London Evening Standard

At tea time tomorrow, Sepp Blatter will almost certainly be re-elected president of FIFA for a fifth term. This seems astonishing given that FIFA are now engulfed in the worst crisis in their history.

So how can the 79-year-old, under whose watch much of the alleged bribery took place, not be forced to fall on his sword? The answer lies in the way Blatter has moulded the organisation so that when things go well he gets all the credit but when there is scandal he is the innocent victim of other people’s machinations, even if some of the perpetrators may have been his closest associates for years and he had previously held them up as exemplary men.

The last 24 hours in Zurich illustrate how Blatter has perfected the art of turning from hero, who can sense every change the game needs, to blameless victim, unaware of the dreadful things going on under his very nose. Take the arrest of seven high-ranking FIFA officials in Zurich yesterday having been accused, according to US attorney general Loretta Lynch, “of corrupting the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves,” a process that had been going on for almost a quarter of a century. Three of them are on the executive that helps Blatter run FIFA and one, Jeffrey Webb, has been touted as a possible successor who only a few weeks ago the Swiss was praising extravagantly.

Yet within hours of the arrests, FIFA made it clear that the US indictments related not to any FIFA activity but deals done by the football ­confederations these officials run in North, Central and South America.

Of course, such a defence glosses over the fact that these deals involved the World Cup, FIFA’s pride and joy. But Blatter is a master of claiming the confederations as part of the great family of football and then discarding them as soon as a scandal emerges. Then he suddenly becomes the man far too busy making peace between Israeli and Palestinian football to possibly have time to investigate any alleged bribery.

But surely Blatter cannot escape responsibility for the decisions to grant the 2018 World Cup to Russia and 2022 to Qatar, which the Swiss prosecutors are now investigating for possible fraud and money laundering?

These decisions were arrived at in 2010 in the plush house of football Blatter has built in Zurich and he presided over the crucial executive meeting that took the decision. But even here Blatter, the Teflon man, refuses to accept any responsibility, claiming that the Swiss investigation has come about because of a complaint FIFA made and that they are the victim not the perpetrator.

He can get away with such ‘Blatter-speak’ because of the curious world of FIFA politics. Each of the 209 member associations has a vote, so on election day tomorrow, Germany and Argentina, winners and runners-up at last year’s World Cup, will be no more important than Solomon Islands and Macau, who are No180 and No184 in the rankings. Over the years, Blatter has made sure of the support of nations such as Macau and Solomon Islands by cultivating them much as an MP nurses his constituency. In Blatter’s case it is not the promise of jobs and better health care but offers to help develop football in these countries.

There has long been talk that some of the FIFA money goes not to build stadiums but into various pockets. However, no proof has ever emerged. But what we see at FIFA Congresses are the sort of fawning speeches about Blatter the great leader that might have been scripted by officials of the North Korean communist party. Zurich tomorrow will be no exception.

Such praise will easily drown out whatever criticism there may be from European football as UEFA try to persuade FIFA that Blatter must be held accountable. Even before this week’s drama, Blatter’s supporters had been dismissive of Europe’s challenge, saying that until a few weeks ago the continent could not even agree on a common candidate, with three emerging including Luis Figo, before settling on Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, a member of Blatter’s executive and president of the Jordanian FA.

Now the actions of the US authorities has brought out the latent anti-Americanism many of Blatter’s supporters instinctively feel and last night Ali was being painted as a stooge of both the Europeans and Americans.

Indeed, even UEFA’s call for a postponement of the election was seen not as legitimate but evidence that UEFA knew Ali could not win and wanted to delay defeat.

In contrast, despite all that has happened, Blatter’s supporters cannot wait for the coronation of the only man they feel can lead the organisation. Curious, yes, but this is FIFA.


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