Sepp Blatter always complains that he is a leader who is not as powerful as his title of FIFA President may suggest. For a start, he is in the odd position that he cannot choose his own cabinet, something that Barack Obama or David Cameron would find intolerable.

So Blatter’s cabinet, the FIFA Executive Committee, are elected by the Confederations and foisted on him. There is nothing Blatter can do about that. He has to live with their choices.

To change the rules of FIFA so that members of the Executive are directly elected by the FIFA Congress, as Blatter himself is, would be a major remaking of world football. That is beyond Blatter. For a start, it would be opposed by the four British Home Nations who elect their own FIFA vice-president. The Swiss, being the shrewd politician he is, will not go down that road.

But the corruption crisis has provided Blatter with a historic opportunity; it has changed FIFA’s world. Until now, changes to FIFA’s executive were as a result of confederation elections. The crisis has seen four FIFA Executive members, including three Confederation Presidents – Jack Warner, Mohammed Bin Hammam and Reynald Temarii – forced out.

Blatter must now tame the Confederations and make sure that they have the same ethical rules as FIFA itself. If Blatter is serious about making FIFA fit for purpose, he has also to do the same with the Confederations. FIFA cannot be moral if the Confederations are not. There are signs that Blatter intends to rise to the challenge. FIFA’s intention to probe members of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) involved in the Mohammed Bin Hammam vote-buying exercise clearly signifies that.

There are, of course, problems. For a start, not all members of the CFU are members of FIFA. So FIFA’s powers to sanction those CFU members, many of them with French connections, are non-existent. That explains why FIFA’s letter asking for explanations has not gone to all members of the CFU. But, even with this important qualification, there is a lot Blatter can do if he has the will. However, he will first have to decouple himself from the legacy of his mentor Joao Havelange (pictured with Blatter).

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Havelange, who with the help of Horst Dassler shaped modern FIFA, used the confederations as vote banks. As long as they voted for the Brazilian, they could do much as they pleased in their own backyard. Havelange owed his election victory over Sir Stanley Rous in 1974 to the shrewd way he mobilised the African vote. He knew the Africans were concerned about South Africa and its apartheid policies and promised to make sure that white South Africa would be kept out of FIFA. Rous, the paternalist English gentleman, who liked taking cold baths in the morning and quite liked old white South Africa as many Englishmen of his era did, would not make such pledges. The result was that he could only wonder why his African FIFA children, as he saw many of them, deserted him.

Blatter learnt at the feet of Havelange how to use confederations for securing elections and has been masterful in this. In 1998 Lennart Johansson, then President of UEFA, thought victory was certain, given that he had the support of his own European and the African confederations. You did not even need to have Maths A level to work out that such a combination is unbeatable. But Blatter detached enough votes from Africa – and some from Europe including England – to turn the tables on the Swede.

Blatter’s first term as President was made difficult by the opposition he faced from Johansson and his UEFA colleagues on the FIFA executive. His answer was to go to the 2002 UEFA Congress and secure the election to FIFA of many of his men, including Michel Platini. I can still recall the joy of Blatter’s men as the election results emerged and Johansson’s closest allies were defeated. And this was a Congress held in Johansson’s Swedish backyard and where Johansson was himself re-elected unanimously with acclamation.

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That year, even more dramatically, Blatter defeated Issa Hayatou, the President of the African Confederation, securing more votes from Africa than the African.

In a way, Bin Hammam, who had worked so hard for Blatter in 1998 and 2002, was trying to employ the Blatter technique. Indeed, he says so himself in his letter to the Asian Football Federation where he protests his innocence and vows to fight the life ban. But, even if we accept that Bin Hammam did not try to bribe the Caribbean Union members, he was definitely attempting to raid Blatter’s vote bank. Just as Blatter had done to Johansson and Hayatou, Bin Hammam tried to do the same to Blatter.

But now that this has exploded in FIFA’s face, Blatter has to show how he can reform the organisation. It is not enough for there to be a powerful Ethics Committee at FIFA headquarters. There must be similar ethics committees at all the confederations. In addition, confederation elections must be monitored and shown to be above board. If only a fraction of the stories we hear about how such elections are organised are true, then there is much cleaning up to be done.

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Blatter will not find it easy to carry out such reforms. However, if he wants to leave a legacy of a clean FIFA to his successor (in all probability Michel Platini) then he has to do that. Otherwise, the scandals of the past year will recur. The result will be that FIFA will not have the sort of cathartic cleansing operation that the IOC had after Salt Lake City.

Blatter may argue that Juan Antonio Samaranch did not have to worry about confederations. But then Blatter has always seen himself as the supreme sports politician. Now is his great opportunity to show that he can do more than just win elections: that he can clean up FIFA and the confederations.


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