Twin US and Swiss investigations. A fall out with UEFA‘s chief. Excoriating editorials. Calls to resign from Prince William to Rod Stewart. Major brands threatening to withdraw their sponsorship. But what really convinced Blatter to call time on his FIFA presidency?
Last week it seemed like he’d managed to pull one over on America’s long-armed law and Britain’s foul-mouthed press, and cling onto power like a true Mugabe of the sporting world. Tuesday’s resignation –dubbed blatter late than never- represented the thickening of a plot already as dense as a platinum-plated Chuck Blazer. Whether or not the FBI has something on Blatter – purely hypothetical, too early to tell, etc etc- we shouldn’t forget that it remains the same organisation that voted for Blatter… five times.
The complexity of FIFA has not been simplified by Blexit. The accusation by Blatter’s defenders of a Euro-American coup against the rest of the world fails to get much of a hearing beyond the conspiratorially minded. With the evidence piling up of dirty millions being pumped through shadowy accounts the burden of proof is not with those calling for reform. Yet the support for the status quo needs to be dissected rather than dismissed. It is true that the two most vociferous campaigns against FIFA corruption emerged from the two losers of the last world cup bid –England and the US. The whiff of sour grapes is particularly pungent on the UK side; in 2010, when England thought itself a shoo-in for 2018, Panorama’s FIFA investigation was a regrettable nuisance. Now the UK establishment are at the frontline of Blatter bashing. Australia – itself a hotly tipped contender- parked itself in the pro-reform camp, fuelling suspicions that the Murdoch press’ Sepptic headlines were written out of more than the utmost journalistic integrity. Meanwhile FIFA’s sponsors quietly huffed and puffed but ultimately did nothing to force the organisation’s hand. Visa and Coca Cola weren’t so much hedging their bets as landscaping a garden maze around their investments.
Then there’s Africa and Asia. Across these regions Blatter’s re-election was greeted with the kind of fanfare reserved for a native son. You’d think that Sepp was Swazi rather than Swiss. On Wednesday’s Today Programme Isha Johansen, president of Sierra Leone’s FA, articulated a familiar defence of Blatter as a father figure for her part of the world. Under his tenure, FIFA gave Africa immense financial assistance to develop footballing capability, innumerable talent programmes and a world cup. Whether Africa needed so many stadiums and training academies – many now lying in ruins after the balmy days 2010 – is another question. But Blatter ensured that his image came to personify positivity and hope in a region that is normally either side-lined by the West or the sorrow-subject of its sympathy. A image on FIFA’s Goal page says it all: a Zambian standing with a placard reading “Sepp Blatter: The only man that attends to Africa’s problem”.
“We [in Africa] take things in a personal way” Johansen said in explanation for why it is that Blatter, rather than FIFA and its big name sponsors, takes the credit for investing in Africa. Cultural differences are precarious grounds on which to explain away a matter as complex as FIFA. But as a thought for how the next FIFA president should conduct himself – and it will be a him – seemingly simple and often inexpensive gestures, like turning up for photoshoot in Lagos, funding a nutrition programme in Eritrea or finding the next generation of talented sports administrators in the townships of South Africa, can mean a lot. More even than an endorsement from McDonald’s.