Sepp Blatter’s first foray into the movie business — the self-serving FIFA biopic “United Passions” — was a $26 million flop, scarcely able to interest most of the world’s cinema distributors. But as Blatter and his former ally turned rival Michel Platini find themselves suspended by world soccer’s governing body, there’s potentially a box-office bonanza in any sequel that chronicles the accelerating disintegration of FIFA’s ancien regime.
In the wake of the Swiss authorities’ decision to investigate financial transactions involving Blatter and Platini (who is FIFA’s vice president and the head of its powerful European affiliate UEFA and is running to succeed Blatter as president), FIFA’s much lampooned ethics committee has done what would be normal practice in the governance of most major organizations: Both men have been suspended from any “football-related activities” for 90 days.
The ethics committee banned South Korean former FIFA vice president Chung Mong-joon for six years. Joining them on the sidelines is General Secretary Jérôme Valcke, after he was relieved of his duties and sent on leave — forced to return to Zurich midflight on a private jet headed for Russia and a 2018 World Cup promotion event.
All four men protest their innocence regarding the complaints leveled against them: Valcke over his role in channeling South African World Cup money to Jack Warner, the disgraced former head of CONCACAF, and Blatter for underselling World Cup TV rights to the same man and, most interestingly, for authorizing a $1.3 million payment to Platini in 2011 for services rendered 10 years earlier — just a few months before Blatter’s election to a fourth term as FIFA president.
After Thursday’s extraordinary events, the governance of world soccer now falls to Issa Hayatou, the Cameroonian FIFA vice president and the man in charge of African football. Platini’s place at UEFA and on the FIFA executive committee passes to the head of the Spanish Football Association, Angel María Villar-llona. Neither man is likely to inspire much confidence in the many critics of FIFA’s governance.
Hayatou was strongly criticized by the International Olympic Committee (of which he is also a member) for accepting payments from the media company ISL. Villar-Llona refused to cooperate with FIFA’s Garcia Commission, which investigated the much disputed bidding process for hosting rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. As to who is running FIFA at the moment, it appears to be in the hands of lawyers and middle managers.
All this would be problematic enough if it were not for the fact that, having announced in May that he was standing down, Blatter has scheduled an extraordinary congress of FIFA in February to elect his successor. Chung had seriously considered a run. Platini already filed his papers, and though his shorter suspension will release him in time to compete in the election, the only declared candidate left standing is Prince Ali of Jordan, who failed in his bid to unseat Blatter in May. Former Brazilian star midfielder Zico has put his name about. Rumors circulate around the South African politician Tokyo Sexwale as the continent’s standard bearer in the succession race, and the Bahraini kingpin of Asian sports politics, Sheikh Salman, may step forward.
In recent weeks, some of FIFA’s leading U.S. sponsors (Coke, McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch and Visa) have significantly hardened the tone of rebuke. “We believe no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA’s existing leadership,” they said in a statement, having called for Blatter to step down “so that a credible and sustainable reform process can begin in earnest”. The New FIFA Now coalition — which has been connecting European parliamentarians, the international trade union movement and Transparency International — has insisted that FIFA reform be led from outside the organization.
Given the speed at which this saga has unfolded, the multiplicity of agencies, committees and investigations involved and the dogged energies of its participants, it is impossible to forecast the outcome. The English FA, whose reputation is not that of the sharpest of football operators, has announced its continued support for Platini, in the expectation that once cleared of suspicion, he will make a triumphant last-minute return to the race.
Even then, neither Platini nor any other candidates — declared or otherwise — have established themselves in the public mind as agents of reform or as paragons of transparency. It may well be impossible to find a candidate with both established reform credentials and support sufficient to win an election in which the only voters are the 209 national federations mostly invested in the status quo. In fact, there remains no mechanism that would allow a real reformer to be brought in from outside nor any significant appetite among the world’s national administrators for doing so.
And then there is issue of Blatter himself, who is contesting the ethics committee’s decision and challenging the Swiss authorities. No wise punter would bet against his finding a way out of his dilemma — and don’t bet against his memoir making it to the big screen.