What the criminal investigation of Sepp Blatter means for FIFA
The Swiss attorney general’s decision to open a criminal investigation of long-standing FIFA President Sepp Blatter is the most damaging blow yet against world soccer’s ruling body, which has been reeling since May when the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed a 47-count indictment against nine top-ranking soccer officials.
Friday’s announcement comes a week after FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke, Blatter’s longtime aide, was “released from his duties” after being implicated in a black-market ticket deal in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup.
Blatter is scheduled to step down as FIFA president in February after this winter’s special election to choose his successor. Both Valcke and Blatter have denied any wrongdoing.
But the ongoing criminal probe into soccer corruption has saddled FIFA with a leadership vacuum. Here are some of the pressing issues:
Question: With FIFA’s top two officials now under formal investigation, have the criminal probes run their course?
Answer: Not by a long shot. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch appeared at a joint press conference last week alongside Swiss counterpart Michael Lauber, with both promising additional indictments. Lauber’s office, which has examined more than 11 terabytes of information, including 121 Swiss bank accounts, has been looking into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup and charges are still expected in the investigation.
Q: Who are the leading candidates to replace Blatter?
A: Until Friday Michel Platini, a former soccer star and the head of European soccer and a Blatter ally turned enemy, was considered the favorite. But when Platini’s name surfaced as part of the Swiss investigation Friday, his professed desires to reform FIFA took a major blow. That will likely leave Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, the only candidate to run against Blatter last May, as the early favorite. But Prince Ali will need to woo voters in Africa and Asia, many of whom have been beneficiaries of FIFA largesse under Blatter. Those two regions hold nearly half of the 209 votes that will be cast for a new president. The deadline to be nominated as a candidate is Oct. 26.
Q: Can FIFA survive as an organization?
A: That depends on whom you ask. Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado professor and political scientist who follows FIFA, believes the group’s surviving leadership will point to the criminal investigations as proof the organization has been cleaned up and will try to carry on under the same banner and with many of the same rules as before. But Jonathan Calvert, a British journalist who has conducted his own investigation of FIFA, says the rot is too deep. “It probably is the case that you’ve got to tear the whole thing down,” he said. “In a funny way, though, it’s falling apart as it is.” Either way the shadow of Blatter, who was elected FIFA president five times, will loom large since he ran FIFA as an autocracy.
Q: What is the U.S. role in this reform?
A: So far it’s been a passive one -- at least publicly. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, a member of the FIFA executive committee, has refused calls to run for the presidency, preferring to work for reform from the sidelines where his criticism of Blatter’s regime had become increasingly more barbed. He was among the first executive committee members to come out in support of Prince Ali’s candidacy, for example. But Gulati also wants to bring the 2026 World Cup to the U.S., so he can’t risk angering Blatter’s former supporters. Then there’s the fact many of the crimes alleged in the U.S. indictments occurred on U.S. soil and involved members of CONCACAF -- the regional soccer federation of which the U.S. is the largest and most powerful member.
Q: What’s next?
A: With criminal investigations continuing, it’s unlikely much business will get done between now and FIFA’s next executive committee meeting in December. In the meantime, there will likely be a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes as ambitious officials jockey for position in the post-Blatter era.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11.
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