While Europe celebrates, the rest of the world will miss Blatter

Sepp Blatter is a consummate politician who took advantage of a shifting world order and Fifa’s history.

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After the years of acrimonious press conferences, there was something almost poignant about the fact that when the end came for the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, he announced his resignation on 2 June to an audience of only 15 people. The contrast to his triumphalism the previous Friday when he was elected president for a fifth term, beating Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan, the challenger backed by Uefa, the European confederation, by 133 votes to 73, was extraordinary.

But then the events of the past ten days have been extraordinary, too – from the 14 arrests and FBI indictments of senior Fifa officials two days before the vote, to the body’s ham-fisted attempts to blame a dubious $10m payment made by the South African Football Association (Safa) to the president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) on a dead man, just as Safa released a letter making it clear that Jérôme Valcke, Blatter’s secretary general, was responsible. Every day brought new allegations, new resignations and new arrests. It felt like the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, everything slowly and inevitably aligning until one domino toppled after another.

And then, on Tuesday, a snap press conference, which most assumed would announce sanctions against Valcke, only for Blatter, after a 45-minute delay, to resign (not immediately, of course; this is still Fifa, but he will be gone before an extraordinary general meeting, to be held some time between December and March).

The news brought widespread jubilation in western Europe and the United States, but it would be wrong to think that toppling the figurehead will bring an the end to the affair. Fifa is rotten to the core. If there is to be reform, there must be recognition of why Blatter was re-elected on 29 May.

Blatter is a consummate politician who took advantage of a shifting world order and Fifa’s history. In 1974, the Brazilian João Havelange, harnessing mounting frustration in Africa and Asia at a lack of representation in football’s governing body, defeated the traditionalist Englishman Stanley Rous. Blatter became Havelange’s technical director in 1975 and then his general secretary, succeeding him in 1998.

Under their leadership, the marketing of football became far more sophisticated and profitable – Fifa’s reserves now exceed $1.5bn. They also made a point of inclusivity: in 1974, just three of 16 World Cup slots were taken by nations from the football confederations of Africa (Caf), Asia (AFC) and CONCACAF; by 2014, 13 of 32 were. Blatter ensured that the World Cup was hosted in Africa for the first time, in 2010; and developmental aid increased by 70 per cent over his 17 years in office. Many countries have a national stadium or federation because of Fifa’s handouts. There may be corruption, much of the money may be wasted, and the World Cup may have burdened South Africa with white-elephant stadiums while Fifa took the profits, but Blatter did more to help the global spread of football than any previous president.

The rest of the world is suspicious of Europe, with some reason. Although Europe’s contribution to global TV rights (the greatest source of Fifa revenues) has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time, it may be that Uefa would prefer more of that money to stay at home. Uefa is to an extent beholden to the big clubs, many of which would prefer it if their non-European players weren’t travelling home for international fixtures every few weeks.

Only one of the FBI indictments relates directly to World Cup bidding, and that to the mysterious $10m payment made from South Africa to the then CONCACAF president, Jack Warner – who was also arrested on 27 May. A separate Swiss investigation is probing the successful Russia and Qatar bids for 2018 and 2022. Both future hosts, understandably, have condemned the arrests, Russia complaining of the US acting “extrajudicially” and Qatar speaking of “racism”. Blatter has accused the FBI and the British media of pursuing a vendetta against him, born of their anger at losing out in the bidding (and while we’re caught in this tangled web, it is worth reiterating that the supposed reformer Michel Platini, the Uefa president, voted for Qatar; Blatter didn’t).

Prince Ali failed to offer a credible alternative vision for Caf, the AFC and CONCACAF. If Fifa is to be reformed, the western nations that have targeted Blatter have to understand why he remained so popular, in some quarters, to the end. For a revamped body to work, it must be transparent and genuinely global. 

This article appears in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta