Andrew Warshaw: For whom the bell tolls

He tried every way he could, for months on end, to distance himself from the ignominy and disgrace that that has snared so many of his former colleagues.

He used every tactic at his disposal to create a positive lasting legacy: banging the drum for reform, insisting he was clean, arguing he was at the mercy of his confederation heads, promising to co-operate fully with the ongoing probes into his beleaguered, battered organisation.

But last Friday, quite possibly, time finally caught up with Sepp Blatter.

Ever since last May, when the US justice authorities announced their bombshell list of indictments which brought FIFA to its knees, the world has been wondering how long the man at the top could last.

Until a few days ago, it was assumed he would hold out at least until February, the date of the election to replace him, having himself announced he would step down nine months into his fifth four-year term under the sheer weight of pressure.

That may still happen. After all he has not been charged and has not been suspended. But the odds against look slim. Even by FIFA’s recent standards of volatility, the escalation of the crisis has been seismic.

It all started, of course, with that press conference which Blatter was supposed to host, the first since his number two Jerome Valcke was thrown out over an alleged World Cup ticket scam.

More than 100 reporters had eagerly converged on FIFA headquarters to hear Blatter’s views on the matter, only to have the press conference called off just minutes beforehand without any explanation or clarification. The executive committee meeting that had just finished had not thrown up anything ground-breaking so what was the problem? We soon found out. Up in his office, Blatter was being questioned and placed under criminal investigation on suspicion of financial mismanagement and misappropriation.

History suggests one should never write off the man who has always somehow managed to cling to power. Even when he finally announced he was stepping down prematurely, he bullishly declared he was going on his own terms. Now it may no longer be in his hands.

Right up until the Swiss attorney general came knocking at his door, Blatter, in his column for FIFA’s in-house magazine, was entreating anyone targeted by the ongoing US corruption probe and the parallel Swiss investigation to co-operate “no matter how close to home those investigations get”.

One can assume that was a reference to Valcke, his long-time secretary-general suspended just a few days earlier over allegations of his involvement in a World Cup black market ticket scam. Little did Blatter know that he was next in line.

As fast as they could, his lawyers rushed out a statement saying “certainly no mismanagement had occurred” and that they were confident the inquiry would clear him of any wrongdoing in his dealings with the infamous Jack Warner over the sale of World Cup TV rights and over a so-called 2 million Swiss franc “disloyal payment” made to UEFA boss Michel Platini.

Media reports suggested otherwise, saying Blatter would either step down straight away or soon be suspended by FIFA’s ethics committee. At present, neither has occurred. Which is more than can be said for Valcke, the speed of whose removal remains the subject of considerable conjecture.

Valcke, like Blatter, believes he is entirely innocent but that’s where the similarity ends. The Frenchman is understood to be resentful of the way he was thrown to the wolves. Some sources suggest Blatter acted as he did in order to punish Valcke for refusing to enter the election race and stand against Platini, a one-time protégé of Blatter who had helped him first secure power in 1998 but who turned, Shakespearean-style, against the veteran Swiss.

If that doesn’t sound too plausible, it is widely known that Valcke had at one point considered standing. So if refusing to do so wasn’t behind his suspension, what was? After all, on paper being relieved of one’s duties for an alleged involvement in a ticketing scam is surely far less serious than a criminal investigation, proven or otherwise?

One unofficial explanation I have heard is that the ticketing scheme was used as an easy way of get rid of Valcke; that Blatter had declined, despite several previous promptings emanating from the US justice department, to act earlier based on other alleged misdemeanours by his right-hand man which have not yet come to light. It is also reported that terms put forward by Valcke to secure a payoff instead of being suspended were deemed way too high.

Whatever the truth, Valcke, one assumes, feels little or no sympathy towards Blatter’s current predicament though he must be wondering why his former boss, whom he used to bail out of several scrapes, is still in his job, technically at least.

The answer perhaps lies in FIFA’s structure. Only Blatter (after consultation with his emergency committee) had the authority to get rid of his number two. But only FIFA’s ethics committee can suspend the president unless a motion to do so is tabled by Congress. So why hasn’t the ethics committee acted?

I’m told the reason is lack of evidence. Blatter may be suspected of criminal mismanagement or misappropriation but that, apparently, is not enough. The ethics committee need more hard evidence but you can bet your bottom dollar (a somewhat apt expression in this instance) that they are working on it.

What of the immediate future if and when Blatter does call it a day before the scheduled election? On an interim basis, Issa Hayatou, as FIFA’s senior vice-president, would step into his shoes. A man himself tainted with corruption having been accused of taking bribes from FIFA’s former marketing partner ISL. A man who forced through a change to the statutes of his own African confederation so that he could remain at the helm.

What an unpalatable situation that would be though thankfully, Hayatou, a member of the old guard if there ever was one, would only keep the seat warm for a permanent successor. But will it be Platini? If Blatter is a worried man (he said he wasn’t when interviewed a couple of weeks ago by the BBC and why would he be if he is leaving in February in any case), then Platini must be having kittens over that two million Swiss francs paid for consultancy work he carried out between 1999 and 2002 when he was Blatter’s technical advisor.

Having been dragged into what has probably become sport’s worst ever corruption crisis (though you could argue the IOC’s was worse), Platini’s odds of taking over from Blatter have already been lengthened amid speculation that some kind of ethics committee statement is imminent regarding the two most powerful men in football. “If there is an initial suspicion, the Investigatory Chamber of the Ethics Committee initiates formal proceedings,” a spokesman said. “These rules apply to all people in football regardless of their position or name.”

Meanwhile, Platini’s credentials – or lack of them – have quickly been seized upon by his critics as clear evidence (that word again) that the organisation needs fresh leadership rather than be run by someone tainted by the past. As ever with FIFA, everything is in the timing. And this is certainly not the end of it.

Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1716420198labto1716420198ofdlr1716420198owdis1716420198ni@wa1716420198hsraw1716420198.werd1716420198na1716420198