Listen to Stefan Fatis discuss Sepp Blatter’s resignation on a special episode of Hang Up and Listen:
In the months before the United States would host the 1994 World Cup, Sepp Blatter was angling to take over international soccer’s ruling body. The Brazilian strongman João Havelange had run FIFA for 20 years, and Blatter, who had risen to second in command, was growing impatient. At meetings of soccer’s African and European nations, Blatter campaigned against his mentor, “whispering in delegates’ ears that the old man had had a fine run, done a marvelous job for the game but now, at 78 for goodness sake, surely it was time to go,” investigative reporter Andrew Jennings wrote in his 2006 expose, Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals.
Surely it was time to go. Soccer executives, players, journalists, and fans had said the same thing about Blatter himself almost since the day he ascended to the FIFA presidency in 1998 and, like Havelange before him, presided over two decades of almost nonstop scandal. Scandal in his own election and four re-elections. Scandal in the voting for every World Cup awarded under his watch. Scandal in the handling of the billions of dollars in marketing, television, and licensing money that course through FIFA.
It took the unlikely intervention of American prosecutors, but the time to go finally arrived on Tuesday, and Blatter’s announcement met nearly universal glee. “He hasn’t been honorable in years,” Greg Dyke, the chairman of England’s powerful Football Association, told the BBC. “He’s stood down. He’s gone. Let’s celebrate.” Now, as the gloating over Blatter’s public Sepp-uku dies down, three questions predominate: How did he stay in power for so long? Why did he finally agree to leave? And what does it mean for the future of international soccer?
Blatter’s often clownish 17-year reign was mainly about the diffuse structure and opaque and unregulated operation of international sports bureaucracies. FIFA includes 209 nations, territories, and principalities (compared with 122 when Havelange was first elected in 1974). Revenue is funneled from FIFA’s central office in Zurich, Switzerland, to its members: to build fields and offices, to train players, to host tournaments. As last week’s indictment of 14 FIFA executives and associates demonstrates, how that money—more than $5 billion in revenue in the four years before the last World Cup in 2014—is distributed and spent isn’t always rigorously accounted for.
By bestowing FIFA’s largesse on needier soccer countries—and reminding them at ribbon cuttings and banquets who gave it to them—Blatter secured his perch atop FIFA’s mountain of gold and the lavish and cloistered lifestyle it afforded. Logically there’s little reason to believe a FIFA without Blatter would have ceased aiding lesser soccer nations. But under Blatter the patronage was easy, and loyalty ran deep among many of its beneficiaries, especially in Africa and Asia.
Even after the Justice Department handed up its racketeering, wire fraud, and conspiracy charges, Blatter still had enough traction among supplicants to gain re-election. And enough hubris to proclaim, “I am now the president of everybody!” And enough chutzpah to taunt Attorney General Loretta Lynch and, in the time-honored tradition of populist dictators everywhere, blame Western governments and media for his woes. And, finally, enough blinkered delusion to believe he was untouchable. “Why would I step down?” he said. “That would mean I recognize that I did wrong.”
What Blatter didn’t do is signal that he was planning to pull himself out of the game. On the contrary, it sounded as if he considered the U.S. case an annoyance that could be dismissed with FIFA’s usual strategies: promises of reform and purple rhetoric about the unifying power of football. (Not for nothing is FIFA’s $27 million propaganda film starring Tim Roth and Gérard Depardieu, exquisitely scheduled for New York release this Friday, titled United Passions.) But then, before a handful of reporters in a hastily called news conference at FIFA headquarters, Blatter announced, in FIFA newspeak, that “I have decided to lay down my mandate”—that is, resign.
So what made Blatter jump? He didn’t say, but three factors, or some combination thereof, could have forced his hand. One is FIFA’s sponsors. When the International Olympic Committee was engulfed in a scandal over bribery and graft in the bidding for the 2002 Winter Games, which went to Salt Lake City, Utah, reform happened at the point of a bayonet wrapped in dollar bills. The most outspoken corporate executive was David D’Alessandro, the president of John Hancock, the life insurance company. Rather than issuing gently worded pleas for change, D’Alessandro went scorched-earth, calling for the resignation of the then-head of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, and removing the IOC logo from Hancock advertising. “If they attempt to simply line up 12 IOC members and shoot them and think they can go back to Switzerland, they’re wrong,” D’Alessandro said at the time.
It’s conceivable that Coke, Visa, Budweiser, McDonald’s, and other FIFA sponsors, who accounted for $1.6 billion in FIFA revenue in the last World Cup cycle, privately pressed for Blatter’s head. But FIFA has placated sponsors with pledges of reform before. And unlike the IOC, a marketing organization for an event held every two years, FIFA’s commerce and competition is a 24/7/365 phenomenon; bolting from soccer isn’t an appealing option for companies with so much advertising wrapped around the pitch. After Blatter’s announcement sponsors released anodyne, jargon-filled statements calling for “transparency” and “ethical practices.” No, it doesn’t sound as if FIFA’s sponsors were leading the charge.
A second possibility is that Blatter was confronted with a solid business plan for a breakaway organization. That would have required 40 or 50 countries fed up with Blatter—including European and South American powers like Germany, England, Italy, the Netherlands, and Argentina—plus economic forces the United States, Japan, and South Korea, and others like Australia, Canada, and Mexico. FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver wrote last week that FIFA’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member nations would account for about 60 percent of the World Cup audience weighted for gross domestic product and 80 percent of World Cup club-team players and would be more than strong enough to topple the status quo. In the Washington Post, Tufts University international politics professor Daniel Drezner argued that the group would need to be larger—with most of South America for competitive credibility and “large developing countries that don’t benefit as much from Blatter’s largesse: China, India, Indonesia, etc.”—and would need to woo developing soccer nations with the promise of continued funding.
