What tipped him over the edge? Did he walk or was he pushed? Is the net tightening around him in the United States as is being reported? Or was it simply that the sheer weight of pressure and the almost daily dose of bombshell allegations into systemic corruption simply became too much to bear – even for the great survivor?
Whatever it was, June 2, 2015, will go down as the most momentous day – after a week of momentous days – in the history of football politics as a fifth four-year term for FIFA president Sepp Blatter caved in after precisely four days.
Until we have firm proof that the US investigation which has already snared a number of top FIFA officials runs all the way to the top, suspicion will linger about the precise reasons for Blatter’s sudden u-turn. Swiss authorities say their separate probe into a possible breach of Swiss law over the 2018 and 2022 World Cup process does not yet involve Blatter. So that leaves the US inquiry and, in particular, imminent publication of the evidence provided by former FIFA powerbroker Chuck Blazer, the burly, bearded American now desperately ill in hospital but whose information could prove crucial.
As the world digests Blatter’s sensational downfall – almost worthy of a Shakespearean-style tragedy – contrast his resignation with that triumphant election victory only last Friday and his uncomfortable but resilient appearance at a press conference 18 hours later.
“Why would I step down,” asked Blatter. “That would mean I recognise that I did something wrong. I fought…against all the corruption, against everything that is forbidden.”
Will those words come back to haunt him? Although US federal authorities are saying nothing official – yet – last week’s stunning 47-count indictment that cited a number of senior FIFA officials was never going to be the end of the affair amid unconfirmed reports that a case was being built around Blatter, the man who, for many, has come to symbolise FIFA’s battle against corruption. Could the already infamous letter showing that Jerome Valcke, Blatter’s right-hand man, was aware of the $10 million payment to Jack Warner – described by US prosecutors as a bribe – end up being pivotal to Blatter’s shock move?
If that is not the case, how on earth could the game’s most powerful figure, who last Friday was seen clasping his hands together and crying “Let’s go FIFA!”, suddenly realise his time was up? Unless, as I say, he was simply being squeezed to breaking point by everyone from sponsors to rebellious national federations to western politicians and had simply had enough.
Maybe he also realised that too many people now distrusted him. In any relationship, when trust breaks down, it’s hard to claw back. In the past, Blatter had always managed to find a way to survive but the sheer number of his lieutenants who have exited FIFA in ignominy has perhaps finally taken its toll.
Just look how many executive committee members have ended up in disgrace over just five years. Amos Adamu (Nigeria), Chuck Blazer (United States), Vernon Manilal Fernando (Sri Lanka), Mohammed bin Hammam (Qatar), Reynald Temarii (Tahiti), Jack Warner (Trinidad and Tobago), Ricardo Teixeira (Brazil), Nicolas Leoz (Paraguay).
The names keep coming. Add to that list current CONCACAF boss Jeffrey Webb (Cayman Islands), Eugenio Figueredo (Uruguay) and Eduardo Li (Costa Rica) – all cited in the US indictment for racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering along with Warner, Blazer and Leoz – and you get an idea of the depth of crisis now pervading what Blatter’s critics believe was his personal fiefdom.
Yet for all the euphoria in western Europe and the US, many will actually be mourning Blatter’s departure – however preposterous that might sound. Which makes the next few weeks and months particularly interesting when it comes to his successor.
Many, especially in Africa, view his departure as a noble gesture of self-sacrifice and point to the massive growth that FIFA has achieved during his 17-year reign and the hugely important increases in development funding. His supporters, of whom there are a great number, will surely make it their business not to allow what they perceive as the arrogant Europeans to step in and rule the roost. It may be too early to predict who may stand against him but how many heavyweights actually exist?
Much has been made already of Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, conquered by Blatter last Friday, throwing his hat into the ring again but this may not be such a wise move if Europe, this time, puts up their own man. Where would his support come from then, especially if his own Asian confederation, who never wanted the Jordanian royal to stand in the first place, puts up an alternative candidate. Kuwaiti powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, who has only just joined the FIFA exco and is a staunch Blatter ally, is already being mentioned. “He’s done a great job for football,” Sheikh Ahmad said in the aftermath of Blatter’s election victory, anathema perhaps to western European opinion but telling just the same.
For the first time in a generation the election will be open season. Many – make that most – at FIFA House have never worked under anyone else but Blatter. Suddenly, the course of footballing history has taken a dramatic turn into uncharted territory.
It makes for a fascinating and intriguing few months. Although Blatter has no vote, don’t think for one moment that he will just drop out of sight. His critics may not like to hear it but behind the scenes he will doubtless use his influence to push for a successor he believes in – and who believed in him.
That’s because the hurt over the humiliation of being forced out of office will not disappear quickly. When he changed his mind about standing again, the former sports journalist turned impregnable administrator made it clear he wanted to leave FIFA only after restoring its battered credibility and with his head held high. He wanted to leave a legacy of robust reform of which he could be proud. That he is no longer in a position to carry this through must wound him deeply.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org