Blatter continues to survive
RIO DE JANEIRO -- "What we've got here is ... failure to communicate." Whether the above line is familiar to you from the 1967 classic film "Cool Hand Luke" or the equally classic 1991 Guns N' Roses tune "Civil War," it's apt to describe and understand events surrounding Sepp Blatter in the last few weeks and specifically at Wednesday's FIFA Congress in Sao Paulo.
Consider the scene. Theo Zwanziger, a German member of the FIFA Executive Committee laid out the case for having either term limits (to stop presidents and ExCo members from getting re-elected ad infinitum) or age limits (so that, at a certain point, FIFA officials would have to step down).
FIFA themselves, at Blatter's urging, had set up an Independent Governance Committee, chaired by a corporate governance expert named Mark Pieth, and that's precisely what he had recommended in April: limiting the number of years that someone could retain power.
To many of us, it probably seems reasonable and obvious. One man holding on to power for too long is not healthy. Get fresh bodies and fresh ideas into the mix. Many democracies have term limits for elected officials for that very reason.
While it may have been an attempt at good governance, it was also -- let's face it -- the best chance of forcing Blatter out of FIFA. He's 78, and this is his fourth term. UEFA president Michel Platini, himself rumored as a candidate to run against him, has come out and said it is time for him to step aside. But when the floor was opened up for debate, you almost felt as if Zwanziger had suggested desecrating the world's game, such was the indignant reaction of the next few speakers, who feared it might mean curtains for Blatter.
"These limits are a form of discrimination!" thundered Luis Hernandez of the Cuban FA. "Moral integrity is most important and FIFA is an example to all! We have a winning leader in the current FIFA president and we risk losing him if we introduce age limits or term limits. I remember years ago when we felt ashamed by the treason and corruption that existed at FIFA and the president managed to steer us clear of those waters. Nobody changes our president!"
The man from the Haitian FA, Yves Jean-Bart, was also very distressed at the thought of term or age limits.
"All of Mr. Blatter's reforms have been carried out successfully," he said. "Our president shows intelligence, humanity, integrity and competence. By every measure, FIFA is doing excellent work and is in excellent health."
And so it went on until the vote which, predictably, saw both proposals trounced. And this is where the disconnect becomes evident.
To some, Blatter's unwillingness to leave the chair ("My mission is not finished. ... I am ready to accompany you into the future," he said), particularly after stating in 2011 that he would not seek re-election, is a sign of everything that's wrong with FIFA.
In 1998, Blatter won an acrimonious election that saw the president of the Somali FA, Farah Ado, claim that he had been offered $100,000 to back him.
In 2002, his own general secretary, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, alleged that FIFA had mismanaged funds under his watch. FIFA vice president David Will was prevented from asking about the allegations and another FIFA vice president, Issa Hayatou, nearly came to blows with him and, still, he won.
In 2007 there was no controversy because Blatter won by acclamation, as nobody ran against him. But in 2011 he traded all sorts of insults and accusations with Mohammed Bin Hammam, the rival candidate, only for the latter to be banned from football just before the FIFA elections.
Over the years, there have been allegations of mismanaged funds, FIFA Executive Committee members receiving a total of $40 million in bribes, ExCo members banned from voting in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host process following "ethics violations," ExCo members given lifetime bans for "conflicts of interest" and an ExCo member who resigned while facing an ethics investigation.
Blatter himself has barely been touched by all this controversy. But it did all happen on his watch, which, at the very least, makes you wonder about his ability to keep FIFA members in line and to create the regulatory framework needed to maintain transparency and integrity in the organization.
So how to explain the overwhelming, gushing support he enjoyed Wednesday?
To understand it, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the vast majority of FIFA member nations. Most are small, relatively poor and, for the majority of their existence, have watched as the traditional powers -- most of them European -- hogged the decision-making.
They credit Blatter for changing the status quo. He pushed to allow more African, Asian and CONCACAF teams into the World Cup. He set about increasing FIFA's revenues dramatically -- through clever TV and sponsorship deals -- and then took that money (more than $5 billion for the three-year cycle between 2015 and 2018) and redistributed it around the world. Indeed, according to a FIFA study, every single day they give away more than half a million dollars in development cash that goes to build pitches and provide coaching and equipment to various countries around the globe.
