After the biggest scandal in FIFA’s history, the only public dissenting voice to President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter’s reign came from soccer’s traditional powers.
UEFA, the sport’s European governing body, called for FIFA’s presidential election to be postponed from Friday after authorities arrested seven of the organization’s officials at dawn Wednesday. UEFA even threatened a boycott of the vote, saying in a statement that the system Blatter had built since taking power in 1998 needed to be rebooted or it “will ultimately kill football.”
The rest of the soccer world, in large part, is happy to be led by the 79-year-old Blatter, whose tenure has been marked by scandal after scandal. In the one-nation, one-vote world of FIFA, that’s all he needs to stay in power.
“The current president has been a good friend to the continent, and he’s the right person to lead the federation forward,” South African Football Association spokesman Dominic Chimhavi, whose nation in 2010 was the first to host a World Cup in Africa, said in a telephone interview.
On Wednesday, Swiss police charged nine FIFA officials -- but not Blatter -- with corruption. Switzerland is probing whether anyone broke laws in awarding upcoming World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar. Two former soccer executives were also charged in New York, as were four sports marketing officials. Former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, who was among those charged, later surrendered to Trinidad police and is awaiting an extradition hearing.
Swiss authorities seized documents at FIFA’s nearby offices, saying they were examining possible crimes related to selecting Russia to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar for 2022. The defendants are alleged to have paid more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain media and marketing rights to soccer tournaments.
With Blatter in charge, FIFA’s wallet swelled -- the World Cup generates about $5 billion in revenue -- and he proved to be a generous paymaster to his loyal lieutenants.
Blatter doesn’t need the support of soccer’s heavyweights to retain control. Each of the group’s 209 members, from Montserrat to World Cup champion Germany, has an equal vote. The arithmetic is simple, and not even police investigations on two continents may be able to blow Blatter off course.
“Such misconduct has no place in football, and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game,” Blatter said in a statement.
Among the delegates, Blatter remains a force for good no matter what law enforcement says about the organization.
“These next four years, he’s going to finish and put the crown on all the work he’s done before,” Manuel Burga, president of the Peruvian Football Federation from 2002 until 2014, said in an interview in Zurich on Wednesday. “Mr. Blatter has been working correctly. When somebody wins and somebody loses ... nobody is going to be happy always.”
Blatter, who joined FIFA 40 years ago, knows his key constituents. While he may be jeered inside soccer stadiums and lampooned by newspaper cartoonists, he remains a magnetic force within FIFA.
At a recent meeting at Paradise Island in the Bahamas, Blatter sat on a raised dais as members of the North and Central American soccer federation waxed lyrically about him as his European-backed opponents looked on. It reached its peak when Osiris Guzman, president of Dominican Republic soccer, compared Blatter to great figures of history: Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ and more.
“Why is he different from these other men?” asked Guzman.
During the same trip at a meeting of the soccer governing body for the Caribbean and North and Central America, Blatter noted that since 1999 FIFA has awarded more than $330 million to the 35 member countries in the region. “The forecast for the next four years,” he says, “is about $150 to $180 million.”
UEFA planned to meet Thursday to decide its course of action.
“It would be absolutely the wrong signal if the agenda of the FIFA Congress were to be executed as planned,” said Reinhard Rauball, the president of Germany’s Bundesliga. “They can’t simply continue with business as usual. If these allegations turn out to be true, they would rock FIFA and the entire soccer world to the core.”
Blatter’s opponent in the election, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, hasn’t been forceful enough in campaigning to unseat Blatter, said Borja Garcia, a lecturer in sports management and policy at Loughborough University in England.
“He hasn’t been very radical about reform” before today, Garcia said. Prince Ali may get a few more votes, but it’s “pretty unlikely” he will win the election.
For the prince, the campaign has offered few highlights. He’s the last of three challengers remaining -- the others dropped out. Ali, whose brother Abdullah is the Jordanian king, was among the guests in the luxury hotel where police struck in the early hours Wednesday.
“FIFA needs leadership that governs, guides and protects our national associations,” Ali said in statement after the arrests. “Leadership that accepts responsibility for its actions and does not pass blame. Leadership that restores confidence in the hundreds of millions of football fans around the world.”
To be re-elected to his fifth four-year term, Blatter doesn’t need the support of millions of fans. He needs it from people like Guzman from the Dominican Republic.