The U.S. DOJ indicted nine FIFA officials, covered in sheets as Swiss police rousted them from their five-star hotel. They face charges for racketeering conspiracy and corruption. The arrests happening is shocking. The allegations? Not so much. Much of this was, more or less, in the public domain.
Blatter has committed a myriad of gaffes. These arrests highlight that the administration of soccer at its highest levels is an unscrupulous farce. To have fallout from these “crises,” there must be a constituency that holds Blatter accountable. That constituency does not exist.
National federations elect FIFA presidents. Each, regardless of clout, gets one vote. FIFA’s major activity under Blatter has been amassing billions of dollars in sponsorship revenue, redistributing billions of dollars to national federations for development, and not looking too hard into where that money ends up. Unsurprisingly, Blatter is quite popular with national federations.
Blatter will be re-elected on Friday, overwhelmingly. He was re-elected in 2011 amidst the same allegations of World Cup vote impropriety. An English effort then to delay the voting was supported by just 17 of the 206 voting federations.
Blatter has been president since 1998. He has been in the top level leadership since 1975. His last serious challenger was knee-capped by corruption charges before the vote. The strongest challenge UEFA president Michel Platini would offer was that he did not support Blatter’s re-election. Calls for him to leave are cute, occur often, and have proven ineffectual. Rooting him out will require more than shame.
While Blatter makes a fun cartoon villain, this DOJ investigation isn’t targeting him. The Qatar World Cup was not a fiendish Blatter plot. He, by all accounts, voted for the United States. Having the U.S. in 2022 opened the door for an obvious China bid in 2026. Blatter, under that scenario, departs as the guy who brought the World Cup to the developing world and left FIFA stable and printing money.
Central figures of this investigation are (a) corrupt Qatar voters who thwarted Blatter and ruined what he perceived to be his legacy (b) rivals who tried to oust him and (c) officials accused of corruption outside FIFA’s direct purview. It’s not outside the realm of possibility FIFA spins this and cooperates. That process may be underway.
Could the investigation threaten Blatter? Much depends on where it heads. The current indictments stem from officials rolling on colleagues and even fathers as part of plea deals. Is the DOJ content with that potential victory or does it go further to cut an anarchic swath through the International game? Perhaps Jack Warner finally has the impetus to unleash his football tsunami.
The trouble with the scorched earth route is soccer is corruption built upon corruption. Scraping off layers of filth only reveals yet further filth. Soccer’s financing is opaque. Palms are greased in every player transfer, sponsorship agreement and construction project. That’s before one gets to the machinations of active criminal elements and a multi-billion dollar gambling industry. Blatter may be the smoothest operator in FIFA, but he’s more clown prince than mafia don.
There’s no end point to that sort of investigation. And, it should be noted, those same national federations supporting Blatter can vote to ban the U.S. from FIFA for government interference. Though, marauding in on a white horse in a naive defense of virtue feels peculiarly American.
Reform happens when there is tangible demand for it. The World Cup is more popular and more lucrative than ever. Fans hate FIFA. Fans remain, as Eduardo Galeano put it, “beggars for good soccer.” When Lionel Messi approaches the penalty area with the ball at his feet, no one cares about Sepp Blatter. That’s why he survives.