Dirty Dancer: Sepp Blatter's Corrupt Fiefdom Comes Crashing Down
With his top officials arrested for corruption, FIFA President Sepp Blatter finally recognized that it was time to go. Now, the global football body will have to reinvent itself. But is that even possible anymore? By SPIEGEL Staff
Two years ago, a piece in SPIEGEL began with the story of how Sepp Blatter, in his apartment on Zürichberg hill, begins each day with a little dancing at 6 a.m. He turns on the radio, dials in some pop music, cranks up the volume and wiggles through his flat.
When Blatter dances, it looks like this: face beaming, hands relaxed and shaking by the wrists, almost as though he is imagining playing a chord on a Gibson. His hips are maybe a tad stiff. His dancing style is a kind of standing cha-cha-cha, improvised but nonchalant. Old school. Back then, in spring 2013, Blatter told SPIEGEL that he was still one of those who could get down.
In his apartment, which has all the charm of a bachelor-pad set up in a suburban furniture store, Blatter showed off Scotch with plenty of ice in the glasses, his CD collection -- Édith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, James Last, Rock Ballads 3 and Michael Jackson. Two years ago in October, at Oxford University, he even performed what could very well be described as a Moonwalk variation.
At FIFA headquarters in Zürich, they call him P. P, as in president. Sometimes, it is said, he will even stand up during meetings to dance a bit, or even sing. When Sepp Blatter dances, he is at peace with himself and loves himself, no matter what the outside world might think of him: that he is a monster, a mystery or a space cadet.
'He Is Not Dancing in His Office'
On the morning of May 27, American prosecutors had seven FIFA functionaries arrested in Zürich on suspicion of accepting bribes, money laundering and tax evasion. The case involves the selling of votes within the FIFA executive for the South Africa World Cup and marketing rights -- but also for the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. Many of the accusations were well known, but now American prosecutors have opened an investigation. On the day of the arrests, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke of organized crime -- and the situation for Blatter slowly became critical. During a mid-day press conference that day, FIFA spokesperson Walter de Gregorio was asked how Blatter was doing. "Well, he is not dancing in his office," was the reply. "He's not a happy man."
Then, six days after the arrests and four days after his re-election as FIFA president, Joseph Blatter unexpectedly announced last Tuesday that he was stepping down. P. is no longer P. Even more surprising, there was a notable lack of sympathy and very little mourning. Even his biggest supporters remained silent. His friends in Russia, whose World Cup application Blatter had supported, and who saw the arrests made on behalf of the US Justice Department as an attack on their own country, also suddenly changed their tune, saying they respected Blatter's decision. FIFA has reached an endpoint, as has its president.
For 17 years, Blatter ruled over the global football association like a Machiavellian general and patriarch. It is a miracle that it lasted as long as it did. Now, FIFA is in hot water, but why was the organization able to get away with it for so long? It is a strange organization, and it will now have to reinvent itself -- if such a thing is even possible.
Immediately following his election victory over his Jordanian challenger on the Friday before last, Blatter seemed ecstatic. When he stepped up to the podium inside Zürich's Hallenstadion arena, his eyes were ablaze. "I like my job," he called out to the gathered delegates from 209 national associations. Fully 133 of them had voted for him, as though the US investigation, the arrests and the searches weren't real.
A short time later, Blatter seemed even more primed for a fight. In an interview with the Swiss television broadcaster RTS, he accused the American authorities of having sought to prevent his reelection by carrying out the arrests so close to the vote. In reference to Attorney General Lynch's accusations of corruption, Blatter said: "As a president, I would never make a statement about another organization without knowing."
He spoke of a "hate" campaign from the European associations and then uttered the kind of ambiguous sentence he is known for: "I forgive, but I don't forget." The next day, a journalist asked him if he was afraid of being arrested himself. "Arrested? For what?" was Blatter's answer. "Next question!"
But it seems likely that Blatter has been fearing exactly that since last Wednesday: Being arrested as soon as he leaves his country. If he remains in Switzerland, though, he is safe; his country doesn't extradite Swiss citizens.
Thus far, US prosecutors have been coy when it comes to Blatter. Is he the target of an investigation as the New York Times reported, citing an anonymous Justice Department source? Or is that just an FBI maneuver to make him nervous, up the pressure and force him into a mistake?
Palpable Fear at the Top
One key question is whether Chuck Blazer, a long-time member of the FIFA executive committee, has incriminated Blatter for corruption -- even as Blatter himself has always denied ever having paid or received a bribe. Blazer has struck a plea bargain with the US authorities and is the government's key witness, but he isn't the only one. Jack Warner, of Trinidad and Tobago, a former colleague of Blatter's and Blazer's, told a national broadcaster that he has collected incriminating evidence and handed it over to a third party. "Blatter knows why he fell," he said.
