Blatter soon to be gone, but hopefully never forgotten

Date: June 5, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

blatterIn March 1997, a year before being elected president of FIFA, an odd thing happened to Sepp Blatter.

At that time he was FIFA’s secretary-general, the second most powerful man in the most powerful sport in the world, when an unusual piece of correspondence came across his desk. It was a bribe to the tune of US$1m, not intended for him but the man he would succeed as president, Brazilian João Havelange, who was serving the penultimate year of his 24-year reign.

Two years ago when a FIFA internal ethics committee published a 4200-page report that confirmed Havelange’s role in a US$100m bribery scandal it also contained evidence of the US$1m bribe that had passed through Blatter’s office.

The committee’s findings included Blatter’s acknowledgement that he was aware of the payment and the emphatic statement that he had no idea it was a bribe.

Ethics committee chairman Hans-Joachim Eckert noted that Blatter’s behaviour was “clumsy” rather than “criminal” and as such he had not actually broken any rules and hence was not dealt with in any way.

This particular issue had plagued Blatter’s stewardship of FIFA up until that point with various rumours circulating about the veracity of the incident. Not surprisingly, being the politician he is, Blatter seized on the ethics committee’s findings to trumpet the fact that he had done no wrong.

He said it was time to draw a line in the sand and move on while others were shaking their heads as to how something of that magnitude arriving on your desk would not raise alarm bells.

As a result of the 2013 ethics committee report Havelange – the man who mentored Blatter and smoothed his path to the top – resigned his position as honorary president of FIFA. Blatter, meanwhile, soldiered on – the man in the flame retardant suit had extinguished another potentially lethal fire.

But football’s Red Adair was finally engulfed by the flames yesterday, announcing his resignation just four days after securing a fifth presidential term. But whilst his impending departure was announced yesterday the date it will occur is still a mystery.

The vote to elect Blatter’s successor will likely occur between December and March and at this stage the incumbent intends to keep the seat warm until his replacement has been chosen.

Whether he lasts that long will largely be contingent on just how many more of his key lieutenants are implicated in the current US and Swiss judicial investigations and indeed whether he personally is indicted.

Just last week, prior to the presidential election, when asked about resigning as the judicial turmoil swirled around him he said, “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognize that I did wrong”. Less than a week later his Olympian backflip would impress even the harshest Romanian judge.

Whilst Blatter has maintained a Teflon veneer in the face of myriad controversies he is yet to have been indicted by the investigating authorities. Whether that remains the case is highly debatable.

It stands to reason that the authorities will be hoping that some of the highly placed officials already arrested will bare their souls in an endeavour to lessen their own penalties.

Much of the evidence that led to the Zurich arrests last week was based on information supplied from former FIFA Executive Committee member, American Chuck Blazer who was compelled to inform both the FBI and IRS of dealings he had knowledge of following an indictment over tax evasion.

If Blatter has been the personal beneficiary of corrupt activity, or knowingly turned a blind eye, the Bunsen burner will soon be ratcheted up.

Whilst FIFA has weathered significant controversy in the past it has never been confronted by such legal might and determination as it does now. One can only hope, after decades of scandal and impropriety, that radical reform is on the horizon.

The ensuing months will see a bevy of potential successors to Blatter thrown up – the political machinations and backroom lobbyists will already be in overdrive.

When FIFA’s independent governance committee, under the chairmanship of Mark Pieth, was disbanded there were seven outstanding reforms that were still listed for consideration.

Term and age limits were two of them and each was put to the vote in São Paolo ahead of last year’s World Cup where they were both rejected. It was that vote that allowed Blatter to seek a fifth term at the age of 79 after he had previously said he would not contest the recent election.

If he had stayed the course after last weekend’s election it would have meant the most powerful sporting organization in the world would have had just two presidents in 45 years.

Intriguingly, in his resignation speech yesterday Blatter said, “We need term limits not only for the president but for all members of the Executive Committee”. Given it failed last year to get up, one wonders if it will be passed if put to the vote again.

In light of the recent controversies surrounding the selection of Russia and Qatar as the next two World Cup venues perhaps it would be salient in future to publish the voting record after it has been cast thus allowing a transparent view of who voted for whom.

Blatter’s parting address contained the statement, “FIFA needs a profound overhaul”. Never have truer words been spoken.

He had his chance and history will forever acknowledge his inability to make substantive change in the area of financial impropriety.

Blatter will soon be yesterday’s man but what occurred at FIFA under his stewardship should never be forgotten and should serve as a beacon to those who hopefully will set about rebuilding its tattered and sullied reputation.

First published on the Roar – theroar.com.au – on 4 June 2015, soliciting 61 comments