Sepp Blatter Is the King of World Cup Jerks

Slate's soccer blog.
July 15 2014 4:04 PM

Sepp Blatter Is the King of World Cup Jerks

FPR62108BLATTER20PRESS.jpg
Contemplating his next jerky move.

Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images

Even though the World Cup is over, the World Cup Jerk Watch series would not be complete without one final jerk, the biggest in all of soccer, and perhaps the entire world of sports.

Name: Sepp Blatter

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Home country: Switzerland

Known for: Sexism, homophobia, denying the existence of racism in soccer, building giant stadiums where they don’t belong on the dime of poor communities, running an endemically corrupt organization for decades like a dictator.

Why he might be a jerk: Too many reasons to count. Let’s start with two: sexism and corruption. When Blatter was asked by a female reporter on Monday about his organization’s blatant history of corruption, he shut her down with the churlish and disrespectful, “Listen, lady, when you speak about corruption, then you have to present evidence.”

She might have responded by listing the seemingly unending litany of corruption allegations against the organization Blatter has run since 1998 and has been an official at since 1975. She could have started with this just-ended World Cup and the police allegations of an illegal ticket sales scheme by FIFA’s ticketing and hospitality partner, a company in which Blatter’s nephew has a minority stake. Blatter presided over the decision to hand the £342 million contract to his nephew’s company back in 2007, and it wasn’t the first time he was alleged to have funneled cash to that particular family member.

Then there are the allegations that a now disgraced Qatari ex-soccer official spent millions to influence the decision to hand Qatar the 2022 World Cup despite its history of human rights abuses, lack of infrastructure, and dangerous heat levels. Former U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia is currently doing an internal investigation for FIFA of how that tournament was awarded, and is expected to file a report in the coming weeks.

Perhaps it’s just a crazy coincidence, but Blatter has a long history of seeing corrupt former loyalists fall by the wayside the moment they threaten his rule. That Qatari ex-official, for one, was a former Blatter ally who was alleged to have used bribes to help secure Blatter’s controversial first election as FIFA president in 1998. Mohamed bin Hammam only fell from grace, and was banned from international soccer for life, after challenging Blatter’s presidency on an anti-corruption platform in 2011. The same thing happened to notoriously corrupt FIFA official and former Blatter ally Jack Warner after he backed bin Hammam’s bid. (CONCACAF official Chuck Blazer is another formerly close ally of Blatter who was undone by corruption charges.)

In 2002, Blatter was accused by FIFA’s then secretary general and erstwhile ally Michel Zen-Ruffinen of losing the organization $500 million through financial mismanagement, corruption, and cronyism. Zen-Ruffinen also testified that Blatter had paid a FIFA referee named Lucien Bouchardeau $25,000 and promised him $25,000 more for information on a Somali soccer official, Farah Addo, who had accused Blatter of bribery in his first election bid. Blatter didn’t deny the payment but said at the time he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart. "Because of Addo, Bouchardeau has been left out in the cold in Africa. He said to me with tears in his eyes that he was a poor devil and had nothing left. So I gave him $25,000 of my own money," Blatter said. "I'm too good a person."

After Blatter won his subsequent re-election campaign, which coincided with the secretary general’s charges, Zen-Ruffinen was removed from his FIFA post. Eight years later, Zen-Ruffinen was caught on tape saying he could influence the World Cup votes for a fee, and that three FIFA executive committee officials could be paid off, one “with the ladies and not with money."

As mentioned, his original election in 1998 was marred by corruption allegations. As Franklin Foer wrote in Slate 12 years ago:

Blatter only triumphed after a bit of help from the emir of Qatar, who lent him a jet so that he could canvass the globe and stump for votes. (According to the London Daily Mail, Muammar Qaddafi sponsored another whistle-stop tour.) The Daily Mail also uncovered millions in donations from other Arabian princes, which he lavished on even more FIFA voters. A Somali soccer official testified that Blatter supporters offered him $100,000 and handed other African soccer officials brown envelopes stuffed with cash. Blatter's defense is that he merely doled out cash advances to aid poor countries.

Blatter’s pattern has always been to indignantly deny corruption until evidence was presented, then to say that no laws had been broken, then to promise to fight back against corruption, then when the latest affair has blown over, to return to the truculent claim that there is no corruption in FIFA.

