Sepp Blatter - a villain or a visionary?

An in-depth look at the career of FIFA's outgoing president. Is he really such a bad guy? 

Gary Meenaghan August 9, 2015

Sepp Blatter is holding court. It is November 2013 and Nigeria has just defeated Mexico in the final of the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

In the bowels of the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, the president of global football's governing body has delivered a post-tournament debrief and is now being quizzed on a variety of controversial off-field issues.

Blatter is asked about the dispute between UAE and Iran over the newly named Arabian Gulf League; he is asked about ongoing protests in Brazil ahead of their World Cup; he is, inevitably, asked about the albatross forever swinging from his neck, Qatar 2022. He deals with each question with a mixture of charisma, caution and contempt. He may be a man renowned for gaffes, but, tonight at least, no slip-up is forthcoming.

As the dissatisfied international press file out the conference hall, a group of young media students are shepherded in. Blatter rises from his seat and smiles. He approaches the youths with gusto and, after learning their nationalities, greets them each with a couple of words in their own languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian and even Chinese. The polyglot's performance is captivating. 

It also mirrors Blatter's approach to politicking. The Swiss regularly meets with emirs, prime ministers and other heads of state, yet it is among the little men he feels most comfortable. It is them he has long championed. 

To Blatter, Montserrat (population: 5,215) is as important as Germany (80 million); the Cayman Islands (54,914) as relevant as China (1.3 billion). To understand why, a quick history lesson is required. 

Since the foundation of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 1904, the governing body has operated on the egalitarian premise that every member nation has equal power: One Nation, One Vote. While such a rule appears democratic, between 1974 and 2015 the number of members in FIFA jumped from 141 to 209 and the increasing number of smaller, developing countries has opened the door to corruption. It is, after all, easier to bribe the man who has little than the man who has it all.

And alleged bribery appears to have been prevalent at FIFA for decades. An ongoing US justice system investigation has, at the time of this article being published, led to the arrest of 14 football executives related to 47-counts of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering, among other crimes. Some of the crimes precede Blatter's presidency, so to trace the roots of the system that enabled such lawbreaking, our history lesson must swing by the spring of 1974. 

One Nation, One Vote

It is the FIFA presidential elections and incumbent Stanley Rous of England is running against Brazilian João Havelange, who hopes to become FIFA's first non-European president. The number of member nations has grown rapidly in the 13 years since Rous took power, but it is Havelange who is capitalising. Shrewdly, he has travelled the globe campaigning on the need for FIFA to move away from Eurocentricism, promising more investment and World Cup spots to Africa and Asia. On May 8, 1974, he is elected FIFA's seventh president. 

Within a year, Joseph S Blatter, a portly 48-year-old with a PR background in tourism, ice hockey and athletics, joins FIFA as technical director and by 1981 has risen to Secretary-General. When Havelange steps down after 24 contentious years in office, it is Blatter he throws his support behind. The Swiss, running against the president of European football Lennart Johansson, warns of a possible return to Eurocentricism and campaigns on a promise to continue Havelange's global development. He wins 111-80, but not without claims of corruption, including an alleged million dollar package provided by a ruler of an unnamed Middle East state. 

Seventeen years later, Havelange has been found guilty of taking bribes and Blatter has increased FIFA's revenue from AED 2.2 billion to more than AED 7.3 billion in the past decade alone. And he continues to skilfully manipulate the “One Nation, One Vote” rule.

By providing patronage to the football associations of smaller countries, he has been able to build an international network of loyal supporters. For example, giving the go-ahead to build new FA headquarters in Jordan and Djibouti or football pitches in Bhutan and Brunei secures the votes of those countries at relatively little cost. Effectively, it ensures that Blatter remains president, regardless of his reputation in the established epicentre of the game, Western Europe.

Of course, growing the game in undeveloped nations is no bad thing. Only sometimes the money for a new football pitch instead ends up in somebody's personal bank account. Jack Warner, a Trinidadian former FIFA vice-president, is one of many officials past and present accused of illegal conduct. An unsealed indictment quotes him as telling colleagues: “There are some people who think they are more pious than thou. If you're pious, open a church, friends. Our business is our business.”

Between 1998 and 2010, Jérôme Champagne worked for FIFA. He was Blatter's personal adviser and ran his successful re-election campaign in 2002, before being forced out of the organisation when he started considering his own shot at the presidency. He says while FIFA may have “a few black sheep”, Blatter personally “is not corrupt”. He tried to run against Blatter in May's election, but withdrew citing a lack of support. He said prospective backers “feared reprisals from their confederations”.

Champagne told EDGAR that the primary reason Blatter remains so popular and powerful in the Middle East is that “for the past 40 years, he has been the leader in changing the face of football and globalising the game.” He added Blatter's ability to triumph in the fight against FIFA returning to a Eurocentric organisation had won him great loyalty. “And it is not only in the Middle East, Africa and Asia,” Champagne said, “but also Eastern Europe.” 

Sepp Blatter is holding court. It is December 2, 2010 and the FIFA president has, following a predictably rambling monologue, just slid open an envelope to unveil Russia as hosts of the 2018 World Cup. The victorious delegation, which includes Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, Arsenal forward Andrey Arshavin and a couple of long-legged Russian ladies, shriek with joy and head towards the stage.

