Patronage, fear and deep loyalty: The secrets of Sepp Blatter’s survival

Fifa president gets fifth term despite fires of scandal burning all around him

To much of the outside world it will appear preposterous. But the clues as to why Sepp Blatter was re-elected on Friday for a fifth term despite the storm raging beyond the walls of the profoundly dysfunctional "Fifa family" were liberally sprinkled throughout the pompous grandiosity of the occasion.

He may have entered Zurich’s Hallenstadion under a hail of flashbulbs and aware that his face featured on newspaper front pages throughout the world as shorthand for corruption, scandal and greed.

But inside the conference hall all was becalmed. Serene even. An event once memorably compared by English FA chairman Greg Dyke to "like something out of North Korea" here became a day-long advert for Blatter's munificence and omnipotence.

After Wednesday’s jaw-dropping, game-changing dawn raid on the Baur au Lac hotel that left two Fifa vice-presidents and five others in custody fighting extradition to the US and a total of 14 executives charged with money laundering and racketeering Blatter was rattled.

His carefully laid plan of sucking the life out of any debate over whether he should continue his 17-year tenure as Fifa president, which had frustrated his rivals and left him sleepwalking to victory, was in tatters.

Blatter spent Thursday holed up in his presidential suite at Fifa HQ, nursing his self-pity and avoiding the media hordes beyond its gates, before venturing to the Hallenstadion to deliver an opening address that proceeded according to script.

Blatter was back on home turf and singing a familiar song. It was a message he repeated in more rambling fashion in his pitch to 209 member associations across three speeches at the Congress, while limiting his opponent to just 15 minutes. He at once issued a plea for unity and attempted to claim he couldn’t be held accountable for the sins of “individuals”.

Speaking as though he had just wandered into the organisation that he has moulded in his own image over 40 years, he said the US arrests should act as a “turning point”, adding: “You can’t just ask people to behave ethically just like that.”

His claim that he alone could lead Fifa through its current crisis appears laughable to those outside but those listening to the deadening speeches inside had largely long since decided how they were going to vote.

Blatter angrily said last month that his 17 years at as Fifa president should stand as his manifesto when he defended his refusal to discuss the future.

But every other video, presentation or contribution from the stage or the floor were effectively adverts for Blatter and the Fifa model of using a portion of its $5.7 billion (€5.2 billion) sponsorship and broadcasting revenues to redistribute to development projects around the world.

Inside the hall football was endlessly “a bridge for peace” or a vehicle for hope, the solution to everything from racism to Ebola. Peace could be brought to the Middle East through a handshake.

Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football who is in his seventh term of office, appeared as chairman of the finance committee and promised $1 million (€910,000) to every member association.

Loyalty to Blatter runs deep in Africa as a result of the 40-fold increase in development funds over his tenure, plus the fact he delivered the World Cup to South Africa. It is a similar story in the crisis hit Concacaf region, where tiny Caribbean islands rely on Fifa’s cash.

But it remains an uncomfortable fact for Fifa that it spends as much on staff and overheads, including an estimated $10 million (€9.1 million) salary for Blatter, as it does on football development globally. But this is about more than pork barrel politics. It is about patronage, fear and deep loyalty.

In the Asian Football Confederation, the calculation is more to do with politics than pounds. The Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, the key powerbroker in the Olympic movement where his dealmaking installed Thomas Bach as president, was recently voted onto the Fifa executive committee and has rallied support for Blatter.

Despite Prince Ali being from the region, Sabah has strongly backed Blatter. “If you speak about Sepp, you have to speak about the change of football,” he said before the vote. “He has maintained and developed football. He funded a lot of football projects and made it more international.”

Blatter, like so many others before him from Michel Platini to Mohammed Bin Hammam and the now disgraced Jeffrey Webb, appears to have dangled the carrot of increased influence and even the presidency before Sabah.

His familiar tactics of threatening revenge on those who would turn their backs on him and rewarding those who keep him in power have worked one more time.

For all the complaints of his one-time ally Platini at Uefa and, more surprisingly, the rest of world football continues to distrust what they see as the arrogance of the rich Europeans.

Blatter pulled out all the stops and all his old tricks to win a political victory in the only way he knows how. But the fire raging beyond Fifa House will not be so easy to put out.

Up to now, it has been his peculiar genius. But a combination of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup decisions and the house of cards brought crashing down by the FBI’s three-year investigation will return to haunt him.

The deadening protocol and stage-managed contributions, punctuated by moments of unintended comedy and soporific music, made Wednesday’s dramatic US Department of Justice press conference and the Swiss investigation into the World Cup votes feel a long way away.

Despite triumphing in the short term, the real world will come crashing in soon enough and Blatter’s hackneyed vow to return Fifa’s sinking ship to calm waters will ring as hollow as all the others that have echoed down his 40 years there.

(Guardian service)