It was only four days ago the most powerful man in soccer stood before the cameras with a broad smile, seemingly unfazed by mounting allegations of corruption, saying: “Why would I step down?”
That defiant mood had shifted dramatically by Tuesday, when Sepp Blatter agreed to resign as president of FIFA, the governing body for soccer worldwide, yielding to the pressure of a U.S. federal investigation and growing unrest within his sport.
“I cherish FIFA more than anything,” he said. “And I want to do only what is best for FIFA and soccer.”
His announcement capped a tumultuous seven days in which the U.S. attorney general's office unveiled an indictment of 14 high-ranking soccer officials and businessmen, citing a pattern of bribery that spanned decades and totaled more than $150 million. Six of those officials and executives on Wednesday were added to Interpol's most-wanted list.
Blatter has emerged as the leading target in the investigation, according to two federal officials who spoke anonymously because the case is ongoing. One official said prosecutors hope some of those already charged will roll over on other FIFA officials.
“You get the lower-level people to cooperate, then you work your way up,” said Douglas E. Small, a former FBI special agent who is now a director at the Berkeley Research Group in Washington, D.C. “That's the normal way to work any of these investigations.”
The 79-year-old Blatter plans to stay in office several more months, helping to initiate a series of reforms while FIFA finds a successor.
His sudden change of mind sparked questions about what might have happened behind the scenes and what lies ahead for the sport.
“I don't think FIFA is anywhere close to being able to present itself in a positive light,” said Gareth Sweeney, editor at Transparency International, a self-proclaimed global coalition against corruption. “It's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”
This isn't the first time Blatter has faced accusations of corruption since taking office in 1998. But the Swiss native has never been sanctioned for wrongdoing and, until now, had proved adroit at weathering controversy.
Calls for his resignation grew louder this week, widening to include criticism from Michel Platini, head of the powerful European soccer confederation, and a much-viewed rant on the HBO show, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported investigators have focused on a top FIFA lieutenant, Jerome Valcke, whom they suspect of making $10 million in bank transactions connected to an alleged bribery scheme that resulted in South Africa being selected World Cup host in 2010.
Blatter also might have felt pressure from another direction — corporate partners such as Coca-Cola and major networks that pay billions for commercial and broadcast rights to the globally popular World Cup.
McDonald's issued a statement saying corruption allegations against FIFA had “overshadowed the game and taken away from the sport.” Adidas said Tuesday's developments were a step in the right direction.
“It seems as though the pressure from sponsors is yielding positive results, more than most pundits would have expected,” said Mark Friederich, chief operating officer of Navigate Research, which specializes in marketing and sponsorship.
Christopher Cakebread, an advertising professor at Boston University, took another view, citing the demographic value of a sport that reaches billions of fans.
“There are a lot of companies that don't care about public opinion,” he said. “If one pulls its sponsorship from FIFA, someone else would probably just take over the spot.”
During his brief announcement, Blatter laid out — in broad strokes — a series of proposed reforms.
He said he has recommended new checks and balances for the six continental confederations that operate under FIFA's umbrella. That would address a crucial portion of the Justice Department case.
Investigators contended sports marketers were awarded commercial rights to high-profile tournaments after paying millions in bribes to officials from CONMEBOL, which oversees soccer in South America, and CONCACAF, responsible for Central and North America and the Caribbean.
At a higher level, FIFA will consider streamlining its powerful executive committee, which selects host cities for the World Cup, and enforcing term limits for committee members as well as the president.
“FIFA needs a profound overhaul,” Blatter said.
The effort has been handed to Domenico Scala, the independent chairman of FIFA's audit and compliance committee.
“While it would be premature to speculate on the outcomes of this work, nothing will be left off the table,” Scala said.
Significant change might require dismantling the culture Blatter spent years establishing.
FIFA is made up of 209 nations — each has an equal vote — and Blatter built his constituency on smaller countries, some of which received funding or other favors from FIFA.
In terms of corruption, soccer officials from small, poor nations might be more vulnerable, experts said. The indicted defendants in the U.S. case include representatives from the Cayman Islands and Trinidad and Tobago.
“Everyone has a price,” said Richard Sheehan, a University of Notre Dame finance professor who has studied international soccer. “These officials get bribed because it works.”
The allegations that South Africa paid bribes to get the 2010 World Cup resonate with many who wonder about FIFA awarding the quadrennial competition to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
Qatar's selection seems particularly startling, given that the region's unbearable heat required shifting the traditionally summertime event to a later date in fall, causing a disruption of schedules for some of the top leagues in Europe, including the English Premier League.
A revamped FIFA could reconsider its selections for 2018 and 2022.
“I think the odds have increased dramatically,” Sheehan said. “If I was Qatar, I'd be sweating.”
If FIFA were to make a move, it might have to choose a country that already has enough stadiums in place. The field would probably be limited to major nations such as Germany, Spain, England, the U.S. and China.
The organization's congress is expected to vote on suggested reforms at a meeting later this year or early in 2016. Members would elect a new president at that time.
Leading candidates appear to be Platini and Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, who lost to Blatter last week.
Blatter will now see out the final days of a tenure that ranks among the most enduring and polarizing in the history of sports.
“It is my deep care for FIFA and its interests, which I hold very dear, that has led me to take this decision,” he said. “What matters to me more than anything is that when all this is over, soccer is the winner.”
Times staff writers Tiffany Hsu and Richard Serrano contributed to this report.
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