Switzerland

Sepp Blatter And FIFA, Switzerland Shamed Again

After Swiss banking scandals shook global finance, arrests at the Zurich-based world soccer body shine a light on what's wrong with business as usual in Switzerland.

End of a reign?
End of a reign?
Laurent Favre

-OpEd-

GENEVA — The 65th congress of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, is set to begin Thursday in Zurich’s famed Hallenstadium. The plan was to broadcast the festivities live online, which would end with the grand finale of Sepp Blatter’s re-election as president of the organization.

This lovely gathering of “soccer’s great big family” turned sour Wednesday morning, when at the request of U.S. authorities, Zurich police arrested six of FIFA’s top executives on charges of corruption.

Scandal has definitively stained the last moments of Sepp Blatter’s reign. The 79-year-old native of Valais, Switzerland who dreamed — and still dreams— of a fifth consecutive term leading what someone once called the “world’s biggest country” must now deal with the biggest crisis of his career.

See no evil?

It’s his own fault. Even if he is not implicated directly in the affair, which concerns mostly members from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, Blatter is guilty of turning a blind eye far too long. Worse, his system of governance is based precisely on implicitly encouraging FIFA to just keep “feeding the beast,” and on a strong will to avoid putting his nose in other people’s business.

Many top executives in the world of sports entered the industry at a time when sports had little credibility, when leagues had to operate on the cheap. They were there when the money suddenly appeared, in the 1980s, when new TV channels proliferated and broadcast rights for sports exploded. They were there and they didn’t want to give up their place, having become quite comfortable. At the head of institutions, they didn’t have the will to modernize organizations, nor the courage to put in place safeguards when faced with temptation.

No modern man

Much like his predecessor, Brazilian Joao Havelange, Sepp Blatter is not a man of the modern era. At the turn of the 21st century, even while the Olympic Committee was struck by scandal and had to clean house, the Swiss chief found ways to not face the problems at FIFA head on, through political cunning and intellectual laziness. Now he is paying the price.

He will have to pay indeed, because American justice has intervened in its special way: aggressively. In Switzerland, the justice system and politicians have always given the Zurich-based FIFA the benefit of the doubt, the most convenient course of action for all.

In August 2011, Swiss president Hans-Jürg Fehr called on authorities to let FIFA keep its non-profit status — and the fiscal exemptions that go with it.

The Swiss Justice Ministry has now also opened a case against the organization for “suspicion of disloyal management and the money laundering surrounding the selection of the World Cups for 2018 and 2022.” But this is coming far too late. The net was cast in Switzerland, FIFA is based in Switzerland, and its president is Swiss.

Once again, the name of our country is associated the world over with a financial scandal. This one we could have seen coming.

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