The fear at the top is palpable. Last weekend, the FIFA boss' mobile phone simply stopped ringing quite as often. Some members of the executive committee were afraid of calling Blatter out of concern that the FBI would be listening in on their phone calls.
Blatter has very few confidants who he really trusts. One of them is the chief FIFA lawyer Marco Villiger. Immediately after his re-election, Blatter tasked Villiger with getting in touch with a legal practice in New York that works for FIFA. He was to find out what the immediate legal consequences of the US investigation were for Blatter himself.
It's a delicate situation, was the conclusion Villiger reached and conveyed to his boss on Tuesday morning. The American lawyers advised Blatter to avoid visiting countries that have an extradition agreement with the US. That includes, for example, Saturday's Champions League final in Berlin. And the opening of the Women's World Cup in Canada. And the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. Blatter had always spent much of his time on the road, finding himself in an airplane on at least 250 days a year. Then, at the very latest, it must have become clear to Blatter that he had no other choice but to step down.
But Blatter had already held an intimate gathering of a few confidants in his office on Monday morning. It was "emotional" and "sad," and some tears were shed, says a source with knowledge of the meeting. It was recommended to Blatter that he call an extraordinary conference to announce his resignation and that he use his final months in office to push through those reforms that had thus far been blocked by UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations: Term limitations, salary transparency and integrity checks on all executive committee members. That would enable him to depart as a reformer. When the word "resignation" was uttered, Blatter, according to the source, said: "I have also already thought about that."
Twenty-four hours later, he had reached his decision. Blatter called a handful of senior FIFA functionaries in for a meeting, including General-Secretary Jérôme Valcke, Finance Director Markus Kattner, Media Director Walter De Gregorio and Marketing Head Thierry Weil. The question at hand was how to announce his resignation at a press conference without making it look as though Blatter was capitulating.
But a capitulation is a capitulation. And now, the only thing left is to avoid going down in history as the head of a thoroughly corrupt organization, but instead as an innovator who globalized football, one who brought the game to Africa, Asia, the US and the Muslim world. One who opened football -- who opened up football to everyone, no matter their skin color, their nationality, their social standing or their gender. One who transformed football into the world's greatest sport, which did more for world peace than any United Nations resolution. That, in any case, is how Joseph Blatter sees himself and his presumed achievements.
On Friday, a movie arrived in US theaters that follows exactly that plot. It is called "United Passions," and it was filmed by the French director Frédéric Auburtin, who is hardly known outside of France and who isn't exactly counted among the cream of the filmmaking crop at home either. The film cost 23.5 million to make and premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival. Thus far, it has played in cinemas in Serbia, India, Portugal and Hungary. In Italy, it was broadcast on television, in France it is available on DVD. Some 20,000 people have allegedly seen the movie in theaters.
That's not many, but it's not a problem either. The film doesn't have to earn any money because FIFA paid for almost the entire production. At the initiative of Sepp Blatter, FIFA poured 20 million into the project. In exchange, he was allowed to examine the screenplay for errors, as it was described. In other words, he was essentially the film's senior producer. And in the movie industry, just like everywhere, the senior producer gets to make the final decisions on what goes in, and what gets cut.
Blatter is proud of the final product. In Cannes, he appeared on the red carpet together with the director and Gérard Depardieu, who plays one of the film's main characters. The film tells the story of FIFA, starting with its founding in 1904, and tells it as though FIFA were the driving force behind 20th century history. An ambitious period film, Depardieu plays Jules Rimet, who became FIFA's third president in 1921 and who invented the World Cup a short time later. João Havelange, who led the organization from 1974 to 1998, also makes an appearance, as does, of course, Joseph Blatter himself, played by Tim Roth, who became famous for playing a wannabe gangster in "Pulp Fiction."
It is an awful film, with abysmal character development, erratic progression, odd dialogues and an unintentional atmosphere of satire. It is a joke of cinematic history, based on a true story, but dependent on fictional dialogues. These days, though, it is more accurate than it has ever been, because it shows how Joseph Blatter sees the world, FIFA and, more than anything, himself: as a fighter, a hero and a savior of football.
