Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Attending Sepp Blatter’s eagerly awaited press conference on Saturday some 18 hours after his tension-filled presidential election victory, at first it was as if time had stood still. Same shrewd, squat, balding, outwardly self-confident figure, with his trusted general secretary on one side and his hawk-like communications chief on the other.
But make no mistake, this was not the same person. This was a more nervous, uncomfortable Blatter, one almost backed into a corner. He may not have been willing to admit it but he surely knew that for the first time in his roller-coaster 17 years in charge, the momentous, jaw-dropping events of the previous 72 hours had been a game-changer.
In the past FIFA has always been able to deal with corruption issues internally. Not any more. The twin albeit separate cases carried out by US and Swiss authorities changed the entire landscape, not least with the arrest of CONCACAF boss Jeffrey Webb, regarded as the voice of truth and reason – even a possible heir apparent to Blatter – but who, by all accounts, is still stuck in detention fighting extradition.
No-one, seemingly, is now safe after an extraordinary, ground-breaking week described to me by one federation chief as “FIFA’s 9/11”.
Which is why, as the questions came thick and fast (Why have you not resigned? Why are you still the right man for the job? How can you justify staying in power amid such an avalanche of corruption claims?), Blatter chose a familiar tactic by blaming the whole thing on a western conspiracy concocted in the United States, fuelled by the British media and designed with precision timing with one purpose in mind: to bring him and Fifa’s house down and cause maximum impact .
Opinion over such an argument is split, with serious players lining up on both sides. But when a raft of World Cup sponsors start warning FIFA in no uncertain terms to clean up its act, you know the saga has taken on a whole new dimension. Blatter may have beaten Prince Ali bin al-Hussein by 60 votes but the bigger picture is one of an organisation that has been brought to its knees like never before.
The result of which must leave Prince Ali feeling sick with frustration. Having prevented Blatter – just – from winning a two-thirds first-round majority, he did the honourable thing by throwing in the towel knowing he could not possibly catch a man twice his age. But it’s a sobering thought that if his own Asian confederation had stood by him, he’d have almost certainly have acquired enough votes to now be occupying the hotseat in Zurich. Instead, having lost his FIFA vice-presidency by virtue of a sinister change in Asian statutes, the Jordanian royal, who passionately campaigned for change, no longer has any major role to play on the global FIFA stage and has chosen to walk away and concentrate on his various regional roles.
Who can blame him? Pretty soon, when the dust settles, he’ll no doubt emerge from his dejected state of mind to provide an insight into what it was like in those final few hours trying to guage how much support he thought he had. Seventy three votes was more than many had predicted. But it was also, according to his supporters, fewer than the man himself had expected. Prince Ali picked up considerable support in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL but the fact that UEFA, the only confederation to have officially backed him beforehand, didn’t carry out instructions and ended up being split doubtless hurt his chances.
The sight, a few hours after the election, of UEFA president Michel Platini, tie flapped over his unbuttoned collar, puffing out breath as he climbed into the lift at the Baur au Lac hotel where those infamous US-orchestrated arrests had taken place a couple of days earlier, said everything about the mood of the UEFA chief who wanted so badly to hit Blatter in the proverbials.
The next move, as far as UEFA is concerned, is Saturday’s hastily planned summit in Berlin on the sidelines of the Champions League final when some kind of concerted action is being planned. Or is it? A World Cup boycott? No chance. Pulling out of FIFA? Unlikely. So what then? All options are apparently open, including forming some kind of alliance with the Americas, north and south, who largely turned their backs on Blatter. As things stand now (the events of the past few days show how quickly they can change) it doesn’t look like the Berlin meeting, whoever ends up attending, will produce anything earth-shattering. It was telling in Zurich that Platini revealed he wanted David Gill to change his mind about not taking up the FIFA vice-presidency. Platini presumably thinks UEFA would carry more clout with Gill spreading the message from inside FIFA. If the Europeans can’t even agree amongst themselves, what chance of inflicting serious damage on Blatter now?
Yet neither Blatter nor FIFA is out of the woods. Far from it. Swiss prosecutors are not ruling out interviewing their most high-profile and notorious denizen whilst it would be no surprise if, across the pond, US judicial authorities are poring over information that could lead them back to Zurich.
Blatter, with typical resilience, has promised to watch what goes on around him with ever more vigilance whilst at the same time stressing that he can’t possibly monitor everybody all of the time. His legions of supporters sympathise with that argument even though it doesn’t wash with those who want him out and who proclaim FIFA has simply become dysfunctional.
The fact is, there are lot more who want him in. That may sound preposterous given the tumultuous events of the past week but when Blatter entered Zurich’s Hallenstadion under a hail of flashbulbs on election day, it was clear almost from the start – and certainly when he received applause halfway through his address – that loyalty runs deep.
That wasn’t the only reason he won by 60 votes despite the unparalled crisis that had enveloped FIFA. For a start, having just four months to work on the federations was too little too late for Blatter’s challengers who were reduced from three to one with just days to go. Prince Ali may feel that with more time to lobby, he could have made even further inroads into Blatter territory.
Then there was the psychological effect of those countries who rely on FIFA’s development funding, massively increased under Blatter, and who frown on the perceived arrogance of the European elite. Since Blatter came to power in 1998, he has personally visited many of these smaller nations who had never seen the FIFA president in person. The affection quickly became mutual.
One respected European voice whose country voted for Blatter told me in the aftermath of the ballot: “Whether you like it or not, a lot of people still connect their future with him. For all his decency and royal patronage, Prince Ali just didn’t have the same heavyweight status and experience. In fact, it was hard to come up with a challenger who did.”
But 73 votes against surely sent out a message? “Absolutely, there’s no doubt Blatter received a signal. But look at what happened on the day itself. Blatter spoke off-the-cuff and from the heart, Prince Ali from a prepared script. I wouldn’t say that clinched victory for him but it certainly helped after the week he’d had. “
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org