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Why a German Judge Called Time on Blatter

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It's unwise to hang on to power when the tide has turned against you, as Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, found out on Thursday. He was handed a 90-day suspension from his post and from soccer affairs in general, signalling that a search is on for a successor untainted by scandal. The man who handed down the suspension was once described by his hometown newspaper as "The planet's biggest Sepp Blatter-understander." 

Like pretty much everyone in the FIFA hierarchy these days, Munich judge Hans-Joachim Eckert is a controversial figure. Brought in to head up the organisation's recently formed Ethics Committee by Swiss legal scholar Mark Pieth, who had been tasked with reforming FIFA governance a few years ago, Eckert came with a formidable reputation. He presided, for example, over the Siemens corruption trials, which shook the German industrial giant last decade and forced it to bring in new management for which staying graft-free became a top priority. 

After joining FIFA in 2011, Eckert refused Blatter's offer of a six-figure compensation package. Last year, however, his reputation was soiled when he refused to release a report drafted by his Ethics Committee colleague, former U.S. prosecutor Michael Garcia, following an investigation into Russia's and Qatar's winning World Cup bids. Eckert only published a 42-page summary which, Garcia claimed, was incomplete and misrepresented the facts. Two whistle-blowers named in the summary complained that their names weren't supposed to be published. From an impartial adjudicator, Eckert suddenly looked like Blatter's cover-up engineer.

He and Garcia were both in familiar roles: The ambitious prosecutor was pushing for the results of his work to be published and acted upon, and the dispassionate, veteran judge (Eckert is 67 now) reserved judgment until misdeeds are proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

On Thursday, however, Eckert acted more like a prosecutor than a judge. Blatter's lawyers complained he had violated the FIFA Code of Ethics in not hearing out the suspended officials -- Blatter, European football chief Michel Platini and outgoing FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke -- before making his decision. Eckert cannot be faulted on the legal side, though; there is a provision in the code that allows him to decide without hearing the parties. 

The suspension is based on claims being investigated by the Swiss authorities that in 2005 Blatter authorized a big discount when selling TV rights to a qualification tournament to the North American soccer confederation, which under President Jack Warner then resold the rights at a profit. The claim further states that in 2011 Blatter paid 2 million Swiss francs ($2.1 million) to Platini, apparently to stop him opposing Blatter in a leadership election. Platini says the payment was for work done between 1998 and 2002, but there's no clear explanation for the delay.

Both episodes appear run-of-the-mill in the context of the U.S. indictment of FIFA officials made public earlier this year. By now, Eckert has seen and heard enough to understand that there is more where that came from. What we know -- or half-know, since investigations are ongoing and courts haven't delivered verdicts yet -- about FIFA today suggests that the organization's atmosphere was itself corrosive. Eckert, considered an expert on politically sensitive cases, has made a political statement with his ruling, sending home both Blatter and his nemesis Platini, who hoped to become FIFA president in February. The suspension tells them they should both go because their cause is lost.

Blatter, who said in June he would step down before his term is out, was in no hurry to leave. He scheduled the next leadership election for February 26, 2016. In the meantime, he's worked to hang on to his post or ensure a smooth succession, which meant keeping Platini out and positioning a loyalist to win. Eckert has effectively told him his efforts, and Platini's, are futile: They would never pull clear of all the accusations weighing down on them.

Whether or not the suspensions stand or Blatter and Platini manage to muscle back into the game, it's clear that FIFA is in for an overhaul. The current interim president, Cameroonian Issa Hayatou, has run African soccer for almost three decades, and of course he too has faced corruption accusations which, like every other FIFA official, he has denied. It says a lot about the FIFA hierarchy that the only leadership candidate who has not been touched by the scandals is an Arab prince, Ali bin Hussein, brother to the King of Jordan.

Because of the profound rottenness of FIFA, the sport itself is on the hook. Charges against the world's greatest player, Argentinian Lionel Messi, of tax evasion and even helping drug cartels to launder money are not helping. Eckart, by now an insider, clearly understands that the cleanup will have to be drastic and that the echo of scandal won't subside for years. That's what happened at Siemens, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net