Blatter: FIFA’s Supreme Leader triumphs again

If a week is a long time in politics, 6 months is no time at all in the world of international football politics. FIFA president Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter was trained as a young man by timepiece giant Swiss Longines, pedigree watchmaker since 1842. He must have learned a lot about longevity in business and organisational life. But maybe not enough about timing; switching the FIFA Congress to a date a year on from FIFA’s main showcase the World Cup was supposed to take FIFA business matters such as presidential elections away from the limelight and the media glare. But that’s backfired on Blatter, with the storm stemming from the 2018 and 2022 World Cup decisions in December 2010. Blatter was also a protégé of legendary Adidas sport boss Horst Dassler, when world football finances were transformed by Dassler’s dealmaking in the 1970s and 1980s, and FIFA made exclusive partnership deals with Dassler’s organisational baby, International Sport and Leisure (ISL). Dassler trained up Blatter at his Adidas headquarters in Landersheim, in Alsace, France. Blatter speaks of Dassler as a father figure, in unusually hushed respect and awe. Groomed by Dassler, mentored by FIFA president João Havelange, at the heart of FIFA for a third of a century, Blatter knows the arts of survival in the double-dealing world of international football governance.  

Here, I look at a couple of Blatter moments from December 2010 on the way to June 1st 2011, when Blatter secured his fourth term as FIFA president, and then comment on the nature and implications of his re-election.[i]

Zurich, early December 2011 ~ In Tokyo in 1964 FIFA’s president, Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, was busy organising the Olympic football competition. He had other matters on his mind too. FIFA’s membership was expanding, and at the FIFA congress of that year 62 national associations cast their votes for a revolutionary plan for allocating and scheduling World Cup finals. By 55 votes to seven the congress authorised that, in future, the executive committee (Exco) rather than the congress would allocate World Cups.

In Rous’s view, leaving the decision to congress was putting a “strain on friendships” and basing the choice of the hosts “on not wholly relevant issues”. In the cosier climate of world football politics of the time, few saw anything at all odd in the change. Patrician Rous could be trusted and in London’s Royal Garden Hotel two years later his committee confirmed that West Germany (1974), Argentina (1978) and Spain (1982) would be future hosts. Dr João Havelange changed many things when he seized the FIFA presidency from Rous in 1974, committing much to emerging football federations in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean in particular. But the power of the executive committee to award hosting rights remained intact. Rous thought that canvassing for votes would end once the big decision lay in the hands of a few honourable committee members. Havelange, his successor Sepp Blatter and their bloated executive committees have had no such qualms, actually encouraging the likes of the FA to spend lavishly within the bidding process. In 2000, this bought England’s bid for 2006 a respectable five votes in the first round, though this dwindled to two in the second-round knockout stage. 

