FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s 35 years with soccer’s governing body have included nine World Cups on five different continents. The event starting in South Africa today will define his career more than any other.
Since visiting Ethiopia in 1976, a year after he got a job as a FIFA technical officer, Blatter talked about a World Cup in Africa. Now that it’s happening, the 74-year-old Swiss still isn’t ready to retire, rebuffing calls for him to step down. He said yesterday he hadn’t finished his “mission.”
“This World Cup for him, it’s like a mother with a baby,” Walter Gagg, a 68-year-old aide who has known Blatter for four decades, said in an interview at FIFA’s headquarters near Zurich. “For him, this will be his legacy for all his life.”
Blatter has made South Africa 2010 the pillar of his presidency with matches stretching from Nelspruit to Cape Town over the next month. The $1.2 billion that FIFA has spent on South Africa is more than for any World Cup in history.
“He took a major risk,” said Danny Jordaan, head of the country’s World Cup organizing committee, in a telephone interview. “Should that experiment fail, of course he would have had to bear that cross.”
Blatter hasn’t given his personal endorsement to any of the bids vying to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022.
As president of FIFA, the French acronym for Federation Internationale de Football Association, Blatter controls an organization that generated a record $1 billion of revenue last year, and holds the same amount in its reserves. Almost all the income is derived from selling commercial and broadcasting rights to the World Cup, sport’s most-watched event.
A first World Cup in Africa was a theme Blatter repeated as he crossed the continent in a private jet provided by Qatari billionaire Mohamed Bin Hammam, Asia’s top soccer official, during his campaign to assume the top job at FIFA in 1998.
After missing out on the 2006 World Cup to Germany by a single vote, South Africa was awarded this year’s event in 2004 after a proposal by Blatter to rotate the competition across different continents, starting with Africa.
FIFA scrapped the plan once South Africa and then Brazil were chosen to host the next two editions.
“If it works well, it will be the masterpiece of Blatter,” said Roland Zorn, a journalist with German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who’s followed FIFA since 1986. “If it’s a disaster, it will be the end of his presidency.”
FIFA said Blatter’s schedule meant he was unable to be interviewed for this article.
Blatter said at a press briefing yesterday that he intended to stand for a fourth four-year presidential term if backed by enough of the 208 soccer associations that make up FIFA. He must seek re-election in 2011. He stood unopposed in 2007.
“We shall work for the next generation, and when we say we work for the youth, that’s what we want to do,” Blatter said. “This is my mission. The congress next year will say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and somebody else will take it up or I will go on.”
Bin Hammam said in February the time had come for a change of leadership at the top of the world game.
Preparations for the 2010 competition haven’t always been smooth. Construction costs for new stadiums have overrun, while workers at several sites went on strike. Organizers also have had to allay security concerns. More than 5,700 incidents of serious crime are reported in South Africa each day, including 50 homicides, among the highest rates in the world.
Uli Hoeness, a World Cup winner with Germany in 1974, the last tournament before Blatter joined FIFA, said in February this year’s choice of host was “the biggest wrong decision.”
Blatter has said it would have been “immoral” to ignore Africa’s claims to stage the tournament, arguing the world owed something to the continent after “taking so much.” The champions of the English, Italian and Spanish soccer leagues each had at least two Africans on their teams this season.
“His vision was to go to Africa and then not end in North Africa but in black Africa,” said Horst Schmidt, chief executive officer of the 2006 World Cup and a consultant to the 2010 event. “He’s been emotionally involved in this World Cup from the beginning and his expectation was always to convince the world that Africa can be the right place.”
FIFA sold the marketing and television rights to this year’s event for $3.2 billion, 30 percent more than it did for the 2006 tournament. Local organizers probably won’t approach the 150 million-euro profit the German hosts did, Schmidt said.
Blatter’s tenure has been punctuated with controversial comments, allegations of corruption, and bitter battles for the top FIFA job, first in 1998 and then in 2002.
Blatter, whose salary isn’t disclosed, was cleared when 11 members of FIFA’s 24-member executive made a complaint to Swiss prosecutors in 2001. They accused him of financial mismanagement linked to the collapse of marketing partner ISL and buying votes, according to court papers.
In 2004, Blatter said public interest in women’s soccer would grow if players started to wear “tighter shorts.” Four years later he provoked an angry response from Alex Ferguson when he likened the Manchester United manager’s refusal to allow star Cristiano Ronaldo to join Real Madrid to slavery.
“From a position of great power, he has uttered so many ridiculous statements that he is in danger of seriously damaging his credibility,” Ferguson said at the time.
The world of soccer has been enriched during Blatter’s 12 years as FIFA president.
The organization’s affiliated national governing bodies and six confederations would share a $56 million bonus after record sales of $1 billion in 2009, Blatter said. He received a rousing ovation from delegates at FIFA’s 60th Congress in Johannesburg yesterday when he told them about the bonus payments.
Blatter’s “Goal” program has $120 million in funding to distribute to poorer associations for playing fields, training centers and other infrastructure.
African soccer will show its support for Blatter, said Jordaan, the World Cup organizer. “When it comes to 2011 we certainly will not forget his commitment, not only to our country but to our continent,” he said.