The sense of disbelief that followed Sepp Blatter’s abrupt resignation, just five days after his re-election, was due in large part to the fact that the now outgoing FIFA president has made a career of serially riding out scandals that would have doomed chief executives in any other industry.
The PR gaffes alone would have undone just about any other leader. Throughout the years, Blatter’s insensitive comments on everything from gender equality to racism lowered him in the esteem of many fans, players and officials around the world — though crucially not with the various regional confederation chiefs who propped up his regime.
He became FIFA president in 1998 after a surprise win over the then-president of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, and presumptive favorite Lennart Johansson under controversial circumstances. British author David Yallop claimed to have found evidence that 20 FIFA voters were bribed $50,000 each to vote for Blatter.
Typical of that culture, the leaked 2008 letter whose contents may finally have tipped him to resign detailed an apparent South African Football Association deal for FIFA to send $10 million to Jack Warner, the then-head of CONCACAF, North America’s governing body, as part of a “diaspora legacy program.” The money allegedly came from South Africa’s operating budget from FIFA for the 2010 World Cup.
It’s that $10 million that has been the subject of some of the most intense focus of the ongoing U.S. investigation, with claims that it represents a bribe to secure votes for the South African World Cup. The letter was sent to Jérôme Valcke, Blatter’s general secretary — a man too close to Blatter even for this autocratic president to credibly defend.
This is not the first time Valcke has embarrassed Blatter or been linked to U.S. legal proceedings. In December 2006, Blatter was forced to release him as the marketing director of FIFA after a New York court case that alleged impropriety over a sponsorship negotiation with Visa.
Yet a mere seven months later, Valcke was back in an even more powerful position as general secretary, having been proposed by Blatter. Since then, Valcke operated as the president’s unofficial fixer.
Nor is Valcke the first aide to have been linked to Blatter and corruption. Early in Blatter’s reign his then-deputy, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, drew up a 30-page dossier alleging financial mismanagement within the organization that led to the collapse of FIFA’s Swiss marketing partner International Sport and Leisure. The whistleblower Zen-Ruffinen found himself frozen out, then forced out before the 2002 World Cup.
Zen-Ruffinen wasn’t alone; challengers to Blatter’s authority could expect to be isolated. The irony of Blatter’s resignation speech including the phrase “My mandate does not appear to be supported by everybody” lies in the fact that that had apparently never been a concern for him during his 17-year reign, until now.
As recently as last weekend, he told reporters, “I forgive, but I do not forget” those who tried to unseat him in last week’s election. FIFA members, including Warner, who found themselves cut loose in another bribes-for-votes scandal in 2011, would have recognized the sentiment. After his arrest last week, an aggrieved Warner was among those implicating Blatter.
That scandal — which saw onetime Blatter ally Mohammed bin Hammam stand against him in the 2011 leadership election, only to withdraw amid allegations of bribing CONCACAF officials to vote for him — ultimately set in motion the probe that appears to have finally toppled Blatter. The investigation’s paper trail has steadily removed any remaining buffers the president had between him and the exposed corruption.
But even as Blatter’s position looked untenable last week and the likes of the English Football Association’s Greg Dyke were greeting his re-election with speculation about whether he would see out his term, Blatter’s legendary chutzpah was in full effect as he declared, “I am the president of everybody” to the FIFA Congress.
Just a few days later, he was declaring the same body in need of “profound change” as he stepped down. With UEFA officials contemplating withdrawal from FIFA in the wake of his re-election and the scandal washing ever closer, it seems that even a survivor like Blatter had no room to maneuver. He’s not the president of anybody now.