The name ‘Sepp Blatter’ tends to induce a fairly uniform reaction amongst the majority of football fans, namely one of disgust and derision. Blatter, the FIFA president of twelve years, is today seen as a figure of fun, painted by swathes of the media as a bumbling, incapable and allegedly corrupt buffoon. It’s very easy to ridicule Blatter, often with ample justification, but from where did he emerge and what has he done to achieve such a dismal reputation?
When, in 1996, João Havelange announced his intention to retire from the FIFA hot-seat, Blatter (FIFA’s general secretary at the time) became one of the leading contenders to replace the Brazilian in what became hard-fought campaign. In direct competition with Lennart Johannson, Blatter embarked on a global tour of football associations and was quickly accused of electioneering in breach of FIFA’s supposedly stringent regulations. The Swiss former lawyer, however, got away with it and was elected president of FIFA on 8th June 1998.
While Blatter may receive occasional praise for some of the measures he has introduced during his tenure (limiting the altitude above which game can be played, for example), his leadership has been largely shambolic, nepotistic and self-interested throughout. David Golblatt offers a particularly savage critique of the Blatter years in his excellent book, The Ball Is Round:
“Many things in the world are badly governed. There are many elites who are incompetent, self-serving, self-important and arrogantly blasé about their evident limitations. None of them can begin to compare with the circus masquerading as the global governance of football. Sepp Blatter’s first eight years in power [the book was published in 2006] make one nostalgic for the authoritarian certainties, the despicable charm and haughty, patrician discretion of the Havelange years. At the level of everyday management and internal politics, Blatter’s regime has been a disgrace. From the very start of his reign he attempted to create new circuits of beureacratic power among his hand-picked staff and within the presidential office. The conduct of official FIFA business, always an opulent intercontinental affair, has spiralled to the levels of the grotesque.”
Goldblatt’s uncharacteristic negativity is certainly not without foundation, much of the Swiss’ “reign” has been characterised by divisiveness and seemingly flagrant corruption. Blatter’s successful re-election campaign in 2002 was plagued with allegations of financial irregularities and bribery. The issues were originally brought to light by Farra Ado, the president of the Somalian FA, who reported to the British press that he had been personally offered $100,000 to vote for Blatter in the leadership election. Indeed, concerns at the general lack of transparency that surrounds FIFA’s monetary dealings have been a recurring theme of the Blatter era.
During Blatter’s presidency various debts owed to FIFA by various confederations – some huge in size – have been written off without explanation or investigation. There has also been a total lack of monitoring the effectiveness of the money that has been used to fund “development programmes” in various corners of the globe, with unexplained and extraordinary payments being made to individuals with football associations. He may be a figure of fun to many, but the likelihood is that Sepp Blatter is a serial financial criminal (although for legal reasons I must stress that he has never been convicted of any crime).
The World Cup bidding processes have also descended into farce on Blatter’s watch. While the system has always been open to corruption, recent years have seen it become dominated by the personal whims of FIFA officials, the likes of Blatter and CONCACAF president Jack Warner seemingly basing their decision on the quality of freebies they are given by each participating country. It has also emerged today that three of the men that will be voting on the 2018/2022 World Cup bids took significant bribes back in the 1990s. It would appear that FIFA, and Blatter in particular, have no shame.
It can justifiably be said that football has enjoyed an unprecedented rise in its global popularity since Blatter took the reins at FIFA in 1998, but I would argue that that has occurred in spite of the Swiss and the questionable practices of his ubiquitous organisation. When Blatter eventually brings an end to his presidency he will not be remembered fondly; history will almost certainly judge him as an agent for selfishness and immorality within football.