It was, by any standard of dissimulation, a bravura performance. FIFA president Sepp Blatter stood before the congress of world soccer’s governing body and extolled the game’s extraordinary power for global good. Football was, he said, a potent instrument of human rights and symbol of universalism. He said it must deal with politics and what politicians cannot do, but not be of politics itself. FIFA was leading the way in the global governance of sport, he continued, and steady leadership would deliver on all of these promises. There was much elusive talk of setbacks and progress, opportunities and obstacles and moments of rhetorical flourish as Blatter conjured up flames of truth and torches of responsibility.
The speech gave no hint of FIFA’s current travails or the mounting scandal stirred by recent reports in the Sunday Times concerning disgraced former official Mohammed Bin Haman’s time in football and his relationship to the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid. Nor was there any sense in Blatter’s telling that preparations for the World Cup in Brazil had evoked the nations’ largest ever wave of spontaneous social protest, followed by a year of chaos and conflict. And there was no hint that Blatter was speaking amid a raging internal political battle over who should lead FIFA into the future.
Blatter has left no doubt that he seeks a fifth term of office as FIFA president. Some European football associations who have lost patience with the septuagenarian Swiss administrator and the FIFA status quo appear to be preparing to mount some kind of challenge, but they were preempted by Blatter mobilizing his supporters in Africa. That was the underlying logic behind Blatter’s denouncing as racist the criticism of FIFA in the British press. The tactic was echoed by the Congolese delegate and long-term Blatter ally Omari Selemani speaking from the floor of the congress on Wednesday.
If FIFA and its president seem to exist in another world, that’s because they do. As Blatter headed off-piste in his opening remarks to the congress, he mused on the soaring global presence and power of the world’s game and asked if it might not spread: "We shall wonder if one day our game is played on the other planets." Urging his audience to think beyond the messy and uncomfortable details of the present, he mused on the prospect of FIFA one day running an inter-planetary cup. "Why not?" as he put it.
The fantastical tone of that comment was certainly present in the surreal opening ceremony for the congress held on the Wednesday night, a made-for-TV variety show spectacular mixing anodyne celebrity, orchestrated muzak and scripted chit-chat. Blatter himself seemed determined to have a good time and at one point dropped his shoulder, showed off a couple of dance moves, clicked his fingers Tom Jones-style and accepted the love from all the recipients of FIFA’s order of merit. He didn’t seem to faking it, either; this congress has served as a reminder that no matter how torrid a time he’s having in some parts of the football world, he’s respected and even loved in many other parts of that world.
The business at hand had started unpromisingly on Wednesday morning, as Secretary General Jerome Valke announced that the e-voting system had broken down and the congress would have to revert to the old-school voting by a show of hands. It hardly mattered. Not a single dissenting vote was cast nor question asked from the floor throughout the morning.
The reports on FIFA’s financial situation revealed that over the last two decades, the body’s income had risen twentyfold to more than $5 billion per four-year cycle, and it currently maintains reserves of over $1.4 billion. No wonder Blatter was feeling good, though he wisely left it to FIFA’s director of finance to tell the really good news to the 209 delegates who will choose the organization’s next president in a year’s time: FIFA will pay out a success dividend of over $200 million, giving each national association $750,000 while each continent’s confederation will be getting $7.5 million.
Perhaps the greatest disconnect between the FIFA congress and the rest of the planet came during the video announcing FIFA’s partnership with the Nobel Foundation. Against a stylized retelling of the 1914 Christmas truce no-man’s-land football game, FIFA and Nobel will be backing a new clasp-handed “Handshake for Peace” at matches. At the same time, news was coming in via social media that Rio police had arrested 10 activists in pre-emptive raids on their homes. Blatter asked the congress after the film, “Are you happy with that?” And on a day when applause had been a best tepid, they roused themselves with a modicum of enthusiasm.
Delegates appeared more enthusiastic about the lunch break that followed, fortifying them for the long, important and fabulously dull reports that filled most of the afternoon — on medical matters, match-fixing and the development of women’s football. Unreality returned with a bang with an extended plug for the FIFA-bankrolled movie United Passions, which tells the story of FIFA and its senior executives. It stars Tim Roth and Gerard Depardieu and premiered at Cannes last month, but has yet to go on general release. Executive member Mohammed Wara said “FIFA had done its duty to history,” but the ersatz drama of the trailer suggests they have mainly been doing their duty to themselves.
Then it was back to earth and FIFA’s own reform process. One outstanding question was whether FIFA should have term limits and age limits for its elected officials, thereby preventing the creation of incumbent dynasties and powerfully entrenched networks. On this question, there was a flood of delegates fighting get to the stage. Representatives from Haiti, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Congo all argued against such limits, barely concealing the key argument that such changes would make it impossible for Blatter to remain president.
If Blatter seems to be the consummate political survivor, he could be said to have learned from a master. For almost two decades, he had served under FIFA president Joao Havelange, who cultivated him as heir apparent and passed the torch Blatter in 1998 after 24 years on the job. Despite resigning from FIFA after an official investigation concluded he had taken bribes, Havelange has remained a powerful force in Brazilian sports politics — now in his 90s, he was released from a Rio hospital this week, where he’d spent six days with a respiratory ailment.
The age- and term-limit proposals were voted down, ensuring that Blatter could stand for reelection, while also demonstrating that the coalition that elected him in the past remains intact. In his final remarks, Blatter made it abundantly clear that he is ready to stand for election again. Should he do so, the results of this week’s congress suggest he’ll be a shoo-in.