Sepp Blatter has taken a firmer grip than ever on FIFA since his crushing election victory over Issa Hayatou in May. Alan Tomlinson reports
At the museum of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne there is a marble display case, containing vivid portraits of the organisation’s membership. They include the longest-serving member of all, an IOC luminary since 1963, Dr João Havelange, president of football’s world governing body from 1974 to 1998. Three years ago, Havelange’s successor Sepp Blatter was also invited on to the committee. Anyone strolling through the IOC museum in the late summer of 2002 would hardly fathom that Blatter, studiously peeping over his professorial-looking spectacles, had been in bitter rivalry with another IOC member, Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, just months before. The FIFA presidential election in late May 2002 had generated unprecedented levels of infighting around the challenge mounted by Hayatou to the incumbent Blatter.
As the election approached, the FIFA president was under the spotlight of the world media like never before, with his own general-secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen compiling a damning catalogue of accusations against him. Among other things, Zen-Ruffinen alleged that Blatter had sought to establish an autocratic base to his position, against the statutes of FIFA; had committed acts of maladministration and corruption in his post, gearing much of his activity to his re-election strategy; and had supported business deals for FIFA-related personnel in defiance of any normal considerations of conflict of interest. Zen-Ruffinen’s accusations were reworked into a legal document that was presented to the Swiss public prosecutor in Zurich on May 10, “filed on behalf of” 11 members of FIFA’s executive committee.
Yet despite this extraordinary level of negative publicity for Blatter, Hayatou never got close to wresting the presidency from him. Blatter polled 139 votes, Hayatou a mere 56, a straightforward two-thirds majority and outright winning margin. Blatter had been at FIFA for over 25 years, including seven as general-secretary from 1981 to 1998. He knew how to keep his block-vote delivering confederations onside, how to marshal the support of the small countries to outscore any alliances of large parts of Europe and Africa that might challenge him.
It was hardly surprising, at least for informed observers of FIFA politics and Blatter’s style, to see him wriggle to victory. The consequences in FIFA were immediate. Zen-Ruffinen was out of his post as soon as the World Cup ended, and even faithful FIFA employees, such as director of communications Keith Cooper, were brutally chopped. Cooper was stunned. He’d carried on doing a good job for football, believing in the idealism of the organisation’s mission. Yet behind him the “special bureau” that Blatter had planned since getting into the job in 1998 was plotting to take over at the moment of a Blatter re-election.
The UEFA response was pragmatic. What else can you do? If you have fought a hard fight to expose dodgy FIFA practices, organisational rottenness and financial corruption, and got more global press coverage than you could have dreamed of, yet still your candidate and alliance is routed, where do you go from there? UEFA’s hierarchy recognises this, and from its resplendent House of European Football on the shores of Lake Geneva, has struck an uneasy truce with its parent federation up in the hills of Zurich. With the financial problems of some of its major leagues, the European federation has its own football business to deal with, as it also faces struggles over the reshaping of the Champions League and looks forward to Euro 2004 in Portugal. As some UEFA personnel observe, UEFA doesn’t need FIFA. If it can’t reform it, then it could just turn away and get on with what it considers its own essential business.
Technically, the legal shadow still hangs over Blatter. It is not possible actually to “withdraw” a legal complaint, once it has been submitted. Blatter has ap- peared before the prosecutor to respond to the charges, but there is no timetable to which the prosecutor is working. It could be a long case, and may well be informed by the legal case looking into the bankruptcy of FIFA’s financial partner ISL. Nine of the 11 signatories to the criminal complaint have written personal letters to the prosecutor saying that they are no longer interested in seeing the case against Blatter pursued. Antonio Mattarese of Italy and South Korea’s Dr Chung Mong Joon, himself once mooted as a potential challenger to Blatter, are the only exceptions.
In January 2002, Chung wrote to his fellow committee member, Jack Warner, president of the central and north American confederation, recalling a private dinner they had had the previous year, at the time of FIFA’s Buenos Aires Extraordinary Congress: “I asked you how long it will take to restore the honour and dignity of FIFA, then your answer was ‘never’.”
Chung went on to say that the recent Olympic bribery scandal over the choice of Salt Lake City for the 2002 winter Games “pales in its extent compared with FIFA’s own scandal. I feel that FIFA can follow the IOC example. Without such a legitimate probe, no one both on the inside and the outside of an organisation would find it easy to believe the simple explanations from the top. I am convinced that your ‘never’ will change to ‘soon’ when we adopt the same open approach like the IOC.”Chung has left the charges on the table, but with bigger political ambitions than FIFA can accommodate – the presidency of a reunited Korea even – Chung may not go out of his way to ensure FIFA’s house is put in order.
However, UEFA’s questions about financial impropriety put to Blatter in Buenos Aires, the documentation in the hands of the Swiss prosecutor, and Chung’s damning comments are all reminders that FIFA’s family wars are far from over. If Blatter does fall foul of Swiss criminal law, he may be looking for even more favours from his fellow committee members at the IOC, and from the fraternity of Mr Fixits among the networks of Swiss-based sports entrepreneurs and deal-makers.
He would find plenty of support. Numerous football associations voted for Blatter not just because of past favours and the spiders’ webs of patronage and dependency. They were also adamant that no African – for this read black man and the myriad alternatives to that term floated in some European nations – could be contemplated as FIFA president.
It remains the case that, “for the good of the game” (FIFA’s motto), FIFA must begin to vet its membership, cleanse its organisational and financial practices, weed out prejudice and racism, open itself to scrutiny, and set a model of above board, ethical and transparent corporate governance. In fact, the longer Blatter’s rule continues, the more pressing the need will become.
From WSC 189 November 2002. What was happening this month