Six minutes later, Blatter opens another envelope, this time revealing Qatar as hosts of the World Cup in 2022. Shock circumnavigates the globe at the speed of light as the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, celebrates with his wife and a host of compatriots. To the right of the group sits Prince William; in front sits Bill Clinton. Politics is synonymous with modern-day FIFA. 

In the secret ballot, Blatter is understood to have voted against Qatar, which was the only candidate from the nine bids that was marked as “high-risk” by the Evaluation Group assigned by FIFA to assess the prospective host countries. (Russia were marked as “medium-risk”, while the other seven bids – including Australia, England and the United States – were “low-risk”.) The report on Qatar warned the severe summer heat could pose “a potential health risk for players, officials, the FIFA family and spectators”.

Yet immediately after opening the envelope, Blatter said he was “a happy president”. Again, to understand why is to understand Blatter better.

It is a badly kept secret that the 79-year-old's greatest desire is to win the Nobel Peace Prize. By taking the World Cup for the first time to post-Communist Eastern Europe and then the Middle East he is expanding his list of peacemaking achievements – a list that already includes plenty of fine work in the developing world.

One of Blatter's first tasks after being elected president was to ensure Palestine was welcomed into the FIFA family. This was at a time when the majority of international organisations failed to recognise the country as its own nation. A year later, Champagne and Blatter flew into Gaza on a private jet, before crossing to Ramalla for a meeting with the late Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian FA. The trip also included a visit to Israel, where Blatter met with Shimon Peres, who would later become Israeli president.

Blatter reads the mentality of the Arabs and is very smart with it.

“When I joined FIFA in 1998, one of the first things [Blatter] asked me to deal with was the Palestine issue and I am very proud of what we have done because it was a strong political symbol,” Champagne said. “Look at what exists there now: A professional league, marketing contracts, a women's league, matches are played at home... Of course, people like me implemented that vision, but we did it because Mr Blatter supported that.”

In 2002, Blatter was a vocal supporter of the World Cup going to Asia for the first time in the competition's 72-year history. Eight years later, he helped break new ground once again when the showpiece event was held in Africa. As well as expanding the sport's global footprint, such events also understandably strengthened support for the Swiss in these confederations.

Since Blatter took office, the UAE has hosted the World Youth Championships, the Club World Cup twice, the Beach Soccer World Cup and the Under-17 World Cup. The country will again host the Club World in 2017 and 2018, while Jordan will host next year's Women's Under-17 World Cup. Additionally, a range of tournaments have been awarded to the likes of Japan, Korea, Azerbaijan, China, Papua New Guinea and India. And do not dare forget Qatar 2022.

“Blatter has strong relationships with all the federations in the Middle East and Asia,” says Kefah Al Kabi, a Dubai-based television pundit who has covered the past six World Cups. “He reads the mentality of the Arabs and is very smart with it. He has always looked after the continents that maybe do not play the best football and because of that he has their support. Anybody who runs against Blatter is destined to lose.” 

Sepp Blatter is holding court. It is June 2, 2015, less than four days since he was awkwardly dancing on stage having proved Al Kabi correct by beating Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan to secure a fifth term as president. Now, stood behind a pulpit, he is speaking in more sombre tones. FIFA is in the midst of investigations by the FBI and Swiss prosecutors and 14 senior football executives have already been charged.

With more allegations of corruption being made public daily, including an alleged bribe of AED 36 million from South Africa to the football body led by Warner, the non-pious Trinidadian, FIFA has been rocked to its core. Blatter, heavily castigated in recent days by European and US media, is announcing, finally, that he is resigning.

Only he doesn't use the word resign, nor will he be vacating his throne anytime soon. The master of manipulation is leaving on his terms. He will continue in the role for the next four months, at least, before an extraordinary election. While the downfall of the Teflon Don is not yet complete, the straw that seems to have broken the camel's back, fittingly, is Qatar. 

The 2022 World Cup has already created scheduling nightmares because it must be played in winter. Add to that the country's lack of football history, its conservative culture, various human rights concerns and, now, corruption allegations and it is proving too big an issue to simply shrug off. Qatari officials maintain their bid was fair, but if proof exists the hosting rights were won unlawfully, the Gulf state could be stripped of its tournament, with the United States ready to step in.

“Qatar did not win the bid because they were the best candidate,” Al Kabi said. “If you chose logically you would have voted for the USA, which already has the stadiums and the population. Qatar won because of economics. They have to build several stadiums and infrastructure from scratch and will spend billions of dollars. Who is going to build these projects? American companies, French companies, German companies...”

And migrant workers. The International Trade Union Profession predicts more than 4,000 migrant workers will have died in Qatar by the time the first match of the 2022 World Cup kicks off. It is not the kind of project somebody courting a Nobel Peace Prize wants to be aligned with.

Blatter, a huge advocate of women's football, has been accused of sexism, and of ignoring racism, and of not appreciating LGBT concerns. Now he is being called a murderer. Little surprise then that he admitted giving Qatar the tournament was “a mistake”. Yet should the international scrutiny bring about lasting reforms in human rights laws and improve the way migrant workers are treated in the Gulf region, Blatter can again take credit.

“I think, when all the dust settles, people will see what Blatter has achieved,” Champagne said. “Globalisation of the game, fighting apartheid, developing the women's game, giving a chance to the likes of Guam, Moldova and Panama, taking the game to the Arab world... That will all be remembered when everything calms down.”

For now though, Blatter continues to hold court – while, so far, avoiding having to appear inside one.