The hammer came down on FIFA on Wednesday from the U.S. Justice Department, alleging widespread corruption, racketeering and money laundering among top executives over the past two decades. Yet on Friday, the man who has presided over those officials as the head of world soccer’s governing body since 1998 is a strong favorite to be re-elected as president for another four years.
Despite FIFA's greatest scandal yet, Joseph S. Blatter remains seemingly untouchable. He is the Teflon Don who rules over the world’s most popular sport. The scene in Zurich on Wednesday may have more in keeping with a mafia-movie cliché than “something out of North Korea,” as chairman of the English Football Association Greg Dyke famously described one recent FIFA congress.
Having picked a time when as many of the accused parties as possible would be gathered under one roof, Swiss authorities launched a dawn raid at the Baur Au Lac hotel, removing officials from their customary five-star accommodations and taking them under bedsheets into unmarked cars. In all, charges were leveled against 14 officials, nine of whom are FIFA executives either past or present, relating to allegations that more than $150 million was pocketed in kickbacks for awarding World Cup as well as marketing and media deals.
Two of those arrested, and who now face extradition to the U.S., are current FIFA vice-presidents Jeffrey Webb and Eugenio Figueredo. The scandal could not have come any closer to Blatter’s door, yet he was not named in any of the allegations. Hours after the raid, FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio was put before the media and stated that “[Blatter] is not involved at all.”
As has been the case in many of FIFA's scandals in the 17 years Blatter has led the organization, there is no evidence of Blatter being personally corrupt. And, despite the fact that he presided over an organization containing criminal activity on a scale to warrant the head of the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI and IRS appearing before the media on Wednesday, that could be enough to keep him in power.
Indeed, the FIFA machine was quick to spin the arrests and subsequent announcement that Swiss authorities had launched a separate criminal investigation into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively, as a victory for the cleaning-up process led by Blatter.
“He’s not dancing in his office,” de Gregorio said. “He’s just very calm. He is fully cooperative with everybody. He knows this is the consequence that we initiated. It’s a surprise that it happened today, but it’s not a surprise that it’s happened."
“This for FIFA is good. It’s not good in terms of image, it’s not good in terms of reputation, but in terms of cleaning up, in terms of everything we did in the last four years, in terms of the reform process, this is good.”
So far, FIFA insists that its presidential election, where Blatter had been expected to triumph over just one challenger, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, will go ahead. “One thing has nothing to do with the other,” said De Gregorio.
Four years ago, Blatter faced no challenger at all, it was merely a coronation for what he said at the time would be his final term as leader. Yet here he remains, ready for more. His untouchable status led one Guardian columnist to call him “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century.”
Just last month, Blatter was compared to Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Jesus by the president of the Dominican Republic Football Association, Osiris Guzman. It is easy to see why Dyke, one of the few prominent public critics of Blatter, invoked a North Korea leadership convention.
So how has Blatter attracted such fervent support and maintained power for so long, despite being so deeply unpopular among many and presiding over a regime rife with such alleged corruption? Much of it comes down to the fact that each of the 209 FIFA member associations from every corner of the globe gets the same one vote for president. American Samoa has the same power as Brazil.
For those small nations with little chance of ever earning the riches that come from qualifying for the World Cup, the annual handout of $250,000 for every member nation is a powerful incentive not to change from the status quo. In addition, associations can also apply to FIFA’s Goal Project for special financial support, while earlier this year Blatter announced every FIFA member participating in qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup would be given a bonus of $300,000.
There are ample allegations that those loyal to Blatter can be richly rewarded personally, too, by lucrative posts high up at FIFA. One of those was Webb, a lawyer from the Cayman Islands who rose to FIFA’s upper echelons and who Blatter anointed in 2013 as a possible successor as president but who now finds himself in custody.
Blatter carries huge support in Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania -- confederations that often vote in blocks. The main dissenting voice has consistently come from Europe, particularly following Blatter’s decision to stand for re-election and the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and its subsequent move to winter, throwing the European club calendar into disarray.
Yet the voices calling for established European soccer nations like Germany, Italy, France and England to use their power and take control of FIFA will only encourage the rest of the world to stand behind Blatter. To understand his power, you also have to recognize that FIFA was no nirvana before control was taken away from Europe, first by Brazilian João Havelange -- who was himself implicated in a corruption scandal -- and then by his protégé, Blatter.
Englishman Stanley Rous reigned over FIFA between 1961 and 1974 and kept it a European-dominated organization. With the World Cup final phase kept restricted to just 16 nations, countries outside Europe and South America were given precious little chance to make the tournament. At the same time, Rous consistently supported apartheid South Africa’s right to remain a FIFA member. Some of those still involved in FIFA today are old enough to have been around at that time, and they have long memories.
It was only under Havelange, and with Blatter as his general secretary, that the game became truly globalized and the sponsorship and media revenue made FIFA a financial behemoth.
Yet on Wednesday, what had long been known was confirmed, that much of that wealth earmarked for soccer development across the globe had been skimmed off the top to benefit individuals rather than children with little but the dream of one day running onto a field at a World Cup. The news of corruption will hardly be anything new to those who planned to vote for Blatter in Zurich on Friday, but the specter of the full force of the law in the United States closing in on FIFA headquarters will surely invoke plenty of jitters around the voting room. And it undoubtedly poses the greatest threat yet to Blatter’s iron-clad grip on power.
But, if his reign has taught us anything, it’s that it would be wrong to ever doubt the ability of soccer’s great survivor.