At one point during one of his two rambling, almost incoherent acceptance speeches on Wednesday afternoon, FIFA president Sepp Blatter revealed to the governing body’s members and the world, “I was a little bit nervous today.”
It must have been an unfamiliar, uncomfortable sensation for the indestructible 79-year-old Swiss politician, who’s helmed FIFA since 1998 and very well may be one of the most unpopular human beings on the planet. His Q-rating outside the walls of FIFA’s Zurich headquarters is irrelevant, however. He doesn’t answer to the soccer public. He answers to the power brokers and yes men who head each of FIFA’s 209 national federations, and Blatter has been very, very good to them. The money continues to flow, regardless of how it’s spent, and a blind eye is turned toward the corruption and graft that wrack the game.
Blatter’s unparalleled ability to insulate himself from external pressure while catering to his self-absorbed power base has left him in what has appeared to be an unassailable position. He ran for his third and fourth presidential terms unopposed.
"Some say to win without danger is to triumph without glory,” Blatter said in 2007. “I don't agree with that. It's pleasant to be elected without voices against me."
On Wednesday, despite the firestorm created by the U.S. Department of Justice’s indictment or conviction of 14 FIFA officials and connected businessmen, Blatter coasted to a fifth term with an easy, 133-73 triumph over Jordanian prince and outgoing FIFA executive committee member Ali Bin Al-Hussein.
By FIFA’s rock-bottom standards, a challenger garnering 73 votes is a coup. And that partly explains Blatter’s nerves. There was next to no chance he would lose. Near total support in Africa and Asia, plus a few votes from Western federations (there were reports Friday evening that Spain voted Sepp) was more than enough to see off Prince Ali, who conceded before a second round of balloting. But as U.S. Soccer Federation president and FIFA ExCo member Sunil Gulati told The New York Times on Thursday, "Being on the wrong side of an election result … is not necessarily being on the wrong side.”
The number of federations willing to stick their necks out, risk reprisal and vote for Al-Hussein, who called his supporters “brave” during his brief concession speech, is an indication that the tide has started turning. From the scale of the bribes referenced in the DOJ indictment (around $150 million) to the audacity of awarding the 2022 World Cup to a tiny, oppressive desert state like Qatar, FIFA has become unsustainably brazen. And there are signs that those who tolerated FIFA’s excess under Blatter are losing their patience.
Gulati is one of them. Four years ago, in the months following the Qatar decision and amid allegations (and some proof) that several ExCo members had been involved in bribery schemes related to the World Cup vote and presidential election, U.S. Soccer voted for Blatter rather than abstaining in protest.
During a June 2011 TV interview, ESPN’s Alexi Lalas asked Gulati if, “A vote for Blatter is in conflict with American values, principles, fairness [and] honesty.”
Gulati responded, “An abstention in this case doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t send a message. To take the moral high ground is fine, unless you’re standing on quicksand. And I don’t think taking the moral high ground was the right thing to do. We [voted]. We’re going to push for reforms.”
Working within the system, and hoping that Blatter was sincere about tackling FIFA’s issues, was Gulati’s play. He intended to keep the U.S. in contention to host the 2026 World Cup and he hoped to wield greater influence after taking his seat on the ExCo two years ago. But the scandals have continued, from this week’s arrests to stories regarding the human cost of the Qatar World Cup. As exhaustion set in, the high ground became more appealing.
The U.S. was one of six countries to nominate Al-Hussein for the presidency, and Gulati this week promised U.S. Soccer’s vote to the Jordanian regardless of the potential cost. The 2026 host is expected to be selected in 2017, when Blatter will preside over a vote cast by FIFA’s entire membership instead of the ExCo. The U.S. very well may be the most qualified bidder. But then again, it also was in 2010.
“Would I like to see the United States host a World Cup in the future? The answer is, of course, yes. But for me, and for U.S. Soccer, better governance and more integrity at CONCACAF and FIFA are far more important than hosting any international soccer tournament,” Gulati told The Times. “If being on the right side of issues costs us from hosting a World Cup in the future, that would be unfortunate. But we are prepared to deal with that.”
