ZURICH – The Sepp Blatter show took center stage at the FIFA Congress Friday in the Hallenstadion ice hockey arena.
The day opened with a speech from Sepp Blatter, the outgoing president; it contained a campaign speech from Sepp Blatter the candidate, as he asked to be re-elected a president; it ended with Sepp Blatter, the incoming president, expressing his gratitude that “for the next four years I will be in charge of this boat called FIFA.”
He promised that God would help FIFA. He asked for “trust and confidence” and he tried to start a soccer chant as he pumped his fists and shouted “Let’s Go FIFA! Let’s GO FIFA!”
Then he returned for a brief double act with his sidekick, FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke. “I haven’t finished,” he chortled, when Valcke interrupted. “I haven’t finished!”
“I am the president of everybody,” he concluded.
Both of Blatter’s earlier speeches had referred to FIFA’s problems. He called them a “tempest.” Yet in between his serious speeches, Blatter controlled proceedings with a cheesy game-show shtick. The day was a strange mix of bureaucratic tedium, tawdry reality TV, briefly thrown off schedule by an outbreak of old-fashioned bare-knuckle politics. Blatter’s bonhomie almost slipped as he crushed an attempted uprising by the Palestinians.
Blatter started the day by delivering a typically ambiguous Blatterian message. He reminded the delegates that that the selections of Russian and Qatar as World Cup hosts were announced together in 2010. "If two other countries had emerged from the envelope I don't think we would have these problems today," he said.
To those delegates who believe that FIFA is the victim of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy, these remarks could be heard as an assertion that the British media and the U.S. authorities are attacking investigating solely out of resentment that their countries were spurned as World Cup hosts. Yet Blatter could have been sending another message. Choosing Qatar and Russia was a mistake. If he has to throw them overboard to save his FIFA presidency, he will do it.
The afternoon got off to a slow start, delayed slightly by a bomb threat, naturally, while the FIFA delegates were out to lunch.
"An anonymous threat against the FIFA congress was received." Valcke explained. “The premises have been cleared. The congress can start.”
The delegates applauded. They might have stopped to think that this was, in fact, a coded warning. In recent days quite a few threats have been received against FIFA. The time bomb that is FIFA’s casual attitude to corruption seems to be detonating in slow motion. Perhaps Blatter and Valcke plan to clear the premises. Those who were just digesting their free FIFA food on Friday afternoon might find they are not allowed back to FIFA’s groaning table of free luxury.
Perhaps the report by the FIFA “task force against discrimination and racism” might have reminded delegates of how fragile FIFA life can be. It was by Jacques Anouma of the Ivory Coast who had rushed off the bench to replace the head of the committee, Jeffrey Webb, the banned CONCACAF president who was otherwise detained.
The game show illusion was heightened when the Congress voted. For every vote except the presidential election, they used devices that resembled Gameboy console knockoffs, pressing a button while the big screen counted down the 15 seconds and a cheery theme played. When 99 percent of the sheep approved the FIFA budget or endorsed Blatter’s nominations for committees, the sheep applauded.
THE HANDSHAKE FOR PEACE
Tedious reports from FIFA committees alternated with glossy PR films. Blatter provoked applause when he asked delegates to turn to each other and perform a "handshake of peace,” which, the cynicas might say, is FIFA’s attempt to grab some of Nelson Mandelas’s legacy. But Blatter also knew where the script was headed. What he didn’t know was that after apparently agreeing to a deal after some serious arm-wrestling behind the scenes, the Palestinians would try to tear up that script.
The Palestinians had originally proposed a resolution that would have called for Israel to be expelled from FIFA. The Palestinians know that the powerful Executive Committee opposes any move in that direction, but the general congress could well vote for it. After a lot of arm-twisting, the Palestinians agreed to withdraw that resolution and push three far more anodyne points.
But after Jibril Rajoub, the President of the Palestinian football association, strode out to announce that he was withdrawing the original call for expulsion and that the Palestinians, “wanted to find a solution” and “not to score political goals,” he then proposed three resolutions that differed from the ones Blatter had on a piece of paper. In particular, General Rajoub wanted to involve the United Nations. In a thought-provoking metaphor, Rajoub accused the ExCo of trying to "whiten the ugly face of racism."
After Rajoub finished a passionate speech, Blatter called: "Where is our lawyer?"
Ironic. That is a cry uttered by many FIFA members this week.
What happened next resembled a genuine political debate. Ofer Eini, the Israeli soccer federation president spoke. Rajoub replied. Then Blatter, ignoring the revised Palestinian motion, put his version to the vote. It was carried with 90% of the vote.
With the camera on him, Eini strode across the room for a handshake of peace with the Palestinian delegates. The Congress loved it. FIFA surely had brought peace to the Middle East.
In his final remarks at the end of the day, Blatter returned to the subject, by saying the Palestinian resolution, rather than the presidential election, had made him nervous at the start of the day. He also tried to suggest that Palestine had achieved a great victory while Israel had been generous in defeat.
Before the election, Blatter gave medals to the outgoing ExCo members, and then welcomed the incoming members. David Gill, 6-foot-5 smiled and bowed as he loomed over the president. Both men knew that Gill had sworn not to take his ExCo seat if Blatter won the election.
The man trying to stop that happening, Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, also part of the outgoing ExCo delegation, then gave a smooth speech. As the audience reacted with warm applause and a couple of cheers, Prince Ali walked stiffly back to his seat like a condemned man. He already knew the verdict.
Blatter was serious but relaxed.
“You know me,” he said. “You know who you are doing business with.”
From the podium, the room must have presented a daunting view. In front of Blatter were 18 rising rows of delegates with eight rows of FIFA hangers-on behind them. Beyond and above that, was the brightly lit main phalanx of the global media. Blatter tried to dispatch the question of his age, he is 79, by asking, philosophically: “What is this notion of time? Time is infinite?”
While the delegates wrestled with this metaphysical question, one loud long laugh rang out from the press section.
When Blatter finished, the first 26 rows clapped enthusiastically. The media sat stonily, staring or typing.
The ballot itself resembled an attempt to create the most boring game show ever.
The individual delegations were called in turn. Their voters walked through the arena to one of the voting booths accompanied by elevator music. They entered through a curtain. Any illusion of privacy instantly disappeared because the booths resembled the play TVs children make from cardboard boxes. The voters turned to face the main hall and the ballot box, which sat on a waist-high shelf.
Just across the ballot box sat the four scrutineers apparently necessary to ensure the honesty of every FIFA member. While the entire audience could see the delegates’ faces, their hands were invisible as they voted. Even so; the dull duty of putting a mark in a box had been turned into a performance, a performance at which the three delegates who managed to return spoiled ballots failed. The process took almost two hours.
Blatter won 133 to 73, a surprisingly good showing by Prince Ali and enough, in theory, to force a second ballot.
When the loser took the stage to thank those “brave enough” to vote for him and withdraw he received the longest round of applause of the day. Time might be infinite, but all of those present were happy that Prince Ali had just given them back two hours of their lives, allowing for one final act from the Blatter Show that will go on for four more years.