Let's be serious here: we've all known, from the very beginning, how this was going to end. Whatever the FBI uncovered, whoever they flipped, wherever the long arm of the law stretched, he'd be fine. Because he was Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, and Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA, was always fine, no matter what happened. As Gary Lineker didn't quite say, football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes, the Germans win, then the camera cuts to the royal box and Blatter smiles his knowingly beneficent smile.
And then he resigned.
Well, he announced that he intends to resign in the fullness of time and process, once he's stayed in post between now and whenever they manage to convene an extraordinary congress, expected to come some time between December and next March. Still, it's nice to know that even in the murky world of football politicking, some things can still be surprising, and if they give out Nobel Peace Prizes for uniting the entire of Twitter in joy, then he might yet get his hands on the only gong he really wants.
Whatever his reasons -- and you can take your pick between the Blatter's apparently sudden, apparently noble realisation that while the national FAs supported him, the wider world didn't, or the suggestions in the US that his name is about to appear in the FBI's investigation -- he leaves behind two things. The first, and perhaps the most important, is a massively expanded FIFA, one in which power is dispersed around the globe.
While both Blatter and his mentor Joao Havelange are destined to go down in history with big red interrobangs marks stamped across their faces, it's worth remembering that they took control of FIFA in opposition to the Euro-centric, apartheid-appeasing Stanley Rous, and did so on the promise of: massively expanding the World Cup; taking it and FIFA's other tournaments around the world; and turning football into a product that could be sold to the world in exchange for development funds. Promises that have largely been delivered, albeit alongside rampant cronyism and alleged corruption, and while it's debatable whether those deliveries have directly benefited the people of the countries involved, they've certainly done wonders for the relevant football associations.
The second thing he leaves behind is a power vacuum; unlike Havelange, he has no heir apparent. It's fair to assume that the majority of those that voted for Blatter, along with the associations and interests they represent, were just as shocked as the wider world by his sudden announcement; they voted for the man to serve four years, not four days, and whatever the personal and political interests in play, very few people vote for somebody in the expectation that he's about to hand in his resignation.
Blatter and FIFA
Blatter and FIFA
As always in moments like this, it's tempting to rejoice at the fall of the figurehead and assume that whoever comes next will bring light and liberty in their path. But while Blatter has been consummate in his handling of FIFA and its constituent, often conflicting, parts, and while he's doubtless played a major role in shaping the culture, the organisation of world football could almost have been designed to foster shadiness. Money flowing from the sponsors and television networks to FIFA, from FIFA out to the confederations, from the confederations down to the associations, from the associations out onto the playing fields -- each stage subject only to minimal of oversight.
A marquee event that asks -- no, requires -- host countries to waive their own tax laws and judicial processes. An organisation that thinks nothing of dismissing human rights, of hosting tournaments that require massive displacements of a nation's poorest. The whole edifice coyly hiding behind the Swiss mountains. And the problems go beyond FIFA too: all around the world football associations are, for the large part, unaccountable coagulations of unrepresentative individuals, frequently acting for their own ends.
Which Blatter, having been sat on top of it all for the last 17 years, appears to have finally noticed. Part of the problem with predicting what's about to happen -- and, perhaps, part of the reason that most of the major candidates to replace him are biding their time -- is that the FIFA he resigns from and the FIFA he eventually leaves might look markedly different. In amongst all the regret and self-congratulation, the crucial part of his resignation statement read as follows:
Since I shall not be a candidate, and am therefore now free from the constraints that elections inevitably impose, I shall be able to focus on driving far-reaching, fundamental reforms that transcend our previous efforts. For years, we have worked hard to put in place administrative reforms, but it is plain to me that while these must continue, they are not enough.
The Executive Committee includes representatives of confederations over whom we have no control, but for whose actions FIFA is held responsible. We need deep-rooted structural change ... I have fought for these changes before and, as everyone knows, my efforts have been blocked. This time, I will succeed.
To put it another way: now that I'm not beholden to any of you any more, get ready for one last blast of pure uncut Seppage. Or yet another way: Oh man, I must never be allowed to happen again.