A decade later, as the UK’s prime minister, heir-to-the-throne-but-one and most glamorous and famous footballer flattered the Exco members at breakfasts and lunches in the swishest hotels in town, they might as well have been blinded by the blizzards blowing outside by the lake. England’s first-round elimination with just two votes was a much worse performance than in 2000: with one low-profile English executive committee member (who unlike his successful counterparts from Russia and Qatar took no part in the final presentation) already in the bag, England’s ill-advised bid for the 2018 World Cup finals garnered just one vote. A relatively conservative estimate of the cost of that vote is £15 million.
England's presentation pitched royalty, politics and celebrity to FIFA, and during its presentation its chief executive oleaginously – or was it sarcastically? – congratulated FIFA General Secretary Jérôme Valcke and his colleagues for the “superb way they've managed this complicated bidding process”. The England delegation wasn't congratulating FIFAcrats when Russia’s name came out of Blatter’s envelope. Vladimir Putin was soon en route to Zürich to thank FIFA, and no doubt his faithful mover and shaker Roman Abramovich, who had been with the bid team. When asked which win pleased him most – getting the 2014 Winter Olympics for Sochi or this World Cup – Putin simply smiled and said how much he likes to win. Russia’s bid prioritised development and new football markets, in a post-communist climate, in the biggest country in the world. It fitted a mission that was laid out in Havelange's manifesto of 1974. England's bid was patronising in at least two ways: offering national associations help from English clubs during the finals; and proposing a Football Utd scheme to match FIFA monies that have been committed to grass-roots and world football development, in effect an economic partnership with much-maligned FIFA.
The England bid looked even sillier as Exco “promises” were counted. “Given the promises that were made to us”, the England bid boss asked, “how could the vote have turned out the way it did?” You couldn’t get much more naive than this in the world of FIFA politics; it’s not a gentleman’s club. Executive committee members have said to me that you always accept a bit of bad to go with all the good and former International Sport and Leisure (ISL) excutive, and architect of UEFA’s Champions League, Jürgen Lenz told me: “FIFA's now so corrupt” that it no longer knows that it’s being corrupt. English prime minister Cameron’s charm and courteousness doesn't work in this world. Heir to the British throne Prince William was out of his depth in far-from-neutral Switzerland. These could never match Machiavelli’s star pupil Blatter. A “wise prince”, recommended Niccolò Machiavelli, makes sure that his citizens “are always and in all circumstances dependent on him and his authority”, so that they will “always be faithful to him”. Insiders reckon that Blatter has at least 148 faithful dependents among FIFA's 208 national associations and many of these are represented by long-serving Exco men from the continental confederations. Russia was always in the driving seat and a Russian victory could keep the rhetoric intact and the accounts books closed. How could a three or four-day England charm offensive have ended any other way than it did on Thursday afternoon?

 

Wales, 14 March 2011 ~ “Fayre and Square” isn't the motto of FIFA. It’s the bargain slogan of the pub chain that includes the New Inn, Langstone, just off the M4 at Newport in south Wales. There's a Wacky Warehouse kids’ area, two dinners for a tenner all day and everyday, and rooms at £49 a night for as many of the family as you could get in there. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) was in town for the first weekend in March, but it wasn’t patronising the New Inn.

Just along the road and up the hill is the Celtic Manor Resort, sprawled across 1400 acres. There, you don't see many kids and it’s nearer £152 a night in the Manor Hotel. That’s where IFAB gathered for the much-awaited annual meeting to decide on goal-line technology and player attire, the main items on the agenda of its 125th Annual General Meeting. Football’s Laws of the Game are actually the product of (and authorised by) IFAB, a body made up of the four UK football associations and FIFA. The board began in 1886, FIFA joined it in a fragile alliance in 1913, and in 1958 current voting rights were approved. In decision-making terms, it’s one vote apiece for the UK associations and four for FIFA; for a proposal to carry, a three-quarters majority must be achieved, six out of eight. So while the guest list at the Celtic Manor numbered 61, for whom Friday night fireworks at Cardiff Castle provided a dazzling welcome evening, just eight men were deciding on whether the game would be better for the introduction of goal-line technology. It was no great surprise when FIFA president Sepp Blatter confirmed that tests with selected companies had proved as yet inconclusive. Turning to new FA chair David Bernstein, Blatter expressed much sympathy for the “blatant” injustice of Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal at South Africa 2010 but, pressed by a Sky Sports News reporter claiming to speak for the wronged England fan, asked for “just a little bit of patience”, what actually amounted to another full year’s testing. David Bernstein was smiling diplomatically, saying that the outcome was not perfect but that the principles supporting the introduction of goal-line technology were wholly accepted by the IFAB; we could be positive about its future. Not imminently though. Any IFAB decision cannot take effect until July 1 following the date of the decision, so a 2012 IFAB decision in February or March is already too late for Euro 2012 in Poland/Ukraine. But roll on Rio – Blatter conceded that Brazil 2014 could herald the end of the over-the-line, in-or-out debates and legends concerning what might have been. Of ten companies, including the FIFA president’s former employee Swiss Longines, three “have a good chance” in the extended test period in live games themselves. And a newcomer, Hawkeye, was also now among the invited companies.