A Football League of Nations
"United Passions" shows what has become of the dream shared by a couple of men in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. They dreamed of bringing the world together such that everyone played the same game with the same rules, no matter what their social standing. A football League of Nations. But there was plenty of resistance. England, the motherland of football, initially refused to join, being too snobby, arrogant and racist. Which is how the battle for recognition began, led initially by the Frenchman Jules Rimet, who led the organization for more than 30 years and who put on the very first World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay.
The film winds its way through world history at a dizzying tempo -- through economic crises, wars and fascism, with FIFA all the while struggling to stay afloat financially and ever concerned about the game and about humanity at large. Because in truth, FIFA sees itself as a political project: anti-imperialistic and anti-racist but pro-democracy and pro-equality of all peoples and both genders. FIFA's portrayal of itself today as a peace-making machine of integration may be cringe-worthy, but it is deeply rooted in the organization's history and one that FIFA members continue to cling to. Even if many of them might be utterly corrupt.
Much of the film focuses on the rise of Sepp Blatter, the Messiah. Havelange, who was elected FIFA president in 1974, thanks primarily to support from the African associations, chose Blatter one year later to direct development programs. His task: Raise money. And in the film, Blatter did exactly that. He wins over Coca-Cola as a sponsor, even though in reality it was someone else who landed the company, and he becomes friendly with Horst Dassler, son of the Adidas founder and a big name in the business of football.
Cunning and Cynical
The Joseph Blatter that Tim Roth plays is surprisingly difficult to pin down: loyal and devoted to Havelange, who mentors his rise within FIFA, but also cunning and cynical, someone who knows the consequences of FIFA-style democracy, which gives every organization one vote, no matter how rich or large. In the film, votes from poor countries are essentially secured by way of development projects, disbursements and aid programs. Indeed, it is here where FIFA, as a political movement, intersects with Blatter's visions of becoming king of the football world: He wants to spread football to the entire world -- to the US, Asia and Africa -- so that they vote for him.
In 1998, Blatter finally becomes president of FIFA, in the film and in real life. Once again, concerns about money and enemies are lurking everywhere and journalists are targeting him and threatening to expose uncomfortable information. In the film, Blatter tells the executive committee: "Havelange isn't president anymore. I'm warning you. Gentlemen, we are now playing by my rules."
This battle within FIFA did, in fact, take place, shortly before the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. A tell-all book even appeared and there was an insurgency in the executive committee. The film shows how Blatter seeks to track down the traitors. Honorary President Havelange tells Blatter that he has to put fear into his opponents. They may not like him as a result, but they will do what he wants.
It all culminates in a scene at the end of the movie set in FIFA headquarters in Zürich, one that seems as though it could have been filmed last week with hidden cameras. FIFA functionaries demand his resignation. Blatter answers that their heads would roll too were he to step down. But his enemies insist on his departure: "Or do you want us in prison?" They find a candidate to challenge him, but Blatter wins anyway. Later, he utters the sentence: "I forgive everything, but I don't forget." It is a sentence in a fictitious dialogue in a movie, but one that Blatter used in real life last Friday on Swiss television.
In the film's happy ending, after Blatter's re-election, South Africa is awarded the World Cup. The final images show the real Nelson Mandela holding the trophy.
Tim Roth, who is actually an accomplished actor, recently apologized for taking part in the film. In Cannes, where he was this year to present a different film, Roth said he hadn't watched "United Passions." Why did he take the role in the first place? he was asked. Roth replied that he had needed the money.
Roth's problem is all the things the film doesn't show. How it was revealed last week that South Africa wired 10 million to FIFA via accounts controlled by its deputy head, Warner of Trinity and Tobago. Allegedly, the money was supposed to be used to finance football projects, but it was likely instead used to secure the support of Warner and the other countries in the CONCACAF confederation. The money transfer had likely been arranged by Secretary General Valcke, who has said, "I'm beyond reproach and I certainly don't feel guilty." Blatter has claimed he has no knowledge of the payment and it is alleged that it was authorized by the Julio Grondona, who was head of the FIFA finance committee at the time. The Argentinian was considered the godfather of South American football. He died last July at 82, and some might say he was lucky.
Valcke is also typical of FIFA officials. He joined the organization in 2003 from a French television broadcaster and became head of the television and marketing department. He then negotiated a sponsoring contract with credit card firm Visa, despite the fact that FIFA still had a valid contract with competitor Mastercard, which actually had the right of first refusal for renewal negotiations. Mastercard then sued in a New York court, costing FIFA $100 million. Valcke and three of his colleagues were immediately sacked. Seven months later, he returned to FIFA and Blatter made him his general secretary. Some rather unpleasant remarks have also been attributed to him. When the Brazilians fell behind in their preparations for the World Cup, he said they needed "a kick up the backside." And during the discussion surrounding holding the cup in Russia, he is reported to have said, "Less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup."
