Can FIFA Clean Up Its Own Game?

As thick-skinned elected officials go, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter is right up there with Bill Clinton. The chief of the Zurich-based group that oversees World Cup soccer hasn't been accused of groping any interns, but that's about all he hasn't been accused of. Vote buying, mismanagement, cronyism--and that's just for starters. Yet the 66-year-old Swiss shows no sign of abandoning his campaign for a second four-year term.

Blatter, a master of dispensing FIFA's hundreds of millions in annual revenue to inspire loyalty, even stands a good chance of reelection. At least he did. Since mid-March, he has seen a credible challenger emerge in Issa Hayatou, president of the African Football Confederation. Hayatou, a 55-year-old from Cameroon, leads a group of FIFA reformers that also includes Chung Mong Joon, president of the Korea Football Assn., and FIFA Vice-President Lennart Johansson, a Swede who lost the presidential election to Blatter in 1998. These contenders' mission: to end what they call the culture of secrecy and lack of accountability that threatens FIFA with financial disaster.

Representatives of the world's 204 national soccer associations meet in Seoul on May 29, and the rebels are given a chance of unseating Blatter. But even they concede that the FIFA honcho won't be easy to dislodge. "It will be a contest," says a Hayatou supporter.

Blatter's staying power seems incredible given the array of misdeeds attributed to him and his circle. The accusations began almost immediately after he won FIFA's top post in 1998. One delegate said Blatter supporters offered him cash to vote for their man instead of Johansson. Blatter denies that charge, and no one has offered incontrovertible proof.

FIFA's finances may prove to be Blatter's biggest headache. One dispute concerns how much FIFA will lose as a result of the 2001 bankruptcy of ISL/ISMM Group, a Swiss sports marketing agency that worked closely with FIFA. Blatter puts FIFA's losses at just $30 million, while Chung and the other critics say the figure could be closer to $300 million. And it will be hard for Blatter to argue that he has been totally transparent with FIFA's own executive committee. He has refused even to tell them how much he gets paid. "How could the salary of the FIFA president be a secret? That's unthinkable," fumes Chung.

There are signs that FIFA's troubles are bigger than Blatter is saying. Last year, FIFA used marketing contracts for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups to issue $420 million in bonds, a first for the federation. Chung says a nonprofit organization like FIFA shouldn't be financing current operating expenses with future revenue.

The insurgents have already won one victory: They persuaded the rest of the executive board to order an audit of FIFA finances. But Blatter--who claims, through a spokesman, that the accusations are a smear campaign--should not be underestimated. At least publicly, sponsors and member associations remain remarkably blase about the controversy. For example, there is no outward sign of outrage from German sports equipment maker Adidas-Salomon, which is spending much of its $625 million marketing budget on the World Cup. "We don't expect current developments within FIFA to have a negative impact on our expectations" for the World Cup, says Michael Riehl, Adidas head of global sports marketing.

The conventional wisdom is that fans don't care about FIFA politics. Says Bernd Schiphorst, president of Hertha BSC Berlin, a top-ranked German team: "I've no fear that all these discussions are going to touch the event." Still, the Olympic bribery scandals and the doping affair in the Tour de France show that sleazy dealings can taint the most venerable athletic spectacle. "For the Good of the Game" is FIFA's official motto. The next few months should show whether it rings true.

By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt, with Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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