Between 2010 and 2013, half of FIFA’s 24-strong executive committee was accused of some form of corruption, five were forced to resign, and one was banned for life. In 1999, Blatter reassured the world about his soon-to-be-disgraced cabinet: “I can't speak about everyone's sense of morality but, for the 24 members of a committee I have the honor to direct, I can say they have all taken a sort of ethical oath.”

Blatter’s history of at the very least abetting corruption stretches back to before he was FIFA president, when he was secretary general under his now disgraced mentor João Havelange. The former FIFA president Havelange was found to have accepted millions of dollars in bribes over the course of his tenure. One year before his first election, a million dollar bribe meant for Havelange crossed Blatter’s desk, and he did nothing to report it or prevent it. Blatter said he hadn’t done anything wrong, because the commissions were not illegal at the time they were doled out. "You can't judge the past on the basis of today's standards," he said. "Otherwise it would end up with moral justice."

FIFA’s corruption has direct consequences in the real world. In South Africa, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on white elephant stadiums that have rarely been used following the 2010 World Cup in a country where more than half of its children were living in poverty as of 2012. Multiple local officials in that country were reported to have been murdered, allegedly for whistle-blowing or other involvement in stadium fraud.

In Brazil, a $300 million, 40,000-plus seat stadium was built in the middle of the Amazon rainforest where potential post-Cup audiences of that size just don’t exist. That’s probably one reason why a majority of Brazilians opposed hosting this World Cup, saying the more than $11 billion price tag could be better spent on public services.

In Qatar, meanwhile, on top of the bribery claims, hundreds of migrant workers have died working on infrastructure and constructions projects since the country was awarded the tournament and 4,000 are projected to die by 2022 at the current rate. That’s not to mention the country’s homophobic laws or those of 2018 World Cup hosts Russia, for that matter.

Gay sex is actually punishable by up to seven years in prison in Qatar. When Blatter was asked about such anti-gay policies, he joked, “I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities.” That brings me to Blatter’s aforementioned sexism, which is tied to that wonderful sense of humor of his. In 2004, he suggested women’s soccer would improve if the players would just dress sexier. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball," he said. "They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so.”

That’s probably the worst thing he’s said about women, but it’s a close call. In 2013, he called a female candidate for FIFA’s executive committee “good and good looking.” When FIFA made a historic appointment of the first female member of the executive committee to receive a full four-year term, which only happened last year, he put his foot in his mouth again. “Are there ladies in the room? Say something! You are always speaking at home, now you can speak here,” he joked.

He’s also a dolt when it comes to racism. In 2011, after racial abuse charges against another World Cup jerk, Blatter said that “there is no racism” on the pitch and that players should handle such disputes “with a handshake.”

Blatter’s well-documented jerkiness has inspired significant public backlash. Whenever he makes a public appearance now, he’s booed. Lily Allen recently dedicated a rendition of her song “Fuck You” to Blatter (the lyrics actually worked surprisingly well).* Other pop musicians have written entire songs dedicated to his awfulness.

Blatter attempted to combat all this negative publicity with one of the most poorly thought-out propaganda ideas in history. FIFA paid for the vast majority of a $32 million hagiographic film called United Passions, starring Tim Roth as Blatter, Gérard Depardieu as World Cup creator Jules Rimet, and Sam Neill as Blatter’s mentor, the exceedingly corrupt Havelange. The trailer for that film, which has yet to see a worldwide release, features the Blatter character saying, “Everything I've done up until this point has been for the good of football.” It takes a pretty big jerk to make a big-budget movie devoted largely to the premise that you’re not a jerk!

Why he might not be a jerk: I’m drawing a blank here. Sometimes the stupid things he says are funny—for instance, when he said that there should be an interplanetary World Cup. He also makes a fool of himself constantly. Like the time he fell flat on his face, or the time he showed off his terrible dance moves, or the time he interrupted a moment of silence for Nelson Mandela. Sometimes, Blatter comes off more as a pitiful human being than a jerk. But the feeling passes rather quickly.

Jerk Score: 3 out of 3 for style, for simultaneously dancing and leering like a creepy uncle. 3 out of 3 for technique, because he’s never been caught taking his own bribe. 3 out of 3 for consistency, for planning to run for a fifth term as FIFA president after promising to quit. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Inspiring Pop Musicians to Devote Entire Songs to How Much They Hate You.” 10 out of 10 for Sepp Blatter.

Previously on World Cup Jerk Watch:

*Correction, July 15, 2014: This post originally misspelled the first name of pop star Lily Allen.

Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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