Sepp Blatter’s surprise resignation as president of FIFA on Tuesday after 17 years of leading arguably the world’s most powerful sports organization came only days following a successful reelection in the teeth of a major corruption scandal. The once unthinkable happened because he put himself in an impossible situation.
Now it’s up to US prosecutors and reformers in soccer’s world governing body to seize the moment and clean house.
Just last Friday, at the end of a week that saw 14 soccer officials and marketing executives indicted by US prosecutors in a lengthy document laying out bribery schemes and other corruption charges, Blatter easily beat back a challenge from a Jordanian prince to win a fifth term in office.
“I will be in command of this boat called FIFA and we will bring it back to shore,” he said then, denying wrongdoing himself. The 79-year-old administrator seemed determined to ride out the maelstrom, or at least go down fighting.
So what changed between then and now?
Hand of the king
The media already is pointing to a report late Monday from The New York Times that moved the scandal even closer to Blatter. The article noted that federal authorities believe that FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke, the president’s right hand, was involved in a US$10 million bribe at the center of the case.
But even before that particular development, it was clear public and global media pressure was not going to relent. By declaring himself innocent of wrongdoing, Blatter then was left with two bad choices.
He could reverse course and say he was in on the deals (odds on that unlikely to vanishing) or endure the drip, drip, drip of accusations until, at some point, even the most generous reading of Blatter’s tenure would be that he – the man generally regarded as the single most powerful in all sport – had no idea what was going at his own private club.
Either way, resignation was the only way out, and the sooner the better.
A win for US prosecutors
Who wins in all this? For a start, how about the federal prosecutors in the United States, led by Attorney General Loretta E Lynch.
Just a matter of days after confronting FIFA, Lynch and her group already have brought down the top official. Now anyone who was afraid to speak out for fear of Blatter has had that wiped away.
While some obstacles that existed Monday remain in place on Tuesday – wealthy defendants, potential extradition fights, to name just two – common sense says the landscape just opened up for prosecutors.
Meanwhile, those who see corruption as a threat to fair competition in sports around the planet were ecstatic.
“Blatter going is just the start,” tweeted Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International, an organization in the midst of a yearlong initiative to fight athletic corruption worldwide, “let the real reform begin!”
And, certainly, there is a lot to do. FIFA, for instance, last year refused to release a complete version of its own ethics report on the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in Russia and Qatar. It will be interesting to see if that document now has a chance to see the light of day. Reports are already surfacing that Blatter’s resignation bodes ill for Qatar’s hold on the 2022 World Cup.
Can FIFA overcome?
More urgently, however, will be cleaning the upper levels of FIFA when a special election is held sometime between December and next March. It won’t be easy. The divide between the US and Europe on one hand and the many developing nations that voted for Blatter last week on the other is still there (FIFA elects its president in a one-nation, one-vote system, with 209 members). It must be overcome.
After all, as Michael Garcia, the former US prosecutor who led the probe into the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, said as he resigned from FIFA in frustration: “No independent governance committee, investigator or arbitration panel can change the culture of an organization.”
He’s right. Only FIFA itself can clean up the mess this scandal will leave behind.