He's not talking about anything particularly sexy here, of course. He's talking about a reduction in the size of the executive committee. He's talking about term limits for everybody, not just for presidents. He's talking about FIFA taking charge of the integrity checks currently carried out by the confederations, and while that might sound amusing, it's worth remembering that the confederations -- CONCACAF, UEFA, etc. -- are not members of FIFA, that the FBI investigation is so far mostly concerned with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, and it is at the very least a bit odd that the confederations are currently in charge of checking out and signing off members of a FIFA committee.
Would this have any impact? Would a smaller, less tenured, vetted-by-FIFA executive committee be less vulnerable to corruption of the kind that is suspected to have underpinned the 2018/2022 votes, and less accommodating to those who might seek to enrich themselves through the confederations? That is, at least, the contention; speaking after Blatter's resignation announcement, Domenico Scala, the independent chairman of the audit and compliance committee, reinforced the departing president's view: "The structure of the executive committee and its members are at the core of the current issues that FIFA is facing."
This is what Blatter wants his legacy to be: the man who first took the World Cup to Africa, and then took FIFA to the cleaners. In a sense, this resignation is just the final, no-going-back variation on the Sepp Soft-Shoe Shuffle, a manoeuvre we've become familiar with over the last few years: first he acknowledges that the bad thing has happened, then he identifies the bad person that did the bad thing, and then -- with a twinkle of the feet -- up he pops! Not just another injured party, though definitely that, but the only injured party that can clean things up.
Not that Blatter has much control over what his legacy will be: though he didn't vote for it, and though he didn't mention it once in his resignation statement, his late years are inextricably bound up with the 2022 World Cup and Qatar. Whether his departure throws those tournaments back into air depends on who follows him and where they stand in relation to those decisions; it's perhaps a good moment to remind ourselves that the early favourite, Michel Platini, allegedly attended a secret lunchtime meeting with then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Qatari crown prince Tamin bin Haman al-Thani a mere 10 days before voting for the Qatar bid.
But what Blatter's announced departure has done, suddenly and quite shockingly, is strip FIFA of its institutional invulnerability. Throughout all the corporate and political scandals -- through the collapse of ISL, through Jack Warner's "tsunami" and on to the defenestration of Mohammed bin Hammam -- and despite all the blood -- not just those expected to die while working on Qatar's stadiums, but those cleared from Brazilian favelas or found dead in suspicious circumstances in South Africa -- FIFA, helmed by Blatter, has sailed on. Sure, they throw an official overboard here, they settle out of court there, but fundamentally they have been astoundingly resilient. Proof, perhaps, that the key to survival is to simply, and all times, act as though survival isn't even a question. "Why would I step down?" Blatter asked a few days ago. "That would mean I recognize that I did wrong."
Ultimately, Blatter wasn't an administrator; he was a politician. And what he realised was that in order to control -- or at least guide -- an organisation as messy, sprawling and inherently divided as FIFA, he needed to be above everything and everybody. In that sense, his almost entirely nondescript background and near-absent personality was a great boon: he was able to identify himself almost entirely with his organisation. Everybody else was coming from somewhere, everybody else was representing something; Blatter was FIFA. Just FIFA. It is almost impossible to imagine him doing anything else, and equally, it is almost impossible to imagine anybody else pulling off the same trick. The organisation could be teetering on the edge of a cataclysmic argument; whoever emerges as the next president will inherit a profoundly agitated electorate, and what they decide to do about Qatar could bring about total schism.
Perhaps, in those circumstances, the most appropriate man for the job is not the cleanest, or the most noble, but the one who can keep everybody pointing roughly in the same direction. And perhaps, should FIFA go on to tear itself to pieces in a power struggle between its various vested interests, those who care about FIFA in itself might end up looking back with some regret: not at a good man, perhaps, but a quite remarkably capable one.
On the other hand, the indentured labourers of Qatar, the displaced of Brazil and South Africa, and those who have been deprived of the development dollars that have vanished into pockets here and there on his watch, they're unlikely to mourn his passing. Nor will those who take the justified view that the game has been stolen from the people by men who Andrew Jennings, whose story this fundamentally all is, called "criminal scum ... and that is a thoughtful summation."
Perhaps, in a fundamentally corrupt world labouring under a fundamentally iniquitous economic system, the dream of a dirt-free, blood-free FIFA is an impossible one. But that doesn't mean it couldn't have been and can't be better. And that doesn't mean Blatter wasn't part of the problem, even if his final act is a desperate attempt to reinvent himself, one final time, as the solution.
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