Lack of Blatter control may be exposed by US’ speedy flushing of FIFA

Analysis: Despite resignation announcement, Sepp Blatter remains in office. His power to pick a successor is uncertain

Sepp Blatter remains in office. The FIFA president may have dramatically announced that he will “lay down my mandate” in a hastily called press conference Tuesday, but the drama was contained to the announcement itself rather than in creating a timetable for immediate change. 

And with the realization that Blatter plans to stay until a successor can be chosen — later this year or possibly in early 2016 — comes a creeping awareness that Blatter, despite the turmoil under which his tenure as FIFA president will come to a close, still believes he can control his legacy.

Presumably this is to be done by controlling the pace and nature of reform at world soccer’s governing body. Change, if it happens at all, may not come at the expense of Blatter’s or his successor’s control of the confederation voting blocs.

An understanding and manipulation of those groupings brought Blatter’s predecessor and mentor, João Havelange, to power and have subsequently sustained Blatter through all internal challenges since his elevation to the presidency in 1998. The dynamic has been encouraged by what might now, at kindest, be described as Blatter’s laissez-faire attitude to individual responsibility by people in the regional confederations.

There are now two problems for Blatter as he attempts to stage-manage his exit as a final defiant act. One is that he is now an incalculably diminished figure in the internal factional politics of FIFA. The other is that the pace and reach of the U.S. Justice Department is forcing events to unfold at a tempo the governing body cannot control.

In “United Passions,” the self-funded — and self-serving — FIFA film hagiography that gets an ill-timed release in America this week, the only significant scene featuring the U.S. is a moment in an executive box at the 1994 World Cup final at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. 

In the scene, Havelange (played by Sam Neill), is confiding in Blatter (played by Tim Roth) that he wants Blatter, his general secretary, as his successor.

“Sepp, I want you to replace me. When the time comes, you have everything you need to run our family. Plus the quality I really cherish … Listen to me very carefully. When I leave the ship, I don’t want any waves. I want to leave peacefully and with honors. Do you understand me?”

It’s a ham-fisted, fictionalized account, though given that the $27 million that FIFA paid for the film probably came with a modicum of editorial control, it was interesting to note that the language was redolent of one of Blatter’s turns of phrases during last week’s stump speech to FIFA delegates: “Join us to put FIFA back on the right track, where the boat will stop rocking and go placidly into port,” he implored delegates, from a vantage point that now looks suspiciously like the deck of the Titanic.

The less than subtle point made in that sequence of the film was that the Blatter character was aware that there was corruption in FIFA and that Havelange was at the very least tainted by it but that Blatter went along with easing Havelange’s way out, with a FIFA life presidency, for the greater good of the “family.” Perhaps Blatter should have been played by Al Pacino, for all the echoes of the “Godfather” trilogy. 

And later, when Havelange was too deeply implicated in the taking of kickbacks during his time in charge, Blatter was able to sadly cut him loose and sail the FIFA ship of state forward, again for the good of the family. 

And now it’s Blatter who’s seeking to control the circumstances of his exit, with what remaining power he has. It means that attention will be turning to the likes of Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti power broker and 23-year former International Olympic Committee member, who quietly and efficiently helped deliver most Asian and Middle Eastern votes to Blatter in the recent election — effectively outflanking the campaign of Prince Ali bin Hussein before it even started. 

At Blatter’s suggestion, Sabah, the president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, became a FIFA executive committee member in April, just in time for Blatter’s latest run at the top job and with plenty of time for rumors about him as Blatter’s successor to gather momentum in the interim.

Blatter may yet believe he can smooth the path for a continuity successor like Sabah rather than the nightmare prospect of a true reformer who may air the family’s dirty linen in public. 

Back to those two problems for Blatter: He may just have enough arrogance to believe that he is still the father of the family and that the various unruly siblings will still respond to his command. At the very least, he’ll feel he still has the power to settle old scores in the time he has remaining. 

But the second problem is a much bigger one for him. FIFA, like a player in an opposing corner of the field in the 90th minute, has historically known how to waste time for its own good. Faced with a revolt by players over artificial turf at the Women’s World Cup this weekend, for example, the organization simply ran down the clock until it was too late to change, and it’s a method that has also served it well when it comes to internal regulation. Implicated parties would know that in the case of a FIFA ethics investigation, their early departure from FIFA would often be enough to curtail an investigation.

Jack Warner, the former head of CONCACAF, soccer’s governing body for North America, who was this morning the subject of an Interpol red notice, was able to walk away from what looked like one of the more blatant FIFA bribery scandals of recent years in that manner, at least until the U.S. justice system indicted him last week.

But with the testimony of Warner’s general secretary turned forced FBI informant Chuck Blazer, which was unsealed this afternoon, FIFA and Blatter’s ability to set a reform timetable of their choosing is evaporating. Blazer’s now infamous wiretaps of executive meetings may form a central plank of the federal case. If they are seen as directly implicating Blatter, he may yet receive a sharp knock on the presidential office door while he’s still contemplating whom he’d like to usher through it.

As the Havelange character tells the Blatter character in “United Passions,” “You may not thank me for this. It’s a big, powerful beast. It can swallow you whole.”

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