As the USSF and MLS now may admit, there may have been better ways to spend tens of millions of dollars than on a doomed World Cup bid. As long as FIFA is governed like this, there’s little point in wasting more money, or the high ground, on a month of matches when that financial and ethical capital could be put to more productive use.
Gulati isn’t the only soccer executive reconsidering how he plays ball with FIFA. There are another 72, at minimum, tired of the status quo.
UEFA president Michel Platini previously supported the Qatari bid and Blatter. But the Frenchman, too, is fed up. He asked Blatter to step down this week and told reporters, "I have had enough. Enough is enough. Too much is too much. I am the first to be disgusted … If Mr. Blatter wins, UEFA will meet in Berlin [before the June 6 Champions League final] to discuss the future of our relations with FIFA.”
English executive David Gill, the former CEO of Manchester United who was elected to the FIFA ExCo in March, said he’d resign his seat if Blatter won another term. The committee is scheduled to meet Saturday. Greg Dyke, the chairman of the English FA, has mentioned the prospect of a World Cup boycott.
That is, of course, unlikely. And it may not be necessary. It’s fun to imagine FIFA trying to sell a World Cup absent the sport’s top teams, or to dream of a breakaway “Rebel Alliance” of countries interested in transparency and accountability. But that’s probably a pipe dream—it took years just to conjure the courage to vote against Blatter—and punishing players and fans by taking the best part of soccer from them isn’t the only way to affect change. Cutting off the money would do the trick as well. And that’s where the sponsors come in.
Like Dyke, they’ve made some noise this week about ethics and ideals and their grave concern about FIFA’s future. But since Sony and Emirates bailed last year, none has walked the walk. FIFA currently has five “partners,” each of which pays a reported $25-$30 million for the privilege, and two “World Cup sponsors.” Four of those seven companies—Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch)—are American. FIFA partners Adidas and Hyundai do plenty of business in the U.S. as well.
“We expect the next FIFA presidency to resolve internal issues, install positive change and adhere to strong ethical standards and transparency,” Budweiser said in a statement quoted by ESPN, apparently forgetting who held the past four FIFA presidencies.
“FIFA must now seize the opportunity to begin winning back the trust it has lost. We urge FIFA to take concrete actions to fully address all of the issues that have been raised, in a swift and transparent manner,” Coke said Wednesday.
Visa said earlier this week that it will be forced to “reassess our sponsorship” if FIFA fails to “take swift and immediate steps to address these issues within its organization.”
Plenty of talk, but no action so far. If those companies (and potential replacements) can find the high ground, or realize their brands will be tarnished when they’re draped across World Cup stadiums built by indentured servants, FIFA would have to take notice. Ending sponsorships for ethical reasons might even do their bottom lines some good. Those seven companies have the power, and the opportunity, to make a difference. Blatter and his colleagues surely are aware.
Finally, of course, there’s the DOJ, FBI and IRS, as well as the concurrent Swiss investigation into the votes that determined the sites of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Those convicted likely steered authorities toward those indicted, and those indicted probably have plenty to say as well. There were reports that Brazilian Football Confederation president Marco Polo Del Nero left Zurich before Friday’s vote to return home, where there is no extradition option. His predecessor, José Maria Marin, already is under indictment.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday’s arrests are “only the beginning.” The investigations will continue. The pressure is on. The “little bit” of nerves Blatter felt Friday may be only the beginning. He won his coveted fifth term. But the battle for FIFA is far from over.
“While we are disappointed in the result of the election, we will continue to push for meaningful change within FIFA,” Gulati said Friday. “Our goal is for governance of FIFA that is responsible, accountable, transparent and focused solely on the best interests of the game. This is what FIFA needs and deserves, and what the people who love our game around the world demand. We congratulate President Blatter and it is our hope he will make reform his number one priority to ensure the integrity of the sport across the world.”
If Blatter is unable and unwilling, there finally are others with the will and the tools to do his job for him.