It was never intended to end up like this. Jerome Valcke always expected to step down after eight years as FIFA’s number two once his boss, Sepp Blatter, announced he was calling it a day next February.
But he never anticipated being jettisoned five months prematurely.
As the dust settles on Blatter’s right-hand man being dramatically relieved of his duties last week and placed on indefinite leave within hours of allegations about a plot to sell 2014 World Cup tickets above face value, there is still a nagging feeling that whoever took the decision – one assumes Blatter himself with the help of FIFA’s team of lawyers – may have taken the easy way out.
FIFA’s top brass have had to deal with many a crisis in recent times but there will be considerable unease, given the current climate of suspicion and uncertainty, when the executive committee members sit round the table in Zurich later this week with one very conspicuous unoccupied chair. No-one is irreplaceable and FIFA would argue that it has an efficient mechanism in place to plough on without its secretary-general. The counter-argument is that with its frequent trouble-shooter now targeted himself, the wheels have all but come off. Paralysis? Not quite but increasingly dysfunctional.
Valcke, let’s not forget, was the man who led the organisation’s day-to-day administration. The man who had become accustomed to picking up the pieces; the man who, to his credit, had steered organisers of a number of World Cups through a series of crises; the man who, in front of the media at least, oozed decency, openness and loyalty.
The ferocity of the statement of denial by his lawyers spoke volumes about Valcke’s anger and resentment at having his name dragged through the mud. He is understood to have been en route to Russia to join the party celebrating 1,000 days to go until the 2018 World Cup when FIFA issued that bombshell announcement that he had been released “with immediate effect” and that the allegations against him had been referred to the ethics committee for investigation. His plane apparently turned round in full flight and headed straight back to Zurich for him to face the music.
By then, of course, much of the damage had already been done after Benny Alon, a previously little-known World Cup ticket operator, delivered a potentially career-ending knockout punch, one Valcke clearly believes was well below the belt.
Whether Alon intended his revelations to have such a catastrophic outcome is one of many unanswered questions. And indeed Alon’s motivation as he has seemingly signposted US Justice Department investigators right to his door – he is another American with US bank accounts allegedly engaged in putting together fraudulent schemes. Who is pulling whose strings here?
Another unanswered question is why FIFA reacted so fast. Whatever happened to the concept of innocent until proven guilty, Valcke must be asking. The answer, perhaps, lies in two words beginning with the same letter: perception and pressure.
Valcke’s suspension came at the end of another tempestuous week in which United States Attorney-General Loretta Lynch, at a news conference in Zurich, warned the football world to expect more arrests in the ongoing probe that has already snared a series of high-profile football powerbrokers.
America’s highest-ranking prosecutor, whose stunning revelations three and half months ago about systematic money-laundering and rackeetering to the tune of $150 million over two decades brought FIFA to its knees and plunged a string of its executives into disgrace, made it clear in no uncertain terms that the net is closing. No-one, she implied, was now safe. To have Lynch, in FIFA’s own backyard, pouring more scorn on football’s conduct must have been an uncomfortable sight, to say the least, for Blatter and his senior staff in their offices up in the hills a few minutes’ drive away.
Timing is everything. Still shaken by the aftermath of that May morning when seven FIFA officials were arrested in their luxury hotel, the serious allegations against Valcke – though he would call them slurs – could not simply be conveniently ignored in the current atmosphere of fearfulness. With the eyes of world watching its every move, FIFA’s inner circle knew they couldn’t afford to make any more slip-ups. The first sign of gross misconduct, alleged or otherwise, had to be punished in order to show the US authorities (and the Swiss for that matter given their separate investigation) that FIFA was serious about reforming itself and putting its house in order.
So when Valcke, who had so often tried to get the scandal-tarnished organisation out of hot water suddenly had his own fingers badly burned, he was in an unenviably vulnerable position. Especially given the fact that he was already facing mounting scrutiny over his dealings with South Africa concerning the 2010 World Cup and his alleged links to that infamous $10 million which US prosecutors believe was paid by South Africa to disgraced former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner as a bribe in return for his vote.
Valcke has always vehemently denied he did anything wrong and is not mentioned by name in the US indictment. Yet there are those who take the view, rightly or wrongly, that he has been living on borrowed time ever since the South African connection broke. Even before that, his tenure as FIFA’s hard-working number two had been punctuated by a series of unfortunate gaffes. Remember, for instance, how he sparked a diplomatic row in Brazil by saying that World Cup organisers needed a “kick up the backside”? Then there was the time he claimed Qatar had “bought” the 2022 World Cup though he protested, with some justification, that the remarks were unfairly misinterpreted and all that he meant is that the Gulf state had greater marketing and promotional resources than other candidates. The latest claims over World Cup tickets, however, clearly represented the last straw that pushed him over the edge even though no-one knows for sure how much of Alon’s story is true.
With Valcke no longer in charge, FIFA’s deputy general secretary, Markus Kattner, has taken over on a temporary basis. Meanwhile, Blatter emailed FIFA staff saying the organisation could “recover from the present difficult situation and restore its reputation for the good of the game.”
Who was he trying to kid? The bottom line is that of all the high-profile FIFA figures to have either quit or been forced out, none after Blatter come much bigger than Valcke given his wide-ranging brief. With FIFA under unprecedented scrutiny into each and every move and the urgent need for a fresh start, the decision was taken that, on balance, Valcke had to be made an example of despite his undoubted talents as a commercial and marketing fixer and a canny day-to-day operator.
The irony is that his departure has left a massive void at the top of the administration just when it desperately needs stability.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org