Ken Early: Blatter failed to steer the ship of Fifa’s reform

Fifa chief strong on vague rhetoric, but always more angry about critical press reports

There's a scene in Fifa's astonishing movie about itself, United Passions, in which the newly elected Fifa president, Sepp Blatter (Tim Roth), warns the Fifa marketing department that things are about to change.

“The next tournament is in South Korea and Japan, far from Europe,” Roth-Blatter says. “Some of you may feel that this is a good opportunity to close lucrative deals with certain lobbies. Think again. This sport is spotless. There is simply a lot more money involved in ours, which is why, from now on, we will be exemplary in all respects. The slightest breach of ethics will be severely punished.”

Some delegates smirk, others protest that Blatter’s predecessor, Joao Havelange, would never have dared to insult them like this. The new president fixes them with a steely stare of cold command.

“Joao Havelange presided over our family for 24 years. Did he make mistakes? Perhaps. Not for me to judge. But I am warning you. All of you. We will play by my rules now.”


Maybe Sepp Blatter really did once say something like this, maybe not. Though if he did, it’s hard to imagine he really believed he could stop corruption by simply telling people not to be corrupt. He was more realistic than that. Only last week he insisted: “You cannot ask people to behave ethically just like that.”

Yesterday, in the course of the sensational announcement that he would step aside as Fifa president, he blamed others: “The executive committee includes representatives of confederations over whom we have no control, but for whose actions Fifa is held responsible.”

It was never his fault. His attitude was always: “I’ve told them not to be corrupt, what more do you expect me to do?” Arguably his favourite saying was “there are always a few rotten apples”.

In the end, he was like a farmer whose wife is going to market only to discover her whole barrel of apples has liquefied into a putrescent sludge. When she confronts him, he throws up his hands and says “What do you want me to do? A few of them must have been rotten.”

Blatter’s way was to let rotten apples lie, apparently oblivious that a farmer who acknowledges the existence of rotten apples must also accept responsibility for rooting them out of the barrel.

Police the organisation

When members of his executive committee were exposed as corrupt he would suspend them and denounce corruption in general terms, but these belated, ad hoc measures never translated into a commitment to actively police Fifa from the centre.

He would issue vague rhetoric about restructuring and reform, but he always sounded more angry about critical press reports than he did about the corruption of the organisation he was supposed to be running. In the long run, his passivity made it look as though he cared less about a clean Fifa, and more about plausible deniability.

Yesterday's revelations concerning his right-hand man, Jerome Valcke, made his deniability look less plausible. Fifa had no sooner issued a statement claiming Valcke had no role in the "initiation, approval and implementation" of a scheme to transfer $10 million to an account controlled by the corrupt Concacaf president, Jack Warner, than a 2008 letter emerged showing Valcke must have known about it.

It may well be the case that Blatter couldn’t be expected to be aware of every instance in which his right-hand man helped organise the payment of something that looked suspiciously like an eight-figure bribe. If so, the defence of ignorance is scarcely any less damaging to his credibility.

Steer the ship

In his victory speech on Friday, Blatter had appealed to God for the strength to steer the ship of Fifa for four more years. He did not sound like a man who was planning to resign within four days.

Re-election proved that his global political base had stayed solid, but his personal position was weakened by successive waves of scandal that swept away key allies. The Valcke news looks the most likely reason for his abrupt announcement, but there will be speculation that perhaps something else, some new information yet to be revealed, helped to make up his mind. It was a surprise to learn that the man who had wanted to extend his time as president to 21 years had in fact always been an ardent advocate for presidential term limits, but that’s what Blatter claimed in his speech yesterday. “The size of the executive committee must be reduced and its members should be elected through the Fifa Congress,” Blatter said.

“The integrity checks for all executive committee members must be organised centrally through Fifa and not through the confederations. We need term limits not only for the president but for all members of the executive committee. I have fought for these changes before and, as everyone knows, my efforts have been blocked.”

Blatter will leave the heavy lifting on these questions to Domenico Scala, the Swiss executive who serves as Independent Chairman of Fifa's Audit and Compliance Committee. As chairman of the ad-hoc Electoral Committee, Scala will also oversee the election of Blatter's successor.

He has much to ponder. What should the term limits be for Fifa’s magnates? How will candidates for the new model ExCo be vetted? And can Fifa afford to hold its extraordinary congress in a country that has an extradition treaty with the United States? The sports administration story of the century still has a long way to run.

  • The candidates:

Michel Platini "He will be good president," said Blatter of the current head of Uefa three years ago and, for Platini, the time may have arrived for him to step up to the most powerful position in world football. The former France captain has long been viewed as a likely replacement for Blatter and was among those who last week publicly called on the 79-year-old to step down in the aftermath of the arrests in Zurich. "It was a difficult decision, a brave decision, and the right decision," Platini said last night of Blatter's decision. The 59-year-old failed to united Uefa to vote for Prince Ali, however, and the fact that he voted for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup may not help him.

Luis Figo Former Portuguese international was in the running to challenge Blatter for the presidency but pulled out eight days before the elections to unify support for Prince Ali. He unveiled his election manifesto in February but was never more than an outsider. "Football runs through my veins, I am a man of football," he said and suggested a potential expansion of the World Cup to 40 or 48 teams. When he pulled out of the race to succeed Blatter, he pulled no punches, saying: "This process is a plebiscite for the delivery of absolute power to one man – something I refuse to go along with" and likened Blatter's tenure to a "dictatorship".

Prince Ali bin al-Hussein The president of the Jordan FA and a Fifa vice-president, the 39-year-old lost to Blatter in last week's elections. "It is time to shift the focus away from administrative controversy and back to sport," Ali said in the build-up. In the end he received 73 votes from the 209 members in the first round, enough to force a second round, but conceded defeat to Blatter. Ali was among those who called for the publication of the Garcia report into allegations of corruption surrounding Russia and Qatar's bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Last night he hinted he would run again, saying: "I'm always there to serve football. We have to do so much work to fix this organisation."

Issa Hayatou President of the African Football Confederation since 1988, he was a staunch ally of Blatter. In 2011, he was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee over his part in an alleged bribery scandal. Hayatou was among those named on a list of $100m in kickbacks made by the now defunct sports marketing company ISL between 1989 and 1999. He denies any wrongdoing. In 2002 he ran – and lost – against Blatter, receiving 56 votes to the Swiss's 139. The 68-year-old Cameroonian will obviously have the support of a huge part of Africa's member associations but his close links to Blatter may count against him should he decide to stand.

Michael van Praag The Dutchman, like Figo, withdrew his candidacy for the presidency in the run-up to the elections in an effort to get Prince Ali elected. The 66-year-old Fifa ExCo member said when he launched his campaign back in January that he was "very worried about the deteriorating situation at Fifa, the public opinion, the trustworthiness is very bad and with me a lot of people in the world believe so". It is not yet known whether he will be prepared to stand again. Yesterday he tweeted: "I wanted change for the Fifa and this may be a very big step in the right direction. Let's truly accomplish." Jérôme Champagne Withdrew his candidacy for the presidency prior to the recently-held elections. The former Fifa deputy general had secured nominations from three federations but claimed he had to back away from taking on Blatter because others felt unable for "numerous" reasons to also support his bid. In a letter released at the start of February, Champagne wrote: "They feared reprisals from their confederations having issued 'recommendations'. The institutions have mobilised to eliminate the only independent candidate." With Blatter out of the picture, the 56-year-old may feel emboldened enough to put himself forward for the presidency again.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer