What a difference a few days make.
Way back on Friday, Sepp Blatter was on top of the world. Despite the storm clouds brewing around FIFA, despite the arrests, the indictments, the guilty pleas, the embarrassing spectacle of some of his colleagues being dragged out of an luxurious Zurich hotel (of course), despite the myriad calls for his resignation, he had survived.
It is one country, one vote, in the organization that controls world soccer, and Blatter’s plurality among the 209 member associations was never really in question. He still had a lot of friends out there, folks who owed him — and folks who didn’t want to be pushed around by the European powers, let alone the Americans. Solidly on Blatter’s side were the Russians, happy hosts of the 2018 World Cup, and those within their sphere of influence, plus most of the countries of Africa, who loved the fact he brought the biggest sporting event on earth to the continent.
Blatter understood how to cultivate power and get his ducks in a row, and in the end, it wasn’t even a contest as he was elected to a fifth term.
“I am the president of everybody,” he said after his only challenger, Prince Ali bin al-Hussain, quit before what would have been the decisive second ballot. “I am the president of the whole FIFA.”
And then, he led that fantastically ridiculous cheer:
“Let’s go FIFA! Let’s go FIFA!”
So what changed? What happened between then and now, between that triumphal celebration and Blatter’s resignation on Tuesday, when he looked and sounded like an entirely different person?
It would be tempting to believe that he saw the light, that a celestial visitor came to him over the weekend and convinced him that the game would be much better served if stepped away.
Or failing that, maybe he saw the remarkable video Jack Warner posted over the weekend (that would be the former CONCACAF boss and apparent bagman, who was arrested at home in Trinidad on bribery charges) in which he attempted to defend himself using a story from the satirical publication The Onion that had FIFA creating and granting a 2015 World Cup to the United States as a gesture of goodwill.
Blatter might well have understood in that moment that he wasn’t just surrounded by crooks, but also by idiots.
What seems more likely, though, is that things were simply getting too close for comfort, especially after reports that it was FIFA secretary general and Blatter’s right-hand man Jerome Valcke who was responsible for transferring into a U.S. bank the $10 million that South Africa allegedly paid as a bribe in order to help secure the 2010 World Cup (Valcke hasn’t been indicted — yet — but did announce unexpectedly that he wouldn’t be attending the opening of the Women’s World Cup here later this week, having developed a sudden aversion to the North American continent).
This is how they root out mobsters: bust the little guy, he rats out the guy above him to save his skin, and so on, and so on. (With FIFA it’s a bit simpler, since presumably no one who rolls over is going to require a place in the witness protection program.)
There would appear to be all kinds of people singing right now, including the former American soccer kingpin Chuck Blazer, who after being arrested for tax evasion secretly recorded conversations at the behest of the FBI, and Warner’s two sons, also arrested, who in the past had been implicated in ticket scalping schemes along with their dad.
The entry point for the investigation was relatively small stuff — taxes unpaid, kickbacks over sponsorship rights for CONCACAF tournaments, etc. But the big prize here is that alleged 2010 bribe — paid into something called the Diaspora Legacy Programme, through which the Africans could “give back” to the people of African origin in the Caribbean — which falls under U.S. authority because it was routed through an American bank account controlled by Warner. The dotted lines lead all the way back to Zurich, and many suspect, to the now outgoing president.
It is no small irony that the Americans got this ball rolling, a country where football will forever mean something else entirely. Say what you want about publicity-hungry bureaucrats and politicians, about sour grapes over losing out on the 2022 World Cup, about how the U.S. authorities can seem awfully arbitrary in how they apply justice (let’s just say it always seems to be better to be a banker…).
They forced Sepp Blatter out when no one else could, and for that every fan of the world game owes a debt of gratitude.