This is the season of cowering autocrats, when even the most intractable tyrants have faced mortal threats. But there’s one strongman who will, barring a shock uprising, exit this spring in good condition to continue his foie gras–fed lifestyle and his empire of cronies.
His name is Sepp Blatter. While he doesn’t preside over a country, he controls something arguably much more powerful. He runs international soccer, as president of FIFA, from his glass fortress in Zurich.
The dossier on Blatter’s 13-year tenure bulges with reports of corruption—so many tales of kickbacks that they add up to a damning negation of the perfunctory “alleged” that journalists insert into their accounts. Every few years the dossier expands further, as a new dissident emerges from Blatter’s penumbra to provide another sordid story. In May the head of the English Football Association told a parliamentary committee that no fewer than four members of FIFA’s executive committee separately requested bribes in exchange for supporting England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. One of them had the nerve to ask for £2.5 million; another hinted a knighthood would do the trick.
Yet all these allegations never seem to trip up Blatter. Politicians genuflect before him. Multinational corporations happily do business with him. And on June 1 he’ll undoubtedly return to office for a fourth term after vanquishing his onetime ally Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar. While bin Hammam was always a lousy vessel for reform, Blatter hasn’t hesitated to shamelessly point this out. Days before the election, FIFA opened an investigation into charges that bin Hammam’s presidential campaign has been offering its own bribes. Bin Hammam retaliated by forcing FIFA to launch yet another investigation into Blatter himself, alleging that, to the extent he did anything untoward, it was Blatter who authorized the payments in the first place.
Corruption is rampant in the sports world. This malfeasance may be unavoidably wired into the games themselves, where teams and athletes let the spirit of ferocious competition numb their moral sensibility. But the sins of FIFA are different in both scale and kind. With no real oversight, FIFA sells the marketing and television rights to the World Cups that it organizes. Last year FIFA brought in more than $1 billion, which then largely flowed right back out. But to where, exactly?
At the opening ceremony for his glass fortress in 2006, Blatter proclaimed that the architecture would “allow light to shine through the building and create the transparency we all stand for.” The transparency of all, that is, except the FIFA accounting office—which hardly clarifies the recipients of the organization’s largesse—and perhaps the FIFA press office, which banned the British journalist Andrew Jennings from press conferences after he asked nettlesome questions about Blatter’s regime.
When you become the head of FIFA—a life of private jets, luxury hotels, and watching football matches in the world’s greatest stadiums, often with politicians and rock stars at your side—you don’t easily surrender the gig. But, to pose the question on behalf of soccer fans everywhere, how the hell does one secure that corner office for oneself?
In Blatter’s case, his career began with a stint as the head of public relations for a tourist bureau in Switzerland; along the way, he ran the World Society of Friends of Suspenders, an organization dedicated to preventing panty hose from achieving hegemony over the garter belt. Most importantly, he acquired the right patrons when he took a job at FIFA in the ’70s. He was groomed by Horst Dassler, the scion who inherited the Adidas empire, and by João Havelange, the Brazilian who ran FIFA for 25 years and provided the template for Blatter’s reign.
FIFA’s governing structure makes it particularly susceptible to manipulation. Each of the organization’s 208 member states casts a vote for president. Just because England invented the game and has the world’s greatest professional league doesn’t make its vote any more valuable than, say, the Solomon Islands or Burma. Control of the organization rests with the ability to corral the votes of the minnows of world football. When Blatter ran for reelection in 2002, some British papers reported rumors that he stumped across this periphery dispensing cash and promises on a plane provided to him by none other than Muammar Gaddafi.
The world’s sports pages are often hostile to investigative journalism. More than in any other section of the paper, writers depend on access to a very small universe of sources—players and coaches and their front offices. When access disappears, their trade becomes impossible to ply. Sports journalists, therefore, become experts at maintaining cooperation with organizations, even when they could be writing hard-hitting stories about their decrepitude. That’s how FIFA’s escapades—which should provoke a populist backlash—can come to languish for many years under boring headlines.
But the excesses of the Blatter era have become too glaring to ignore. Last winter the British press unleashed a muckraking extravaganza on the eve of the vote to select host countries for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. England had spent several million pounds of public money in pursuit of the tournament—an unseemly sum, arguably, given the austerity cuts proposed by the Cameron government. But British journalists showed that this money apparently would have prevailed only if it were devoted to bribing FIFA’s executive committee. Undercover reporters for The Sunday Times nabbed one member of that committee, boasting that two countries had already offered payments for his support; another member was caught asking to be paid $800,000. (The Times later reported that two further members of the committee received $1.5 million in exchange for their votes.) Blatter conceded that the charges were indeed troubling: “Our society is full of devils, and you find these devils in football.” He suspended two members of the executive committee and vowed to police graft within his organization, pledging to personally “make sure that there is no corruption at FIFA.”
Still, this impropriety is perhaps the only explanation for how Qatar could ever have been selected as the 2022 host. It is a wildly implausible locale for a World Cup—too scorching hot for a summer tournament. FIFA has discussed moving the tournament to winter, and Qatar has vowed to turn up its air conditioning. But the absurdity of Qatar hosting, not to mention the mounting evidence of how it obtained that honor, will not be politely ignored. Even Blatter now refuses to rule out the possibility of reopening that decision.
Blatter has always presented himself as a great humanitarian and proponent of fair play. He has swatted away criticism by attacking the ugly motives of his accusers. In response to questions about Qatar, he lambasted “the arrogance of the Western world.”
It is strange to hear him slip into political correctness, since he has committed his own offenses against it. He once suggested that female players “wear tighter shorts and low-cut shirts.” When asked about Qatar’s ban on homosexuality, he joked that gay fans would be wise to “refrain” from sex during the tournament. (After a public outcry, he grudgingly apologized.)
These offenses, particularly when examined in aggregate, would have likely culminated in the head of almost any international governmental organization tendering his resignation under pressure. But all the regional soccer federations of the world will continue to stand by Blatter.
Blatter apparently covets a Nobel Peace Prize. We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility. Plenty of scoundrels have walked away with that medal around their neck. Besides, he has done the world a service. He has demolished all the clichés about transparency. Sunshine has exposed the rot of FIFA but has done nothing to disinfect the institution. Blatter reminds us of our infinite capacity for tolerating grotesque corruption and abusive leaders.
Foer is The New Republic’s editor-at-large and author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.