With a proposed boycott of a FIFA leadership vote off the table, Sepp Blatter is poised to extend his 17-year hold on the sport’s global governing body.
UEFA, the group that oversees soccer in Europe, had floated the idea of a boycott, but an Irish official on Thursday said that the Europeans will participate. That clears the way for a vote Friday, and Blatter likely has the support of enough non-European countries to win a fifth term as president.
Blatter, a skilled tactician when it comes to soccer politics, knows the numbers are in his favor even as FIFA is rocked by a widening corruption probe and sponsors step up criticism of the organization.
“I am sure more bad news will follow,” Blatter said in Zurich today. “I know many people hold me ultimately responsible. I cannot monitor everyone all of the time.”
Though Europe is home to soccer’s richest teams, biggest stars and last three World Cup winners, its power on election day is neutered by FIFA’s one-country one-vote system. That gives the Caribbean island of Montserrat (pop. 4,900) as much say in who runs the global game as Germany (pop. 81 million), which in Brazil last year powered to a fourth World Cup victory.
UEFA yesterday condemned a “deeply rooted” culture of corruption at FIFA, but its members won’t boycott the poll, according to John Delaney, the CEO of the Football Association of Ireland. The Asian and African confederations, with 100 votes to UEFA’s 53, led calls against a delay and reiterated their support for the 79-year-old incumbent.
“If we had boycotted the election it means you can be sure Mr. Blatter will be re-elected, and we want to try and avoid that,” said Michael van Praag, the head of the Dutch soccer association, who dropped out of the presidential race last week.
Swiss and American officials have opened investigations into FIFA, alleging corruption, racketeering, and other misdeeds in the group’s management and its decision to award the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar. Though Blatter hasn’t been charged, nine FIFA officials and five others were among 14 people named in the U.S. indictments.
“As influential as UEFA is, Blatter still has very strong support from his caucuses in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean,” said David Webber, a teaching fellow at the University of Warwick’s international studies department.
In the last poll, in 2011, Blatter got 92 percent of the votes -- though he ran unopposed after Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar withdrew following accusations of trying to bribe participants. This time around, he has a challenger, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, but it’s not clear the prince has sufficient support to unseat Blatter.
In Moscow Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the probe to the U.S. case against Edward Snowden, the former government security contractor who sought asylum in Russia after exposing secret diplomatic communications and other sensitive documents.
Blatter has “every chance” of being re-elected, Putin said in televised remarks. “We know the pressure that was put on him to prevent the 2018 World Cup taking place in Russia.”
During Blatter’s tenure, FIFA’s income has ballooned -- the latest World Cup tournament generated almost $5 billion in revenue -- and more than $1 billion of that was shared with member nations via so-called “solidarity” programs.
Furthermore, some regional confederations vote as blocs in presidential elections. Though in theory all of UEFA’s 53 members could oppose Blatter -- an unlikely scenario -- they will be outweighed by the 56 countries that belong to the Confederation of African Football, which in September decided to back the incumbent.
Nigeria, for instance, backs Blatter’s re-election bid, “100 percent yes!” the country’s Football Federation President, Amaju Pinnick, said Thursday. “He believes so much in developing nations, not just Africa. So based on that, the developing world is giving him support.”
In April, Caribbean voters tried to outdo one another in showering praise on Blatter at their regional meeting. A Dominican official likened him to Jesus, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln. And after yesterday’s raids, the Asian federation -- home to Blatter’s challenger, Prince Ali (by FIFA’s logic, Jordan belongs to Asia) -- stressed its support for the incumbent.
“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,” the Asian confederation said in a statement.
Blatter has shied away from the public eye since news of the investigations broke. He hasn’t attended any public events in the past two days, leaving his spokesman to parry reporters’ questions about the investigation. FIFA said he met with the group’s regional chiefs Thursday afternoon, and that he would attend the opening of the FIFA conference in the evening.
“There will be many who are frustrated with the pace of change,” Blatter said in a statement Wednesday. “We will work vigorously within FIFA in order to root out any misconduct, to regain your trust and ensure that football worldwide is free from wrongdoing.”