Cases like that are in no way isolated. Take the example of Issa Hayatou, 68, an official from Cameroon. For the past 27 years he has headed the Confederation of African Football which, with its 54 votes, is FIFA's most powerful continental confederation. During the 2002 election, Hayatou, then the chairman of FIFA's executive committee, ran against Blatter to become president. He didn't win, but did go on to become one of Blatter's closest confidants and vote-getters. If Blatter had resigned directly this week, Hayatou would have automatically become his successor. But Hayatou himself has been found to have accepted bribes. He accepted 25,000 from ISL, a sporting rights dealer owned by Adidas boss Dassler. The International Olympic Committee reprimanded him, but FIFA did nothing.
And that's not all. The former chief press officer for the Qatar World Cup Application Committee has accused him of receiving $1.5 million in order to cast his vote in favor of the Gulf state. According to the allegation, a first offer was given of $1 million, but it kept getting increased until Hayatou was satisfied.
Want more? Just look at FIFA's Audit and Compliance Commission, which is supposed to monitor business practices. Its head, Domenico Scala, 50, is a self-confident, ambitious man who is also a member of the Lions Club in Basel. He ought to be the kind of man to steer FIFA into the world of compliance adhered to by large corporations. Instead, one of his seven colleagues got arrested last August in the Cayman Islands for violating corruption laws. He is suspected of having misappropriated public funds and money laundering.
Scala is now expected to lead FIFA until Blatter's final exit. Blatter himself wants to use the remainder of his term to introduce the reforms he purportedly always wanted but was never able to push through. That may be true and he may actually try to do that. However, given that Blatter wants to go down in history as one of football's great heroes, he will likely use the remaining months of his term to build up a successor. A successor who doesn't clear up the past and the employees who were involved in it, but instead continues the work Blatter set out to do.
The question is who it could be. Michel Platini, the president of UEFA? Not likely, and it's probably better that way, even though he is leading the charge against Blatter in Zürich at the moment. Platini, a former player on the French national team, was once seen as a likely successor to Blatter, but the two had a falling out. It should also be noted that Platini voted in favor of Qatar as World Cup host. And before doing so, he met with the then emir for dinner together with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It was a violation of FIFA ethics rules. And a short time later, Platini's son got a job with Qatar Sports Investments.
Even the Russians would consent to Platini. He has visited the country more than 40 times in recent years and is friends with Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko. He also gets along well with President Vladimir Putin. At a meeting in Sochi, Putin joked that, "out of gratitude that you always support Mutko, Mutko and I will now try to learn French together." Platini's response: "Mutko already knows a few words of French. Like bonjour, au revoir and grand portemonnaie."
A Cultural Battle Inside FIFA
Then perhaps the Kuwaiti Sheikh Al-Sabah, a man who comes from the International Olympics Committee and is considered to be an opaque networker? Prince Ali from Jordan, who was passed over in past elections and who has now once again sought to attract attention to his availability? Or Franz Beckenbauer, Germany's football emperor? Several countries have mentioned Beckenbauer as a possible candidate, but Russia has emerged as a primary backer of him as well, which makes sense given his role as ambassador for the Association of Russian Gas Producers. Beckenbauer, though, isn't likely to be interested, and German Football Association head Wolfgang Niersbach has likewise said he doesn't want to be considered.
Some outsiders that may have a chance include the English official David Gill, who used to lead Manchester United, and the former Portuguese national team star Luís Figo, who was initially a candidate in the last election before withdrawing. There is also the former English professional player and current television personality Gary Lineker, who has positioned himself recently as a leader of the revolt by tweeting things like: "FIFA is imploding! The best thing that could possibly happen to the beautiful game."
Indeed, racism is still an issue. Not so much on the field and in the stadiums, but in the offices of the functionaries and in the conference rooms. In Qatar, even more so than in Russia, fear is growing that the tournament might be transferred to another country. On Wednesday, in fact, the country's stock exchange in Doha briefly plunged. In response to the increasing numbers of accusations directed at his country, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Attiyah said: "It is very difficult for some to digest that an Arab Islamic country has this tournament, as if this right can't be for an Arab state. I believe it is because of prejudice and racism that we have this bashing campaign against Qatar."
The United Nations really has nothing on FIFA.
By Rafael Buschmann, Lukas Eberle, Lothar Gorris, Maik Großekathöfer, Jörg Kramer, Guido Mingels, Matthias Schepp, Holger Stark and Michael Wulzinger
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015
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