As rumours swirled around Zurich on Wednesday that ethics investigators were about to throw the book at Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s headquarters was bathed in thin autumn sunshine and looked a paragon of normality. From the outside at least.
The gentle ease with which it was possible to enter the grounds, walk down the steps, cross the well-manicured lawns and stroll up to the entrance of the building suggested nothing untoward was happening. With no security to be seen, it seemed like a relatively routine day for the FIFA president and his staff. Or at least, a relatively stress-free one compared with the previous few.
The reality was quite different. Inside Blatter was learning what he had long feared: that the very body he had set up to weed out corruption in his beloved organisation had arrived at his very own door to bare its teeth and show no mercy. A better Shakespearean plot would have been hard to devise.
For weeks and months on end, in the face of mounting scrutiny and pressure, Blatter had been assuring anyone who would listen that he and the institution of FIFA were clean whilst acknowledging the need for urgent reform to prevent any more rogue elements from infiltrating his organisation.
Having lost one big battle by reluctantly agreeing to step down seven months into his fifth term after digesting the full repercussions of the twin US and Swiss corruption probes that thrust the sharpest of blades into the heart of FIFA’s credibility, Blatter was determined to cling on and not be further humiliated by throwing in the towel even earlier.
Not even when the Swiss authorities opened a criminal investigation against him; not even when four frontline FIFA sponsors called time on his presidency.
In one sense Blatter’s defiance not to be brought down before the time of his own choosing deserves admiration given much of the largely unreported work behind the scenes he has done to improve football facilities in the developing world. But he should have realised when Swiss investigators came calling that the die was cast and that too many shenanigans had happened on his watch. Just as the ceo of Volkswagen recently acknowledged what had happened on his watch – and promptly resigned.
Instead his stubborn refusal to read the signs have led to the very thing his supporters dreaded most: the sight of the man who has led FIFA for 17 years being cast out of his own office.
Given all the imponderables and uncertainties surrounding the biggest corruption story in the history of sport, it is unwise to predict what happens next. Today’s speculation is tomorrow’s hard news and the next day’s fish and chip paper. But one element of the saga needs to be highlighted. For months, the independence of FIFA’s ethics committee has been called into question, with the sceptics – many of them intelligent observers – predicting the committee wouldn’t dare go near Blatter and would simply massage its own ego by punishing lesser scapegoats.
Yet that was to under-estimate Hans-Joachim Eckert, the German judge who heads the adjudicatory chamber of the committee. Eckert may have taken cricitism for leaving out key parts of the infamous Michael Garcia report into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid process but take one look at his CV and you can see how many prominent people he has successfully prosecuted and the extent of his knowledge and experience. This is a man, according to those in the know, who is not afraid of anyone, who is scrupulously fair, totally uninfluenced by politics and obsessive about attention to detail. “Do you think he would have issued the 90-day suspensions to the likes of Blatter and Michel Platini if he had not ruthlessly done his homework?” was one question put to me this week.
Some say failure to react to the criminal proceedings against Blatter would have rendered both Eckert and the investigatory side of the ethics committee a laughing stock. Yet now they are being attacked in certain quarters for going too far. Surely both arguments can’t be right. The result is the mother of all battles between the various legal brains: the ethics committee on the one hand and the equally canny teams of Blatter, Platini and FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke (also sanctioned) on the other.
How long it will run is anyone’s guess. Much could depend on the opinion of Larry Mussenden, the Bermudan head of FIFA’s appeals committee who has suddenly become a key figure. Mussenden has the unenviable task of determining which parties to support. Blatter’s long-time adviser Klaus Stohlker, for one, said the veteran Swiss “has fought 40 years for FIFA. His heart is beating for FIFA. He will fight until the last day.”
That last day is supposed to be February 26, the presidential election date to replace Blatter. But it is rapidly degenerating into total farce. Technically, once the 90 days are completed – plus 45 more at the discretion of the ethics committee – Blatter could return to power just in time to take charge of the electoral congress and doubtless give a tub-thumbing goodbye speech. But only if he wins an appeal or the ethics committee somehow decides to take no further action against him once they have completed their inquiries.
And who would be in the running? Whether Platini, who has long been favourite to take over, will still be eligible is highly questionable. The deadline for nominations, don’t forget, is a few days away on October 26. Platini may have cleverly submitted his required five letters of support before he was suspended but that may not be enough to save him, even if he too wins an appeal. Simply because he may not pass the necessary integrity check. “I want everyone to know my state of mind: more than a sense of injustice or a desire for revenge, I am driven by a profound feeling of staunch defiance,” says Platini. “I am more determined than ever to defend myself before the relevant judicial bodies.”
Hardly a surprising reaction with his election dreams in severe danger of being crushed. But from what I understand, the ethics committee has no doubt whatsoever that the Frenchman transgressed over the timing of the infamous SFr2 million payment he received from FIFA for work carried out on behalf of Blatter all those years ago.
With Chung Mong-joon almost definitely out of the equation too following the six-year ban over his conduct surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid process (even though he also believes he will clear his name), that leaves Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, beaten by Blatter in May, as the only remaining heavyweight contender. But Prince Ali no longer has UEFA’s support or that of his own Asian confederation. Then there is the little-known Musa Bility, president of the Liberian FA, who has received scant backing from his own African brothers despite personally appealing to their executive committee. Get the picture?
Rumour has it that Asian supremo Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa may, as a result of all the confusion, may be encouraged to put his name forward after all. Rumour also has it that the whole thing might be postponed until the current mountain of dust settles. Bad tactical move. That would hardly enhance FIFA’s standing. Let’s get it over with and start afresh. Who knows, the current state of affairs might actually force someone well respected from outside the game to seize his chance.
Tokyo Sexwale, the South African human rights icon who runs FIFA’s mediation efforts between Israel and Palestine, says he still hasn’t made up his mind but might yet emerge as a genuine contender. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, whose organisation knows a thing or two about cleaning up corruption, said FIFA should be open to “a credible external presidential candidate of high integrity, to accomplish the necessary reforms and bring back stability and credibility”.
How many of the current names being bandied about could actually do that?
In the meantime there is now a power vacuum not only at FIFA – totally dysfunctional without a working president or general secretary – but at UEFA too. At both organisations, the two guys who have temporarily stepped in are hardly a break from the establishment. Cameroon’s Issa Hayatou and Spain’s Angel Villar Lllona are more corruption-tainted old guard than reform-minded new broom. How ridiculous is that?
It only goes to prove how desperate a need there is for root and branch change, a phrase too often used by the anti-Blatter lobby just for the sake of it but, given the developments of the past 48 hours, more relevant than ever.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org