But the head of Europe's football confederation, former French star Michel Platini, apparently rejected an English suggestion to boycott the 2018 World Cup, to be held in Russia, and a Danish proposal to organize a rival tournament. Those reports came before Blatter’s announcement on Tuesday. It’s unlikely that a coalition of the soccer willing could have been formed in time for Blatter to feel threatened.
That leaves one likely reason for his 180: the Feds. On Monday night the New York Times reported that investigators had linked Blatter’s No. 2, Jérôme Valcke, to $10 million in alleged bribes connected to votes for the 2010 World Cup, which was awarded to South Africa, that were detailed in the U.S. indictment. The next morning England’s Press Association got hold of a letter authorizing the transactions that was addressed to Valcke.
That wasn’t necessarily a smoking gun, but the trail was getting closer to Blatter. If the Swiss national last week believed he was above U.S. law—“I have especially no concerns about my person,” he said—by Monday his lawyers might have told him he shouldn’t be so sure. Indeed, after Blatter’s resignation, the Times reported that U.S. law enforcement officials were “hoping to win the cooperation of some of the FIFA officials now under indictment and work their way up the organization.” ABC News quoted a source saying, “Now that people are going to want to save themselves, there’s probably a race to see who will flip on [Blatter] first.”
Armed with that news, it’s conceivable that Blatter’s attorneys began negotiating a deal with U.S. authorities. And it’s conceivable negotiations started with a suggestion that Blatter resign. That’s speculation. But it seems more plausible than a historically stubborn Blatter voluntarily stepping down because, as he said, he was “reflecting deeply” about his career at FIFA and wanted to do “what is best for FIFA and for football.” Like many public figures, Blatter is most honest when speaking extemporaneously and least when reading from a script. His defiant, smug, loopy, rambling, crazy-old-man speech after his re-election last week—“Let’s go FIFA! Let’s go FIFA!” he cheered giddily—was the Sepp I know and love.
What seems odd is that the Feds would let Blatter stay in office, as he said he would, until a replacement is found. If FIFA is to be believed, that could take till next spring. But maybe Blatter is useful there: embarrassed, wounded, under figurative house arrest in FIFA’s $184 million headquarters with aluminum walls and lapis lazuli floors. As he has done many times in the past, Blatter in his resignation speech promised “far-reaching, fundamental reforms that transcend our previous efforts.” Then he introduced Domenico Scala, a Swiss-Italian businessman who has headed a FIFA committee on audit and compliance since 2012 and has at least seemed aware of the organization’s problems. Scala said FIFA would “re-examine the way in which it is structured” and that “nothing will be off the table.” He offered nonspecific “integrity reforms” and modest practical ones like making public the salaries of top FIFA officials.
Blatter’s remarks and Scala’s shovel brigade sounded like a desperate attempt by FIFA to save itself. Indeed, Blatter’s goal now might be to preserve as much of the organization and his legacy as possible—from FIFA’s benevolence toward developing nations to the tainted 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which is threatened by the U.S. investigation and mounting human rights concerns over the treatment of migrant workers. Lists and odds of potential Blatter successors are already being drawn up, by oddsmakers and the media. Almost every name is a current FIFA or soccer industry insider, all of whom have been touched by dealings with Blatter. And almost every story assumes a new leader will be elected via the same one-country, one-vote system that has fostered FIFA’s culture of corruption.
If that system remains, there’s little chance many of its abusers will change. “The key is you have a congress of 209 member nations, 180 of which have their hand up,” says Doug Logan, a former commissioner of Major League Soccer. “What’s Frank Zappa’s best album? We’re Only In It for the Money.” Logan thinks the way to reform world soccer is to clean it out entirely, with a new boss from outside—ideally a lawyer with experience in a major sports organization and at least some familiarity with soccer, who would be given “plenipotentiary powers and four or five really good forensic accountants and half a dozen Kroll security guys.”
And after that? University of Michigan sports management professor Stefan Szymanski, author of Money and Soccer: A Soccernomics Guide, suggests splitting FIFA into a publicly owned corporation that runs the World Cup and a charity that distributes aid to members. No matter the new structure, though, the challenge is that the blazers entrenched in FIFA and the international football business—the ones who aren’t indicted or booted, anyway—will try to hold on to their golden key rings for as long as possible. “The gangsters think they can manage the transition,” Andrew Jennings, the investigative reporter, told me in an email. “We cannot let the son of Gotti take charge.”
Blatter’s demise is owed in no small measure to Jennings’ work—his book Foul!; a 2006 BBC documentary, The Beautiful Bung: Corruption and the World Cup; a 2014 e-book, Omertà: Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Organized Crime Family. He says he gave the FBI and IRS documents detailing FIFA financial shenanigans, and he asserted last week, correctly, that Blatter was a target. After the FIFA leader went down, Jennings took a victory lap, reveling in the comeuppance of the quintessential sporteaucrat and his self-aggrandizing organization. “I know that they are criminal scum and I’ve known it for years,” Jennings said in a profile in the Washington Post. “These scum have stolen the peoples’ sport. They’ve stolen it, the cynical thieving bastards. So, yes, it’s nice to see the fear on their faces.”