A soccer politician.

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Blatter's Latest World Cup Defense Is Worth Hearing

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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Sepp Blatter, the suspended president of world soccer governing body FIFA, doesn't exactly invite trust: Like the rest of FIFA's leadership, Blatter lives under a cloud of serious corruption allegations. Yet a new line of defense he's been trying in recent days deserves more attention than it's getting because of what it implies about soccer's role in global geopolitics.

QuickTake Competition and Corruption

The tale Blatter is spinning suggests that awarding World Cup host status to Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022 was a political fix that went wrong. FIFA management had agreed, even before the votes took place, to hand the events to "the superpowers," as Blatter puts it: Russia and the U.S. Then, French President Nicolas Sarkozy leaned on Michel Platini, the Frenchman who runs European soccer, to transfer his allegiance to Qatar from the U.S. According to Blatter, that perceived slight to the U.S. prompted American prosecutors to crackdown on FIFA, effectively ending his grip on world soccer.

Blatter first presented this version of events in an interview with the Russian state-owned news agency TASS, published Wednesday:

Everything was good until the moment when Sarkozy came in a meeting with the crown prince of Qatar, who is now the ruler of Qatar. And at a lunch afterwards with Mr. Platini he said it would be good to go to Qatar. And this has changed all pattern. There was an election by secret ballot. Four votes from Europe went away from the U.S.A. and so the result was fourteen to eight. If you put the four votes, it would have been twelve to ten. If the U.S.A. was given the World Cup, we would only speak about the wonderful World Cup 2018 in Russia and we would not speak about any problems at FIFA.

Blatter's chosen forum has similar credibility problems to Blatter himself: In the current political climate, Russian President Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine jumps on any anti-American theory and, as the FIFA chief -- whose formal name in Joseph -- put in the same interview, "Vladimir Vladimirovich is a good friend of Joseph Josephovich." But the soccer politician didn't confine himself to TASS. On Friday, he repeated the same allegations in the Financial Times, saying the tournaments were "diplomatically arranged" to go to Russia and the U.S. "behind the scenes." Blatter said:

Just one week before the election I got a telephone call from Platini and he said, ‘I am no longer in your picture because I have been told by the head of state that we should consider ... the situation of France.’ And he told me that this will affect more than one vote because he had a group of voters.

In recent years, Qatar has become an important investor in France. In 2012, it bought Paris St. Germain, now the country's leading soccer club. It has acquired some of Paris's most luxurious real estate, including hotels. In May, it signed a 6.3 billion euro ($7 billion) deal to buy 24 French Rafale fighter jets, after negotiations that began just two months after the December 2010 FIFA vote that awarded the World Cup to the tiny Gulf monarchy. A good business relationship with Qatar's ruling dynasty, whose sovereign wealth fund controls $256 billion, was certainly in France's interests, so this could be what Blatter means by "the situation of France."

Sarkozy has mocked Blatter's version of events. "Here's another one who ascribes a lot of power to me," he said. "I had no ambition to run PSG or decide who would host the World Cup. But I thank him on my behalf. This is undoubtedly an allusion to his great friendship with Michel Platini."

The European soccer chief, like Blatter, is suspended from his post because of a corruption investigation; he was previously Blatter's strongest rival for the FIFA presidency. 

I don't think Blatter's allegations can be dismissed. In effect, the outgoing FIFA president has admitted that the organization's strict rules against government interference in soccer affairs were a fiction during his reign. It has long ceased to be a secret that a lot was going on behind the scenes at FIFA, but public attention has focused on vulgar corruption, with money exchanged for favors. Blatter alleges there was also diplomatic horse-trading, involving the vanities and calculations of world leaders. 

It's tempting to reject Blatter's story as self-serving. He knows his tenure is over for all practical purposes, and he'll probably be happy to drag Platini down with him. But the Frenchman's bid for the presidency is unlikely to survive his suspension, anyway, and Platini is having difficulty explaining a large payment he received from FIFA. Also, portraying himself as a "ball in a big political power game" doesn't help Blatter to secure his legacy or whitewash his crumbling reputation. He stands to gain little from politicizing the events that led to his downfall. 

The corruption investigations in the U.S. and Switzerland are likely to show FIFA has been thoroughly corrupt. These investigations, though, have skirted the crucial political question: Did U.S. and Russian diplomats really collaborate to divvy up the 2018 and the 2022 World Cups? If so, who specifically discussed such a deal with Blatter and other top FIFA officials? Did Sarkozy really pressure Platini to transfer his vote to Qatar? A separate investigation into this would be helpful. If Blatter is telling the truth, politicians would have to shoulder their share of responsibility for the corruption of global soccer.

Even with Blatter's allegations unproven, it's clear that the World Cup host selection procedure has been to all manner of manipulation and must be reconsidered. Here's a suggestion: a regular, scheduled, transparent rotation between regions and countries, thus ending the scope for bribery and corruption that's undermined the world's most popular sport. 

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:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net