When Sepp Blatter took to the stage during the gala opening of FIFA’s Congress in Sao Paolo and strutted his stuff with one of Brazil’s most glamourous models, it rounded off an eventful day for the 78-year-old FIFA president.
But not one that went entirely his way.
After a tub-thumping round of self-promotional speeches to his loyal followers among five of FIFA’s six regional confederations, and hearing gushing messages of support come flying back, Blatter must have been in triumphant mood ahead of his likely formal announcement on Wednesday that he will stand for a fifth term of office.
So imagine what a different kind of feeling he was left with after being brought down to earth with a crash by the not-so-loyal members of UEFA with whom he has long had a frosty relationship.
This was clearly a well-rehearsed and highly co-ordinated plan of action and although Blatter has learned to deal with brickbats during his colourful and controversial 16-year reign, it must have left him wishing he had never stepped foot in the room in the first place.
He couldn’t, of course, have taken any other option for reasons of protocol but if ever he needed a reminder that uniting FIFA’s entire membership was by no means a foregone conclusion, this was it. In a tense and frosty environment, Blatter told the Europeans that “every human being has the right to change his mind.”
Instead of a standing ovation, there was controlled anger. Afterwards, even 84-year-old Lennart Johansson, one of the great statesmanlike figures who ran Uefa for longer than anyone else in history, joined in the condemnation of Blatter outstaying his welcome, in Europe at least.
Johansson, who has not been a well man in recent years but is still passionately interested in how the game is both played and run and is always welcomed by his successors with warmth and respect, lost a bitter election contest to Blatter in 1998 and knows full well that Europe’s attempts to get rid of sitting presidents have invariably ended one way – failure.
In his retirement, Johansson has naturally mellowed and rarely gets involved in anything too controversial. But here he was joining the European chorus of disapproval over Blatter’s reluctance to let a younger man take over in FIFA’s time of crisis. “It is time he went,” said the veteran Swede. “He has done some good things for football and FIFA but 16 years is enough.”
Ah, but that’s the point. Enough for whom? Crisis, what crisis? The fact is that while UEFA may not need Blatter any longer, there are dozens of smaller countries across the developing world who do, associations who rely on the financial contributions made by FIFA. Under Blatter such contributions have only gone one way – and it isn’t downwards.
Several of Europe’s highly distinguished executive committee members privately made the point that Blatter was out of order to make it sound that he alone was responsible for dishing out these bonuses. The problem for UEFA, however, is that an attitude of “better the Blatter you know” is hard to dislodge.
Because in the end, it all comes down to money. Millions of dollars are handed out by FIFA to its constituents every year. This is money, as I say, that developing football nations need, or at least say they need. It must have been music to their ears when they were told this week by Blatter that they would receive another financial bonanza after the World Cup to help develop the game.
It may not satisfy the purists, it certainly doesn’t convince millions of fans who only see FIFA as some kind of corrupt institution. And it may not actually even be the most obvious reason for keeping one man in the same job for so long.
UEFA might speak for those millions who feel change is needed at the top to bring about a more transparent and credible image. But money talks. Which is why, like it or not, UEFA – the richest and least needy of FIFA’s six confederations by far – may ultimately have to put their opposition on hold, bide their time and watch Sepp continue to strut his stuff on the world stage for another four years.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of the The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org