assertion he was to repeat 16 years later at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting in Monaco that approved the Agenda 2020 reform proposals.
“I was centre-forward,” he went on. “Number nine, I was always going for goal. But I got the ball from someone.
“I will be a team-player.”
As it turned out, like an ageing striker, he could never quite bring himself to recognise it was time to let someone else start leading the line until it was too late.
Back at the beginning, long before FIFA had money, Blatter was brought into the organisation from the sports timing arm of watchmaker Longines to spearhead implementation of the development agenda that had helped sweep Brazilian João Havelange to power as the body’s first – and still for now only – non-European President.
A letter to national associations outlining the inaugural programme – Project 1 – which was approved by the FIFA Executive Committee (ExCo) in Guatemala City in November 1975, was signed by Blatter in his capacity as development programmes director.
“The intention is that the countries of the third world, Africa, Asia, Oceania and Central America, will reap the most benefit,” the letter explains. “The basic idea is that the privileged associations who set up present standards in the football world put their knowledge and means at the disposal of those who are still at the development stage.”
Project 1 was budgeted at precisely $1,241,700 (£862,022/€1,115,431) – a piffling amount for the bloated colossus that is FIFA today. Yet the 24-page document outlining the programme judges it the sort of sum that the FIFA of four decades ago “with its fairly moderate income” could not fund itself. “It is for this reason that, right from the start of this initiative, it was decided that FIFA would seek patronage for the Project No. 1 in the form of sponsorship.”
Patrick Nally, the sports marketing pioneer who worked closely with Havelange on this and other projects, explains that Project 1 became the FIFA Coca-Cola Development Programme. “Everything in the early days was developed and created by West Nally on behalf of FIFA,” he says.
Nally believes Blatter was “lucky to be in the right place at the right time, in that by administrating the Development Programme he established solid grass-roots relationships, especially in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean”.
By the time Blatter won the top job, amid never-substantiated allegations of vote-buying, two decades later, the efforts of Nally and other sports marketing professionals had combined with mounting competition among broadcasters to put football well on the road to becoming the astonishing money-spinner it is today.
When, after his election, Blatter introduced the Goal Programme, therefore, he was able to tap into FIFA resources – millions and millions of dollars – to actually fund infrastructural development in football around the world.
Of course, by spreading such largesse, you could argue that the new FIFA President was not just building pitches and association headquarters, but cementing his own future. Mihir Bose, the respected sports writer, has described Goal as “the most deeply political project any sports body has ever undertaken”, demonstrating that Blatter “knows how to use his power and position to make sure he always wins elections”. And win them he always did.
The wheels could have come off the Blatter bandwagon comparatively early, in 2001, with the collapse of ISL/ISMM, the sports marketing agencies engaged by FIFA to sell extensive broadcasting and sponsorship rights for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
This collapse was not directly triggered by football: the group’s difficulties arose after it agreed to pay the ATP men’s tennis tour $1.2 billion (£833 million/€1.07 billion) for media rights. Nevertheless, you could argue that FIFA should have seen it coming: the IOC had severed its ties with the agency that had played a key role in the development of the TOP worldwide sponsorship programme in 1996 after a string of senior management departures.
This could easily have cost Blatter the Presidency after just one term had he not acted both decisively and with trademark chutzpah. For a time, it seemed as though the fallout from the crisis would surely overwhelm him. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it was this interlude in FIFA’s turbulent history that showed the Swiss administrator at the top of his game.
He immediately established an in-house marketing company, hiring many of the ISL football team. This held things together for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea just a year later. Since then, FIFA has exploited the extraordinary popularity of this one quadrennial crown jewel to accumulate reserves of more than $1.5 billion (£1.04 billion/€1.3 billion).
Facing an extraordinary Congress to examine the multiple questions raised by ISL, Blatter craftily seized the initiative, using what was supposed to be a perfunctory welcome address to spell out his side of the story. As detailed in a terse three-paragraph media release, delegates “approved by acclamation a resolution stating their full satisfaction with his explanations”.
It was an early illustration of the Swiss showman’s capacity to shape the Congress to his will. A year later, he comfortably defeated a challenge for the Presidency by African Football Confederation (CAF) head – and now acting FIFA President – Issa Hayatou.
But the ISL saga also exposed how the old model of marketing sports rights sometimes involved the payment of commissions to sports officials.
In 2007, I discussed this with Jérôme Valcke, the now banned former FIFA marketing head and general secretary, for an interview published in the Independent on Sunday newspaper. Valcke had been at Canal Plus when it considered rescuing the agency immediately prior to its collapse.
