FIFA President Blatter wins a fifth term amid inquiry, opposition
If Sepp Blatter felt any apprehension about his reign atop the soccer world, it did not show in his smile.
Not only had Blatter survived a week in which his sport was rocked by federal indictments and allegations of widespread corruption, he had also won an improbable fifth term as president of FIFA, the game’s international governing body.
“I will bring back the boat,” he told his assembled membership. “I will bring back the boat to the beach.”
But his giddiness after Friday’s election at FIFA headquarters belied a cloudy future.
The 79-year-old sports leader faces growing opposition from soccer powers such as France and Germany. Sports business experts wonder whether major sponsors will begin to distance themselves.
And U.S. prosecutors have vowed to press forward with an investigation that has already resulted in charges against nine current and former FIFA executives.
“If those defendants cooperate, there’s only one person they are going to bring down,” said William Birdthistle, a professor who studies legal issues in soccer at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. “That’s Sepp Blatter.”
With representatives from 209 countries casting ballots, Blatter out-polled his rival, Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al Hussein 133-73 in the first round of voting at FIFA’s annual meeting. Ali withdrew from a mandated second round in which he was nearly certain to lose.
“Thank you,” Blatter said. “You accepted me for the next four years.”
Blatter had been fending off calls to resign after seven FIFA executives were arrested Thursday at an upscale hotel here.
All told, 14 people with connections to FIFA were indicted. On Friday, one of them, a Florida sports-marketing executive, Aaron Davidson, pleaded not guilty in federal court in Brooklyn.
FIFA’s presence in the headlines spoke to the complicated nature of international soccer. A growing fan base and lucrative licensing deals helped boost FIFA’s revenue by $1 billion during the most-recent four-year cycle between World Cups.
But the closely held, privately run organization has also faced increased demands for more transparency.
At the meeting Friday, Domenico Scala, who heads FIFA’s self-appointed auditing committee, cautioned members, “Today is life under the magnifying glass for companies and leaders. No ethical missteps, real or perceived, go unnoticed.”
In campaigning against Blatter, Ali sought to benefit from those perceptions. Before the vote, he took the stage and described himself as a reform candidate.
“It will take a committed leader to fix this mess we’re in,” he said. “I will not hide among your ranks when things are bad and step forward when things are good.”
Blatter countered by portraying himself as a steady hand in troubled times, saying, “We don’t need revolutions, but we always need evolutions.”
Though a Blatter victory might have seemed improbable to those following the complaints from European countries in recent days — no less a figure than British Prime Minister David Cameron had called for his resignation — the FIFA president could rely on the developing world.
Over the years, Blatter has built much of his power base in Africa and Asia, courting small countries that were eager to join the global soccer community.
The nations most loyal to him remained so through the early days of the scandal and into the election.
“You could draw a line between the haves and have-nots,” said Richard Sheehan, a finance professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written about FIFA politics. “The have-nots voted for him.”
Those members also painted a portrait of Blatter that contrasted with the image of a compromised, iron-fisted ruler drawn by his opponents.
“For us, our position was clear form the beginning,” said Lolaku Samuel Wani, a member of the recently formed South Sudan association. “He has done so much for us, bringing us into FIFA and making sure our nation was on the right footing.”
FIFA’s organizational structure gives an equal vote to every member, regardless of size or soccer prowess.
“Why shouldn’t we be equal?” Wani said. “Just because countries in Europe have had more opportunities to develop soccer? Thankfully Blatter doesn’t believe that.”
Still, opposition from larger, more-established nations is expected to persist.
Next weekend, Michel Platini, the French-born head of the European federation, UEFA, and a Blatter rival, will meet with fellow Europeans at the Champions League final in Berlin. On the agenda will be the continent’s future in FIFA.
The group could take a number of actions, including boycotts and breakaway events.
“That’s certainly the biggest card they have to play,” Sheehan said. “If UEFA withdraws, then FIFA falls apart. You can’t conduct the World Cup without Germany, the U.K. and Spain.”
FIFA also risks losing sponsors sensitive to bad publicity. Coca-Cola expressed concern before the vote and Visa said it would reassess its sponsorship if behavior was not changed. Sony and Emirates Airline had already declined to renew their deals at the end of last year.
But the global appeal of soccer, and particularly the World Cup, could prevent mass defections.
“Everything is done on a cost-benefit analysis,” Sheehan said. “Certainly the benefit of being associated with FIFA has taken a hit in recent days, but where else can you reach 2 billion people in one fell swoop?”
While calling for change within the organization, a statement from Budweiser also said, “Through our sponsorship, we have time and again seen the power of soccer in bringing people together and this is what FIFA must represent for football fans around the globe.”
On Saturday, Blatter is expected to convene a meeting of FIFA’s executive committee at the group’s headquarters in Zurich to determine, among other things, whether to reduce Europe’s allotted 13 slots in the World Cup.
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati released a statement after the election noting that it was “disappointed” and said the group will “continue to push for meaningful change within FIFA.” Gulati had said Thursday that he is “certainly hopeful there are changes in governance.”
Blatter made few overt references to his detractors Friday. Instead, he largely maintained a posture similar to that in previous scandals in which he said better institutional behavior was needed and that he would help achieve it.
But he chose several quieter ways to express his defiance, including with the choice to press on with an election in the face of calls for a postponement.
He also added, in reference to questions about retirement, “People ask me the age. The age is no problem. People who are 50, they look old.”
He also took a jab that suggested he believed the indictments were politically motivated. Two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the U.S. was looking to strip Russia of its 2018 World Cup host status, Blatter picked up on the theme.
Alluding to that decision and the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar over the U.S., Blatter said, “If two other countries had emerged from the envelope, I think we would not have had problems today.”
Zeitchik reported from Zurich and Wharton from Los Angeles. Times stafff writer Kevin Baxter in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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