PtG Comment 03.06.2015

Blatter the person is going, will Blatter the system survive?

A wide range of sports is governed by a corrupt system built on a powerful president’s ability to hand out privileges without merit, channel generous sums of money to his supporters and make decisions at his own discretion. Blatter’s departure opens a door for change, but he must leave immediately.

Sepp Blatter did the entire world of sport one of the biggest favours ever in his entire career when yesterday he took everybody by surprise and announced his resignation at an upcoming extraordinary FIFA Congress.

Whatever the true reason may have been for this unexpected departure only four days after a triumphant Blatter was reelected by a convincing majority of national football leaders, it is not what he declared at a hastily convened press conference:

“While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football – the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at FIFA.”

That broader mandate is not something Blatter has lost in the past week. It was never there, not even at his first presidential election in 1998. It is much more likely that Blatter needed a few days and a few leaked documents to understand how overwhelming his credibility – and personal freedom and fortune – is threatened by the massive investigations into FIFA’s malpractices carried out by the FBI and the Swiss authorities.

Serious criminal charges are raised against more than a dozen of his close allies, and more is likely to come. A generous handful of his friends are behind bars, and Blatter knows that they are just as willing to sell his reputation to save their own skin, as he has been eager to sacrifice his trusted supporters to save his own and FIFA’s image in the past four years.

The FBI has more than hinted that they are just waiting for the right occasion to try to get Sepp Blatter behind bars. The political pressure on Blatter may have eased, but the personal pressure has become just as much stronger.

Risky months ahead

In that light the many months of delay in power transition are extremely risky, not only ethically, but even more politically. As long as Sepp Blatter clings to the position as FIFA President, we must expect that he will use all the instruments at his disposal on safeguarding his personal freedom and his political reputation.

Sepp Blatter and those from his senior staff who might still have a sense of loyalty and shared fate will have a lot of playing time to remove any remaining skeletons from the closets and pave the way for a successor that they trust.

This ideal successor should continue the Blatter system of ‘patronage’ – the system by which the undisputed leader and father-figure is able to grant privileges without merit, channel fortunes to loyal supporters and make strategic decisions at his own discretion and without any worry of protest from his constituency.

And most importantly: He must turn a blind eye to the past. No former FIFA leader should be faced with demands of paying the money they stole back, and no one – least of all the current president – should have their reputation tarnished by in-depth investigations.

So although Blatter’s resignation is indeed a positive and much needed step towards real reform in FIFA, it is too early to rejoice. Sepp Blatter did not look like a broken man at the unsentimental press conference, he seemed angry and defiant. And as an unusually gifted political operator he is able to mobilise the trust of the majority of those 133 federations that voted for him last week and guide their choice of a new FIFA President.

Therefore, the outside pressure on FIFA and its members must continue as forcefully as it has become.

Can Scala deliver reforms?

It did of course inspire some hope that Blatter was accompanied at this press meeting, not by his equally troubled secretary general Jérôme Valcke, but by the man appointed by the congress to oversee the FIFA reforms, the Italian-Swiss Domenico Scala.

Scala was adamant that the full FIFA political structure should have a complete overhaul, but time will tell if Scala can get his way or if he – like so many other hopeful reformers – was merely used on this occasion as a tool to polish the president’s image as committed to reforms.

Nevertheless, Scala directly said that Blatter’s person stood in the way, and it is true that his departure is a golden chance for FIFA to reform itself thoroughly and to inspire other ill-governed federations to follow track.

These reforms must lead to much more transparency, more solid accountability and a credible structure for democratic decision-making. Scala also challenged football’s continental structures – the confederations – and thereby only added to the magnitude of the challenge.

The tools to remedy the situation are at hand and easy to use if only the will is there. FIFA itself has neglected a series of reform proposals from their own Independent Governance Commmittee, and a number of organisations have launched tools to improve sports governance – including the Sports Governance Observer developed by six European universities and Play the Game.

Pompous nonsense on imperialism

But reforming structure is not enough. Several top executives from the political and administrative side who owe their career to Blatter must take his hand and leave through the same door. And, perhaps most importantly, the mindset must change.

Blatter and his allies have qualified FBI’s and the Swiss’ actions as politically motivated Western revenge over Blatter’s generosity towards developing countries, especially Africa, and a covert action against Putin’s Russia. This pompous nonsense may be welcomed in some countries but will not help FIFA in the future.

It is true that FIFA is close to becoming a pariah organisation in the Western world which happens to be the area that pays FIFA’s bills through generous private and public investments in commercial and TV rights as well as massive public subsidies.

It is however not an imperialistic attitude that has caused the police authorities to react: it is the fact that citizens in democratic countries – countries where citizens are allowed to raise their voice when they feel that their hard-earned money is abused – are putting increased pressure on their own politicians and sports leaders to avoid corruption.

It is the same public pressure that forced the IOC to reform itself in the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal in 1998, and it is the same that forced the IOC to secure the reputation of its Olympic Games through the recent reform package Agenda 2020.

Unfortunately, the IOC is much too patient with corruption in the federations that deliver sport to the Olympics. Once again, the wider public is many steps ahead of those people whom we entrust to manage sport, and now it is FIFA’s turn to learn the lesson.

The mission is not complicated at all. Any child can understand what sports leaders too often deny. The task is, as Domenico Scala put it very simply at the end of his speech yesterday:

“…to ensure that the organisation cannot be used by those seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the game.”

To that end not only Blatter the person, but Blatter the system, must give way.