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Soccer supremo Blatter returns to the public eye, but only on tape

Analysis: Scheduled Q&A is replaced by a taped speech, but awkward questions remain over how the global game is run

Germany was not the only winner at soccer’s 2014 World Cup; Sepp Blatter also had a remarkably successful tournament. And this week’s Soccerex conference in Manchester — the premier networking event for the global sporting-industrial complex — was to have been his first public appearance, at which he might have looked back with satisfaction at his prowess in dodging a few tackles in Brazil, except that he’s so busy that he won’t actually appear, except via a recorded video fireside chat.

The FIFA president was at the center of a storm of criticism before the games got underway in Brazil, and he kept a very low profile once the tournament kicked off, but he’d shown off all his best moves at the quadrennial Congress that preceded it.  

After an avalanche of bad press over allegations of corruption in FIFA’s decision to make Qatar the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, Blatter faced an attempt by European associations to impose term and age limits on the presidency of soccer’s world governing body that would have prevented him  standing for a fifth term in office. But Blatter glided past those tackles by mobilizing his huge base of support among the world’s football associations; the vote of each FA is equal to all others in FIFA, meaning that opposition to Blatter from some of the largest European associations was easily canceled out by the incumbent’s overwhelming support from the associations in the global south.

Delegate after delegate came to the dais to criticize term limits, and once it was clear that there would be no term limits imposed, Blatter finished with a flourish, announcing his candidacy in the June 2015 FIFA presidential elections.

Next year’s FIFA election, then, will be something closer to a coronation. Michel Platini, president of the European federation UEFA, and the most plausible potential challenger to Blatter, recently announced that he would not be running. Platini’s public explanation was that he prefers to finish his business at UEFA and to defend Europe’s interests at FIFA. Perhaps, although arriving at that decision may have been helped by the recognition that his chances of unseating Blatter were virtually zero.

The anglophone press and northern European football associations may have had their fill of an incumbent who has run the global game for the past 16 years, but he remains a welcome patron to the football association of the Caribbean, Africa, parts of Asia and Oceania. 

Former French diplomat and top FIFA official Jérôme Champagne had contemplated running for president, and is sufficiently connected to secure the required nomination of five FAs, but that’s small beer in a world of 209 FIFA members, where Blatter is virtually assured of securing a fifth four-year term.

Blatter has maintained his low profile since the World Cup, despite an enormously busy agenda. This has included, among other things: a visit to Russia to discuss that country’s grandiose 2018 World Cup stadium plans in the midst of the conflict with Ukraine, a controversy over the compulsory use of artificial turf at the Women’s World Cup (a proposal vociferously opposed by players and coaches) and a total meltdown of governance in the Nigerian Football Federation that saw members of the secret service remove the NFF’s then president and general secretary from a meeting being held to elect a new president.   

So busy putting out brushfires is Blatter that Soccerex — where heads of soccer’s regional confederations and national associations and the leading leagues and clubs mingle with broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers – will have to get along without what had been promised as a speech and live interview.  

A live appearance might have offered an interesting moment of transparency for the head of one of the world’s most powerful international NGOs. Brazil 2014 was a reminder that world soccer functions as an almost uniquely cosmopolitan cultural resource in a deeply fragmented world. It has generated unprecedented global television audiences and levels of social media interaction through the shared narrative experiences it offers. It is a common, collective and public good, held in trust by FIFA. And it’s for that reason that many want to hold the organization accountable against its promise to be “For the game: For the world.”

Were Blatter to make himself available to answer questions, he’d likely be challenged to address FIFA’s poor record on women’s football and the hopeless state of governance in many national football associations. He could also expect questions about the contents and implications of the forthcoming Garcia Report. That would be the findings of a commission headed by former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Michael Garcia, established by FIFA in 2012 to probe the widespread allegations of corruption and malpractice during the bidding process for the rights to host the World Cup in 2018 and 2022.

Some administrators, particularly among the losing bidders, retain some hope that the report’s findings will be sufficiently damning to require that the process be rerun. That remains unlikely. Blatter and the winning hosts — Russia and Qatar — are investing in infrastructure on the basis that nothing is going to change. FIFA’s track record suggests the more likely scenario is a finding that most of the bidders and the FIFA executive committee engaged in questionable behavior, but nothing so bad as to require reversing the outcome.

Blatter may also have been asked for comment on calls from European politicians for a boycott of the 2018 tournament to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine. His general secretary Jérôme Valcke argued last year that “less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup … When you have a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018 … that is easier for us organizers.” Brazil’s democratic culture of protest and holding politicians accountable certainly provided a few headaches along the way for FIFA. But Russia’s bullying of its neighbors – and the recurring problem of openly racist behavior among some Russian fans – could provide problems of their own.

Staging the tournament in Qatar is proving no less challenging, although there the issues are about weather and labor rights. Given that almost everyone involved in the game agrees that a tournament held during summer in the Gulf is not a good idea, proposals are afoot to stage it during the winter months – which would cause a massive disruption of the elite leagues in Europe, and would either risk a cataclysmic breakup in world soccer between FIFA, which organizes international football, and the clubs, of which the world’s best players are employees, or else require compensation on a truly massive scale for those clubs.

It would be surprising if Blatter’s taped address to Soccerex covers any of these awkward topics. Instead, those pressing for greater transparency and accountability in the organization of the world’s game will likely continue to press their case in the media and through other unofficial channels.

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