“The old world was the system of commission,” Valcke told me. “Twenty years ago…you were giving commissions to people in order to get market, or to get product, or whatever…The system was maybe changed in the 1990s.”
When I asked him whether, based on what was already a stream of allegations of sleaze and corruption, FIFA was corrupt, the Frenchman told me he had never seen anything that could be characterised that way. “From September 2003 to December 2006, I have never been asked to use commercial rights to please someone from the executive committee. I have never been asked to sell [anything] for less than market value to one of the countries represented by an executive committee member. [I have] never been asked by Blatter or a FIFA member to make [their] political life easier by using our commercial assets.”
Even today, I have seen no convincing suggestion that Blatter himself took commissions, even in the era when the practice was seen as quasi-respectable. But should he have done more to discourage those who did? Was he worried that had he done so, it might have jeopardised his own position?
Blatter’s first term, until 2002, also underlined a problem that was to dog him throughout his Presidency: his inability to control the FIFA ExCo.
This is ultimately a reflection of how most international football, at both club and national-team level, is organised on a continent-by-continent basis. As a result, the sport has particularly strong continental bodies – the six Confederations – which, in many ways, have closer ties to the week-in-week-out club game than FIFA itself.
The source of the problem for Blatter, though – as it would be for any FIFA President with aspirations to be more than a figurehead – was that almost all ExCo members are elected by the Confederations.
This meant, for example, that from Blatter’s perspective, one-third of the members of FIFA’s main executive body were ultimately answerable to an organisation, UEFA, that was presided over until 2007 by the man whom he had prevented from attaining the highest office in world football. In more general terms, practically all his ExCo colleagues were put there by regional organisations whose interests, with the best will in the world, would inevitably diverge from FIFA’s from time to time.
Such a structure can leave even a resourceful master-politician like Blatter looking startlingly impotent. As evidence, you need look only at the first round of voting in the still hugely controversial election to choose a host for the 2022 World Cup, when I believe the FIFA President was alone in casting his ballot for Australia. I am not aware of him ever having confirmed this, but I don’t believe that he voted for Qatar at any point in the four-round contest.
Blatter recognised the problem before he became President. “The Executive Committee should be enlarged,” he argued at that Paris press conference in March 1998. “We want to allow access to representatives from those who play – referees, players, coaches…
“All Confederations,” he went on, “would have the same number of representatives on the committee, apart from acquired rights.”
Yet in more than 17 years at the helm, he did nothing to implement this key reform; with a three-quarter Congressional majority required for statute changes, quite apart from the potential ExCo roadblock, he may have concluded he was powerless to do so. The consequence was that he was still banging on about the issue in his bombshell “laying down my mandate” press conference of June 2, 2015. “The Executive Committee includes representatives of Confederations over whom we have no control, but for whose actions FIFA is held responsible,” he said then.
Over the years, Blatter appeared to adopt a variety of strategems to counter this glaring weak-point in the FIFA President’s armoury.
He, along with trusted lieutenants on the world body’s expanding staff, seemed to know the statutes governing the organisation better than anyone else.
He played brilliantly to successive Congresses, taking advantage of his bond with national associations, especially in Africa, where, over and above the Goal Programme, he was seen widely as the man chiefly responsible for delivering the continent a World Cup.
His choreographic skills remained evident even in the shadow of the police raids last May when he orchestrated a handshake between Israeli and Palestinian officials just before his final electoral showdown with Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan.
He was quite adept at keeping the media wrong-footed, earning a reputation for proffering cheesy quotes and wholly unexpected ideas that, whether deliberately or not, might shift the focus away from less welcome themes.
He maintained good relations with some key ExCo members. Long-time finance committee chair, Julio Grondona, for example, seems consistently to have been a Blatter loyalist. The FIFA President could also rely on the support when it counted, at least until 2011 or thereabouts, of Jack Warner, former finance committee deputy chair and President of the Central and North America and Caribbean Confederation (CONCACAF).
Warner – who was last year banned for life from football-related activity by FIFA’s ethics committee and who is currently fighting extradition from Trinidad and Tobago to the United States to face charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money-laundering which he denies – told me in 2006 when the possibility of a third Blatter term was starting to be debated: “I backed him in 1998 against Johansson and he won. I backed him in 2002 against Hayatou and he won. At this point in time, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t back him.”
Did Warner, whose former CONCACAF Confederation included 35 FIFA member associations, get anything in return for such support?
