Blatter Faces Contentious Election

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After more than six months of mudslinging in the finest of political traditions, representatives of FIFA's 204 member nations will gather here Wednesday to elect a leader.

The choice before them is simple: They can retain the incumbent, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter of Switzerland, as president of international soccer's governing body, or they can replace him with challenger Issa Hayatou of Cameroon.

By Monday, it appeared that Blatter would win comfortably--or perhaps uncomfortably would be more to the point.

That's because Blatter knows that even if he gets a majority of the votes, he still faces potentially serious legal action in Switzerland, where accusations of corruption and misuse of funds could, if proven, lead to him being ousted from office during his second four-year term.

The parallels to Watergate were too much for the European press to resist, and Blattergate entered the lexicon. Even Lennart Johansson of Sweden, the 72-year-old president of UEFA, European soccer's ruling body, was not immune.

"There are similarities," he said May 17, "because after Watergate, [former President] Nixon was still voted in as president before people knew all the facts. But the allegations never went away and he eventually had to go."

Johansson was defeated, 111-80, by Blatter in the 1998 FIFA presidential election in Paris, an election that published reports claim was tainted by bribery on the part of Blatter supporters.

Blatter, meanwhile, remains unperturbed.

"Let us play football now and then let's see what will happen with the case which has been brought to a court in Zurich," he said Sunday.

Blatter, despite being prone to banal remarks that reflect his background in public relations, has a shrewdness and political savvy acquired during 17 years of service as FIFA secretary general under former president Joao Havelange of Brazil. His critics have found it all but impossible to pin him down.

The latest to try has been Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who replaced Blatter as secretary general and who on May 3 delivered an explosive 21-page report (backed by 300 pages of documentation) to FIFA's Executive Committee alleging that Blatter could have violated Swiss law in his handling of FIFA finances.

Stunned by the revelations, 11 members of the 24-member Executive Committee, including Johansson and Hayatou, asked Blatter to resign. He refused. As a result, the 11 initiated legal action by filing papers with Swiss prosecutors in Zurich.

At the heart of the squabble are FIFA's finances, which have been in alleged disarray since the bankruptcy of FIFA's marketing partner, ISL-ISMM, in May 2001 with debts of anywhere between $300 million and $1.2 billion.

They were exacerbated this April by the collapse of KirchMedia, the German company that held the television rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cup tournaments, the "cash cow" events that essentially bankroll FIFA operations.

Blatter, 66, has long insisted that the finances are in order and that safeguards are in place to protect FIFA. But, with a majority of supporters on the FIFA Finance Committee, he has been able to resist attempts to open the books for examination. He has even consistently refused to reveal his own salary.

That has fueled increasing suspicion that all is not well.

In October, Johansson demanded an internal audit of FIFA's finances, but nothing happened. In December, 11 or the 24 members of the Executive Committee demanded the same thing, but Blatter said that 11 was not a majority and ignored the demand.

After newspaper reports in Europe cast serious doubts about the financial health of world soccer's ruling body and revisited the whole 1998 bribery issue, the Executive Committee in March overrode Blatter and established an Internal Audit Committee (IAC).

One month later, Blatter suspended the IAC from proceeding, claiming breaches of confidentiality. That led to the May 3 emergency meeting of the Executive Committee at which Zen-Ruffinen delivered his bombshell about "financial irregularities" within FIFA.

Blatter denied any such irregularities, calling them "bizarre and unfounded" and immediately cut Zen-Ruffinen off from receiving any further financial information. He ordered Urs Linzi, FIFA's financial director, to report instead to Julio Grondona of Argentina, a FIFA vice president and key Blatter ally.

"The secretary general would do better to work more than play CIA and FBI," Blatter told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung.

Throughout the imbroglio, it has been a case of mudslinging on one side and stonewalling on the other, with the truth falling somewhere in between. Curiously, Hayatou, president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), has remained largely above the fray.

His strongest public statement came in response to Blatter's claim that his critics were merely out to smear him in an election year.

"Even if it were not a period of campaigning for the elections, it would still be my duty to ... voice my condemnation against the reprehensible acts of the head of FIFA," Hayatou, 55, said in Tokyo on May 13.

Instead it has been Johansson and another FIFA vice president, Chung Mong-Joon of South Korea, who have launched the heaviest salvoes at Blatter.

Citing Swiss media reports that FIFA has incurred $500 million in losses during Blatter's tenure, Chung this month said: "FIFA is in serious financial and political crisis. It is divided and faces a crisis in leadership."

But as the allegations have been spat back and forth, FIFA's membership as a whole has remained largely unmoved, a fact Johansson commented upon bitterly.

"The majority are happy as long as they are getting the [financial] contributions [from FIFA]," he said.

Unless there is an upset of monumental proportions, Wednesday's election is likely to see Blatter returned to office and his allies put in control of all the significant committees.

If so, the charges that have been made probably will disappear. The FIFA carpet is large enough for many things to be swept underneath.

There remains, however, the troubling matter of that lawsuit in Switzerland, and it is likely to be in the courts where this story has its true ending.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE INCUMBENT

JOSEPH "SEPP" BLATTER

Born: March 10, 1936.

Age: 66.

Nationality: Swiss.

Family: Divorced with one daughter.

Position: President of FIFA, member of the International Olympic Committee.

Education: Degree in business administration and economics from Lausanne University.

Noteworthy athletic accomplishment: Played in the Swiss amateur soccer league.

Campaign comment: "The state of FIFA's finances is good. FIFA is open--I have nothing to hide."

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THE CHALLENGER

ISSA HAYTOU

Born: Aug. 9, 1946.

Age: 55.

Nationality: Cameroonian.

Family: Married with three sons.

Education: Degree in physical education.

Position: President of the Confederation of African Football (CAF); vice-president of FIFA; member of the International Olympic Committee.

Noteworthy athletic accomplishment: Cameroon 400- and 800-meter track champion; member of the Cameroon national basketball team.

Campaign comment: "I want to reinforce the credibility of FIFA and restore its integrity as an institution."

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