FIFA and Leadership: The Fall of Sepp Blatter

As FIFA approaches its most open presidential election in its history, scheduled for Friday February 26th 2016 in Zurich, perhaps this could be the end of the road for the dynastic excesses of its last two presidents – a good time to reflect on the fundamental flaws of its leadership.

At the beginning of June 2015 Joseph “Sepp” Blatter fell on his sword four days after securing a fifth term as president of FIFA, the world’s governing body of soccer. The sword was a blunt one; he did not resign, but reaffirmed his position as caretaker president, looking to usher in a successor as president at a special Congress, later confirmed for February 2016. In early October though he was hauled from his presidential suite at the Home of FIFA in Zurich when FIFA’s own Ethics Committee suspended him for 90 days, enabling the investigation of dubious financial arrangements between him and the European football federation’s president, French footballing legend Michel Platini. An early Christmas present arrived for Blatter on December 21st with FIFA’s announcement that he and Platini would both be banned for 8 years from all football-related activity. 

For 17 years as president Blatter has consolidated a fiefdom framed according to the Swiss Civil Code’s not-for-profit model of an association, calling for minimal organizational structure comprising just a president, secretary, treasurer and a membership assembly working to agreed statutes, all lightly monitored by Swiss regulators. Blatter, a careerist Swiss marketing man, knew this system well, having joined FIFA in 1975, and initially his survival skills looked to be unmatched. But eventually, with successive crises and revelations sparking moral and ethical challenges of increasing volume, intensity and geographical and political reach, the voices of critique and opposition become deafening. I watched him smooth and manipulate his way to power in Paris’s Equinox hall in 1998, and have monitored his strategies and machinations since, even as he calls in the lawyers to look for every loophole that might allow him to leave FIFA on his own terms. 

In the end, then, what went wrong for Blatter? A good counsel might have alerted Blatter, but, like Machiavelli’s Prince, his power was long based upon the cultivation of fear rather than love. And fear of course curbs voices. The new FIFA president, scheduled for election on February 26th, would do well to take heed of Blatter’s leadership follies and overall abuse of the presidential position. Here I consider just four such abuses.

First, Blatter mixed and confused presidential responsibilities with the executive role. This may be a common confusion in business but Blatter took it to its extremes. In seeking to micro-manage a growing portfolio and expanding workforce, he never enabled employees within the organization to their full potential, or delegated responsibilities in any meaningful way. His was a regime of claustrophobic mismanagement, premised on a sense of his own omnipotence. He cultivated cabals, hugely effective for periods, but with a built-in fragility and a tendency to implode.

The F-Crew (or Führensgruppe as FIFA insiders named Blatter’s informal advisory group of the early 2000s) comprised aides, consultants and advisers to the FIFA President, most with no formal position in the organization. This bypassed official bodies and formal channels, marginalizing the Executive Committee (ExCo) and creating deep dissatisfaction within FIFA. Blatter’s style might work on the small-scale but, as became clear, not the larger scale of a continually evolving worldwide operation.

Second, in most organizations at points of crisis there a whistleblower eventually emerges, sufficiently disillusioned to speak out. Blatter, accustomed to unchecked and unadulterated power, began to assume that fear lasts forever. He mentored ineffectively, creating a culture of resentful acquiescence but in recent years more former FIFA insiders have looked willing to overcome their fear and talk more openly about their how FIFA has conducted its business. Blatter for years induced the silence of such figures, one former member of the Führensgruppe departing with a reputed 8 million Swiss Francs gagging payoff. But when the disillusion spread, a silence based upon fear, threat and payoffs became harder to enforce.

Third, Blatter believed that as leader he could pick and choose areas of moral responsibility. He claimed that he could not monitor everybody all of the time, that corrupt practices across the other side of the world were not his responsibility. He consistently stated that it was not his job to keep continental confederations such as CONCACAF (Caribbean, Central and North Americas) “under control”. It took until 2004 for FIFA to institute an ethics process/committee, and this vacuum encouraged and sustained ethical contradictions and malpractices that, alongside the leader’s lack of moral responsibility, set the tone for a culture routinely lacking in transparency and accountability. FIFA representatives and committee members could exploit opportunities for personal gain unhindered by internal monitoring or institutional accountability.

But for the FBI, and the US tax and legal authorities, FIFA is not defined merely by the tenets of the Swiss Civil Code. It is an “enterprise”, a RICO (Racketeering-Influenced Corrupt Organization). The US indictments of 14 FIFA-connected individuals on May 27th 2015 ignored the Swiss model and imposed another definition of FIFA as an endemically corrupt organization and network. Blatter’s deflection of responsibility for the acts of others looked absurd, his leadership exposed as morally bankrupt.

And, fourth, Blatter began to believe in his own infallibility and took FIFA’s partners for granted. As the cash cow that is FIFA’s men’s World Cup gained dramatically in value (72% of FIFA’s revenue of more than US$5.7 billion for the cycle 2011-14 was from marketing and television partners, almost wholly generated by that single event), the product looked lucrative, assured: higher global media audiences, contented broadcasters and sponsors. It seemed there was little to do to sustain this beyond feeding and milking the cashcow. But FuckFIFA and FIFAgoHome slogans and posters at the Brazil World Cup in 2014 began to supplant FIFA’s idealistic slogan “For the Game. For the World”. Greed, exploitation, arrogance and corruption were the rebranding themes. Routinely timid corporate sponsors began to make stronger-sounding statements, tokenistic statements from inside Blatter’s FIFA no longer reassuring them, though the broadcast organizations remained revealingly mute. Despite lifetime’s experience of working with partners, but showed neglect bordering on contempt for such key relationships.   

What can leaders learn from Blatter’s fall? First, rather than blurring presidential and executive roles, he could have sought to share power, to work with an active and engaged ExCo. Second, he could have built an organizational culture of encouragement and aspiration, fuelling collective and collaborative debate, stimulating innovative thinking on suited to FIFA’s new riches, global reach and a humanitarian redistributive potential. Third, he could have – way before the introduction in 2004 of an ethics process that began to operate as a combination of show–trial and cover-up – displayed a genuine commitment to moral responsibilities and ethical principles. Fourth, Blatter’s FIFA could have worked with its partners, particularly the sponsors but also the broadcasters, to realize an organizational and shared vision, to look for instance to translating CSR-speak into an innovative message of positive collaboration in a troubled world.

But Blatter, for so long critiqued by few and checked by no-one, did none of these; the consequence was a dictatorial regime, increasingly crisis-ridden, but sustained into five presidential terms by a lax Swiss polity and a fearful, silent chorus of sycophants. Blatter’s predecessor as president, Brazilian João Havelange, held the presidency for six terms from 1974, his five re-elections being uncontested. Blatter had inherited and consolidated a dictatorial model of the presidency, based on silence and collusion and embedded corruption. FIFA’s ninth president would do well to learn from the mistakes, excesses and follies of the disgraced Swiss.

January 2016

Alan Tomlinson is Professor of Leisure Studies, College of Arts and Humanities, University of Brighton UK. He is author of FIFA: The Men, the Myths and the Money (Routledge, 2014). His book, Badfellas: FIFA Family at War (Mainstream, 2003, with John Sugden) is to be republished in 2016 by Routledge as Football, Corruption and Lies: Revisiting “Badfellas”, the Book that FIFA tried to Ban.