A day after FIFA officials were hauled from their hotel rooms by Swiss police in the greatest corruption scandal yet to hit world soccer’s governing body, its embattled leader Sepp Blatter refused to be deterred in his bid for a fifth term as president. While not personally implicated in the U.S. Department of Justice-led arrests of nine FIFA officials and five sports media executives on racketeering, conspiracy and corruption charges, Blatter has faced strong calls not only for Friday’s presidential election to be postponed but for him to stand down.
The 79-year-old Swiss held an emergency meeting with representatives of the six regional soccer confederations on Thursday, during which the president of Europe’s governing body, Michel Platini, requested a one-on-one discussion. Once seen as Blatter’s heir apparent, but in recent years his most prominent opponent, Platini said he asked him to resign but was told “it is too late.” The former France national team great went on to state that he was “disgusted” by the scandal that landed in Zurich just days ahead of the presidential election and after a more than three-year investigation by the FBI. Notably he also refused to rule out a UEFA boycott of future World Cups if Blatter remained in charge.
But, speaking in public for the first time since the arrests, Blatter again stressed that, not only could he not be held responsible for the alleged illegal practices involving the awarding of World Cup and their media rights, but that he was the man to reform FIFA’s culture.
“I know many people hold me ultimately responsible for the actions and reputation of the global football community,” he said at the opening of the FIFA Congress. “I cannot monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong they will also try to hide it.
“Tomorrow, the congress, we have the opportunity to begin on what will be the long and difficult road to rebuilding trust. We have lost their trust, at least part of it, and we must earn it back through the decisions we make, through the expectations we place on each other and through the way we behave individually.”
Blatter will go head-to-head with Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan in Friday’s election, when, other than those officials charged, there will be a full turnout of delegates. There had been talk that UEFA would boycott the election entirely, but a meeting of the 54 European confederations concluded with Platini stating that “a big, big majority of European associations” would vote for Blatter’s sole rival. It has long been known that Platini was backing an opponent to Blatter, with support uniting behind Prince Ali after the recent withdrawals of former Portugal star Luis Figo and Dutch FA president Michael van Praag.
However, despite the latest scandal to hit FIFA under Blatter’s controversy-laded 17-year tenure and Platini’s expressed hope that many would follow UEFA’s lead, support outside of Europe for Prince Ali appears to remain slim. The Confederation of African Football reiterated that they remain fully behind the current president.
“At the confederation meeting held on Wednesday, 27 May 2015 in Zurich, CAF reiterated its support for the candidacy of incumbent Joseph Sepp Blatter during the election,” the organization said in a statement.
The Asian Football Confederation voiced a similar message.
“The AFC reiterates its decision taken at the AFC Congress in Sao Paulo in 2014, endorsed at subsequent Congresses in Melbourne and Manama in 2015, to support FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter,” their statement read.
Between the African and Asian confederations there are 103 votes of the 105 majority required to ultimately win the election. Even if some national associations, as Asia member Australia has already vowed, do not follow their confederation’s lead, it remains a tall order for Prince Ali. Even within UEFA he is set to miss out on at least one vote. Russia president Vladimir Putin, whose country will host the 2018 World Cup, has accused U.S. officials of attempting to derail Blatter’s re-election hopes.
“This is yet another clear attempt by the USA to extend its jurisdiction to other states,” he said in a televised interview. “And I have no doubt it’s a clear attempt to prevent the reelection of Mr. Blatter as president of FIFA, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organizations.”
Despite everything, Blatter looks set to cling to power, much to the frustration of his long-term opponents who hoped that Wednesday’s dramatic events could finally be enough to unseat him.
“There’s a feeling of impotence in the European football associations because they believe Blatter is going to sail through and be elected,” Guardian reporter David Conn told Sky News from Zurich.
Even should he prevail, pressure on Blatter to lead a reformed organization will be stronger than ever. The threat from U.S. officials that Wednesday’s arrests were only the beginning of their operation will ring loudly around FIFA’s headquarters, particularly having seen the swiftness and firmness of their actions in disturbing their five-star luxury lifestyles. Meanwhile, Swiss authorities have launched a separate investigation into the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar.
For some the stain of corruption on FIFA is already too much to bear. David Gill, the former chief executive of Manchester United, who was due to take up his position as a vice president on the FIFA executive committee on Friday, has said he will not now do so if Blatter stays in power.
More significantly, FIFA’s sponsors, which generated $1.6 billion for the organization between 2011 and 2014, have begun to sound a stronger tone. Credit card giant Visa warned that if FIFA fail to make changes “we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.“
Coca-Cola, meanwhile, stated that the “lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup and we have repeatedly expressed our concerns about these serious allegations.”