Sepp Blatter: The Crumbling Empire Of Soccer's Commander-in-Chief
Editorial: A German commentator says enough to corruption and gerontocracy at FIFA: we’re in the 21st Century, and this is the beautiful game we’re talking about.
Historically, ridiculous speeches have been an infallible sign that a dictatorial regime is about to meet its end. Take Libya's Muammar Gaddafi‚ "leader of the revolution," ranting at the whole world this past February. What was supposed to be a show of power was merely an embarrassment, at home and abroad.
Even worse was Erich Mielke, head of East Germany's state security apparatus Stasi, who in November 1989 summed up the whole vile conventionality of a repressive regime in front of the People's Parliament when he said: "I love – I do love all – all people – well, I do love – I showed commitment to that." We'll presumably be getting something along similar lines soon from Pjongjang or Silvio Berlusconi.
It was Joseph "Sepp" Blatter's turn last week at the FIFA assembly in Zurich. "We live in a disturbed world, where unfortunately respect and fair play are no longer to be found," the pharaoh of world soccer lamented. ‘‘With nature itself revolting, can it be any wonder people are revolting. But the world survives turbulent times.‘‘
The next day saw Blatter make a declaration of love for the sport so slimy it would have filled any stadium with a torrent of catcalls. The whole operetta must by now have made it clear to just about everyone how broken the world's most powerful sports federation really is.
In tried and true North Korean style, Blatter stood for election alone, and was given a standing ovation for his re-election to the FIFA presidency by an electorate he'd already bought. If the dreadful combination of unmerited riches and iron-hand rule came through yet again, this time one thing was clear: that's it. It's over.
The sinister Swiss is on his way out, much too slowly but unmistakably (After 13 years in power, this, he said, will be his fourth and last term.) Cautiously, perhaps, but still the world has started to jeer and mock. The revolt wasn't prompted by nature, but by a courageous group of mainly British officials.
The good news to emerge from the FIFA assembly is this: what earlier would have taken place behind closed doors took place on the world stage. Never has it been clearer how basic, undemocratic, greedy, and ego-driven the FIFA clique really is. They make millions. They deck themselves out with medals and distinctions, are wined and dined like VIPs, even as they accuse each other of corruption.
If Blatter won this election it can only be because he has a lot of money—and enough of the goods on people to silence critics. Despite all that: the assembly marks the beginning of the end of the Blatter era. Not only does FIFA leadership have no clear-cut goals, but it now no longer even possesses any natural authority—just enough dirt to enable it to cling on to power a while longer over the fear-based system it has created.
FIFA's trump card
How, though, can it be that in the 21st century, a pre-democratic, pharaonic system prevails over—of all things—such a global and popular sport as soccer? Simple. FIFA has a trump card: broadcasting and merchandising rights to the soccer World Cup, which is the equivalent of owning an oil well that never runs dry.
TV rights for the championship in South Africa alone brought in 1.6 billion euros. Profits in 2010 came to 200 million; money poured in from German TV channels ARD and ZDF, Coca Cola, Visa, Adidas and Continental. And thanks to his system of favorites and informants, to the practice of buying people, Blatter maintains a tight grip on it. Oil plus repressive methods equal FIFA.
And like many other dictatorships, Blatter's system also survives because high-powered figures in politics, economics and society around the world allow it to.
Companies with strict rules of conduct, powerful public broadcasters, democratic countries like Switzerland are not only keeping the soccer mafia in power, they make a huge fuss over its members. Just like the sinister former International Olympic Committee (IOC) head Juan Samaranch, Blatter too dreams of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
The cautious attitude in the face of the recent Zurich farce is a chilling illustration of FIFA's power. Nobody wants to mess with Blatter's boys. Everybody accepts that their good money, or at least part of it, goes to stuff greedy pockets. What about controls? There aren't any. There are no independent external investigations, only internal ones steered by Blatter's Ethics Committee.
The executive, legislative and judicial powers, all in the same hands. While the whole world seems headed toward democracy, the soccer federation remains a dictatorship, a dictatorship protected by the Swiss state, which grants FIFA, as an international not-for-profit organization, privileged tax status and whose anti-corruption laws do not apply to sporting federations.
That of all things, soccer, a team sport that brings much joy and motivation, should be controlled by a gerontocracy is inconceivable, especially a gerontocracy that sends out messages that are diametrically opposed to all the good things soccer is about.
How can you explain the concept of fair play, respect for the referee's authority, the value of rules to a young player when the people at the top of the game could care less? That soccer is as strong as it is, is not thanks to its governing body's officials but to the power inherent in soccer itself, a global kind of energy that just goes on creating great players.
The determining question is this: what does a modern soccer governing body look like? Here, the governing body of the Olympics points the way. The IOC under Samaranch in the mid-1990s was in a position similar to FIFA's present one. After the wonderful sports fest in Barcelona in 1992, the 1996 Coca Cola games in Atlanta marked a low point.
Bribery was widespread within the organization; things had gone too far, just as they have now at FIFA. Sponsors, the public, broadcasters all threatened to walk away from the games. The Olympics faced a real crisis.
But things have changed since 2001. There are still some problems to sort out as regards to where the games are held, but since Belgian surgeon Jacques Rogge has been at the head of the IOC, the organization has steered clear of commercialism and is striving for an ever more gigantic reach.
What Rogge has been to the Olympics, Michel Platini could be to FIFA. He's charming, tough, and has the authority of a great sportsman. But first the Blatter system has to implode -- and it will, because the prevailing madness is now out in the open and the usual instruments of power will no longer work to cover it up.
In this regard, Qatar getting the 2022 World Cup offers a wonderful opportunity. The failure of the demented project could yield world soccer's biggest chance of reform.