IFAB also ruled on snoods – not allowed, quite simply not permitted in the Laws of the Game. I thumbed through Law 4, looking for what would permit goalie’s caps or anybody’s gloves, neither included in the “basic compulsory equipment of a player”. Sepp and IFAB were a bit quick off the mark here, the FIFA president even suggesting that snood-wearers were endangering their own deaths by strangulation. At such absurd moments you can only wonder how IFAB has survived so long. You have to look at the rituals and protocol of the board. Blatter sits amid generally silent and acquiescent football administrators from the British associations, and guests and partners were well catered for – the Ladies’ Day Agenda took in museums, the Millennium Centre and a tour of the Welsh National Opera. All gathered together again for the Gala Dinner on the Saturday night in the Celtic Manor’s Beaufort Suite, where the SFA president, George Peet, toasted the Queen and Heads of State, the IFA president, Jim Shaw, toasted the Ladies, David Bernstein of the FA toasted the IFAB and host president Phillip Pritchard of the Welsh FA toasted FIFA.

The UK men had five minutes each for these speeches; keeping the proportional principle going, Blatter was allotted 20 minutes for his response. Whatever their private thoughts on FIFA’s modus operandi, the UK men weren’t going to rock this lawmaking boat. Blatter ranged wide in the IFAB press conference, confirming his determination to lead FIFA for a fourth presidential term: “I'm not tired at all … just to make it clear, for my next four years I will dedicate my work to the social and cultural impact of football in society.” Nobody laughed.
The IFAB is seen as the guardian or custodian of the long-established laws of football. It’s a pseudo-independent body that operates essentially as Blatter and FIFA’s lapdog, but allows Blatter to control access to it from within FIFA. It’s the president and the general secretary who are routinely the FIFA men with voting rights, plus two others – the chair of the referees’ committee and a senior vice-president. There’s no transparent route to these positions, they’re effectively in the FIFA president’s gift. Blatter flatters the UK associations and their historical legacy, bankrolls the IFAB and does, for the most part, exactly what he wants.

 

1 June 2011 ~ Three months later, back in Zurich, and the little Swiss has done it again. Faced with what commentators and pundits, and opponents, were calling FIFA’s biggest-ever crisis, his Congress gave him his strongest mandate yet, 186 national associations backing him for his fourth term. The Football Association (England) mustered just 16 allies in its clumsy attempt to postpone the election, in the wake of allegations and counter-allegations of corruption emerging from within the FIFA Executive Committee (Exco), and the withdrawal of Blatter’s rival in the presidential contest. Main sponsors issued soft slaps on the wrists to FIFA, image-cleaning was soon in process, and Blatter marched on. In a FIFA FACTsheet issued by the presidency itself in recent years, the president is confirmed as “the supreme leader of FIFA”. There’s mess to mop up, spin to get right. But does Visa really want the global spotlight on how it shafted MasterCard  to become a primary World Cup sponsor? Wouldn’t Adidas be a little embarrassed were its close dealings with FIFA Exco personnel past and present – including outgoing committee member Franz Beckenbauer – subjected to close scrutiny? There’s work to be done to deal with the allegations of corruption, without undermining the credibility of, or alienating, powerful continental confederations whose presidents have faced and continue to face investigation by FIFA’s ethics committee. But as Machiavelli wrote nearly 500 years ago, the “wise prince” creates dependencies, and prefers to be feared than loved. Blatter may look like a bit-part actor in a comic opera; underestimate him, though, at your cost.


[i] These pieces were initially written for the WSC Daily in When Saturday Comes: ‘FIFA’s executive committee unimpressed by celebrity’, 6th December 2010; and ‘Sepp Blatter’s archaic British lapdog does his bidding’, 14th March 2011. See WSC.

 

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