It's easy to scoff and ask how much of that cash actually makes it to the end-user and how much is whittled away as bids to build artificial pitches and training grounds that go to "friendly" construction companies. FIFA do have an audit system, and bids for their development funds are posted on their website.
In January, a FIFA official explained that they can't police every last detail, but they make this information public and invite local media to ensure that, say, the brother of the head of a local FA doesn't end up getting a $200,000 construction contract for a job that costs $50,000. (The problem, of course, is that local media aren't exactly investigative bloodhounds in some corners of the globe, but, again, there isn't much FIFA can do about that.)
Yet the point remains. Most of FIFA's 209 member nations see the Blatter era as a time when the organization started sharing the enormous funds it generates with them, rather than channelling everything to the biggest nations. Again, to be fair to FIFA, it's in pointed contrast to the game's other great money-spinner, the UEFA Champions League. It also is a cash cow; the difference is that the bulk of the cash it generates goes to the clubs who compete in it. What's more, nearly half of it isn't distributed on merit but on geography: Clubs from bigger, richer nations who have bigger domestic TV contracts get more than those from smaller ones.
And that's part of the reason why Blatter enjoys this level of support. If you're, say, the Lesotho FA, there's a greater chance of Marilyn Manson being the next Pope than there is of you qualifying for the World Cup, or even the African Cup of Nations. So what do you get from being a FIFA member? At least, under Blatter, unlike most previous presidents, you get some cash and assistance to develop football.
There's also the scary alternative. What if the countries with the most lucrative domestic World Cup TV deals -- the United States, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, etc. -- get together and say: "Guess what? We're paying for this thing. Our broadcasters and sponsors basically bankroll this competition every four years. We should get more out of it. Just like our clubs do in UEFA competitions."
What then? Under Blatter, they'd be laughed at. Under a different -- say, another European -- president? Who knows? It's not a risk the smaller countries want to take.
This is not to justify Blatter. It's to explain how different folks in different parts of the world can view him so differently. There are other reasons, too.
Many of the FAs who back him are run by powerful people from parts of the world that aren't exactly models of transparency and integrity themselves (though before we get too high and mighty about this, let's remind ourselves that many European FAs are equally murky). There's a lack of accountability toward stakeholders and a tolerance for snouts in the trough that is both frightening and worrying.
There's also the fact that for all the sillier things Blatter has said over the years (women footballers in tight uniforms, racist abuse being confronted by handshakes and, just yesterday, the prospect of an Interplanetary Cup) when it comes to diplomacy, the art of the deal and backroom politics, he's second to none. And -- guess what? -- FIFA is a political organization.
He's also helped tremendously by the fact that his potential challengers have a tendency to damage their own chances. Bin Hammam -- once a Blatter loyalist -- ran against him in 2011 and was found to have made illegal cash payments to officials from Caribbean FAs. Michel Platini was foolish enough to vote for Qatar 2022, even more foolish in naively admitting he did so (the only one who ever came clean) and still more foolish in not realizing that having a son who works for the Qatari company who owns the French football club he's supposed to police via Financial Fair Play -- Paris Saint-Germain -- might give off the appearance of impropriety.
Make no mistake about it. Blatter should not stand for a fifth term. Nobody should be in power for that long. And while it's undeniable that under his stewardship the game has grown exponentially around the world and that FIFA has redistributed so much of the spoils to the have-nots, those aren't the only benchmarks by which a leader ought to be judged.
Reputation matters and the truth is that some associated with FIFA have turned their corner of the organization into a personal kleptocracy defined by corruption and bribes. Some have been caught and prosecuted. Others have not. But all of this happened under his watch.
Further, whether willingly or not, he has given a big chunk of the world the impression that some level of impropriety and backroom deals is tolerated.
For that alone, it's time for him to go and time for the reforms recommended by the committee that Blatter himself set up be implemented.
All that said, though, I'm not the leader of a tiny FA from a disadvantaged nation on the margins of the sport's power games. If I was, maybe I'd see things differently. Just as those do, who cheered and hollered when he announced he would stand again.