The Trinidadian himself alleged in 2011 – some months after resigning from FIFA in the wake of a cash-for-votes scandal which led to the downfall of the former Asian football chief and FIFA Presidency candidate Mohamed Bin Hammam – that in 1998, following his support for Blatter, he was sold the World Cup rights for Trinidad and Tobago for $1 (69p/89c) through a Mexican company called OTI.
In 2002, some weeks before the Presidency vote between Blatter and Hayatou, a 21-page ExCo presentation by then FIFA general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who left the organisation in the wake of Blatter’s victory, included the following allegations: “The President has constantly taken decisions which are favourable to the economical interests of Jack Warner and some of his family members, and thus are contrary to the financial interests of FIFA.
“In connection with the TV rights for the World Cup, it has to be underlined that Jack Warner received them at the symbolic price of one dollar through another body for the World Cups 1990/94/98.”
Zen-Ruffinen acknowledged that this allegation related to “the former FIFA administration”, but further alleged that in the end the 2002 World Cup TV rights went to Warner as well.
Some two weeks later, Blatter produced his own 30-page “rectification” of Zen-Ruffinen’s allegations.
“Whether or not Jack Warner acquired the above rights, and the price at which he did so, has nothing to do with FIFA,” the response to these allegations reads.
“Naturally Jack Warner did not acquire the 1990/1994/1998 rights from the former FIFA administration…but from the rights holders, the international TV consortium, in this case OTI.
“The rights for the 2002 FIFA World Cup were not sold by FIFA either, but by the owner, Kirch. FIFA does not influence the rights owner’s choice of sub-licensees…
“Conclusion: The above shows that the FIFA President did not make any decisions in this matter. The general secretary’s statement is without foundation.”
Taken together, the two documents – the product of a state of war between the top two figures in the world’s richest International Sports Federation (IF) – provide some fascinating glimpses into life at FIFA at this time. Take the following, on company cars:
“The secretary to the President received a Mercedes as business car upon the direct intervention of the President even though such benefit was not in compliance with the FIFA policy,” Zen-Ruffinen alleges.
To which Blatter shoots back: “Contrary to the business car scheme, which the general secretary himself approved, his secretary was given a specially equipped Mercedes. His assistant (the sole employee in an assistant capacity to have been given a Mercedes) received an upgrade from the C-class vehicle that he was entitled to, to an E-class model. Since mid-April 2002, the general secretary has provided a second Mercedes (C32 AMG) for his assistant.
“Until the end of April, the general secretary availed himself of two further private cars (Audi A8 and Mercedes C32 AMG) in addition to his private chauffeur, who drives an S-class Mercedes. Until a few weeks ago, the general secretary was the only person within FIFA to have 3 cars at his private disposal.”
To repeat, after 18 years’ observation I have concluded that Blatter loved power more than he loved wealth. It is less than surprising, therefore, that his biggest mistake, like so many top sports officials, was to stay on too long.
As former allies, such as Bin Hammam and Platini, lost patience and became adversaries, or otherwise came to grief, it got lonelier and lonelier at the top for FIFA’s eighth President. The demands of the job were also taking their toll even on a man of his formidable resilience.
The first time I remember thinking this was in December 2009 at a press conference following an unexpectedly taxing ExCo meeting on Robben Island, the prison turned tourist attraction where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years.
The correct moment to have ridden off into the proverbial sunset would have been about a year and a half later, having given Africa the opportunity to prove, with some aplomb, that it was as capable of putting on a compelling World Cup as the next continent.
Nally agrees: “Blatter led a charmed life and would have done better for himself if he left at the South African World Cup, basking in the glory of his achievements,” he told me.
“Staying to Brazil 2014 was a risk; continuing after Brazil lunacy – especially as the decision to have two World Cup bids, 2018 and 2022, simultaneously was asking for trouble.
“Having been so lucky for so many years, it was inevitable that the luck would eventually run out.”
At least the expected passage of the underwhelming reform proposals drawn up by François Carrard’s Confederation-dominated 2016 FIFA Reform Committee should ensure that no future FIFA President is able to outstay his – or just conceivably her – welcome to such a degree.
But what a shame that 18 years after that Paris press conference, another opportunity to loosen the grip of the Confederations has been missed. Unlace the Confederational straightjacket, after all, and you should take away much of the incentive for an ambitious FIFA President to borrow from Machiavelli’s repertoire.
- By David Owen
- Republished with permission insidethegames.biz