As shocking and as distasteful as his re-election may seem to some, you don’t need the intelligence of a rocket scientist to understand why Sepp Blatter is getting four more years to reign unchallenged over world football, despite the corruption scandals lapping at FIFA’s doors.
A key reason can be summed up in one short phrase: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Or, even more simply, follow the money. Mountains of money.
By turning FIFA into a giant gravy train and taking his electorate in football along for the ride, Blatter has kept friends close, enemies closer, and quashed appetite for a change in leadership or real and heartfelt introspection into the way he runs football’s world governing body.
To quote its senior vice president Julio Grondona, FIFA was ”basically penniless” when Blatter won its presidency in 1998, with no cash reserves and mere peanuts to distribute to football officials around the world.
Fast-forward 13 years during which football’s global popularity and appeal have exploded, and largely by milking the success of its flagship tournament, the World Cup, FIFA has gone from pauper to prince, so flush that it can comfortably hand out wads of money to what Blatter likes to call ”the football family.”
According to FIFA’s 2010 accounts, and on top of the tens of millions of dollars in other development aid that FIFA doles out annually, all 208 of FIFA’s member associations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe last year got a special bonus of US$550,000 (?380,000) to help them function, grow and run football competitions.
Such rich handouts can buy not only many footballs, equipment, pitches, training, jobs and whatnot but, vitally for Blatter, goodwill, too. In that sense, FIFA can be seen as a global network of football patronage that hands out money and gets thanks and loyalty in return.
Hence Grondona’s pointed reminder to delegates at FIFA’s congress before they overwhelmingly re-elected Blatter unopposed on Wednesday for a fourth and final term: ”Everybody is benefiting from FIFA’s financial success.”
FIFA’s massive checkbook – its financial reserves of nearly US$1.3 billion (?900 million) alone are bigger than the annual economic output of the African country of Liberia and many of the world’s small island nations – also helps to explain its arrogance.
Quite literally, FIFA officials can afford to rebuff outside calls for deep reform, for independent and credible probes into corruption claims, as long as serious pressure for change isn’t coming from the sponsors and broadcasters who bankroll the World Cup.
As they did on Wednesday at their congress, FIFA luminaries can scoff at and circle the wagons against meddlesome and critical politicians and dirt-digging news reporters because doing so doesn’t really hurt their bottom line. So far, the rolling tide of sordid headlines and corruption allegations targeting FIFA has unsettled some sponsors but has not turned them away. FIFA’s accountants project that the World Cup bonanza – and the handouts to FIFA member associations – will continue for the foreseeable future, with the budget for next year earmarking another US$177 million (?123 million) for development projects.
So Blatter, as he did this week in the midst of the storm, can afford to infamously state, ”Crisis? What is a crisis?” because he has made sure that his electorate, the 208 associations of football nations around the world, have their hands in the cookie jar, too.
Blatter’s proposal Wednesday that those same associations, instead of FIFA’s 24-man executive committee, select the host of future World Cups also rubs them up the right way, pandering to their self-importance. More money, more power: Again, it doesn’t take a scientist to fathom out why Blatter was crowned again with 186 of 203 ballots cast and minimal complaint, at least from within the congress, that there was no alternative candidate.
”FIFA hands out hundreds of millions of dollars to the world,” FIFA vice president Angel Maria Villar reminded the delegates before the ballot. ”And all this is supposed to go down the drain?”
Of course not, not if you’re on the gravy train.
So among those who took the floor Wednesday to talk down an English proposal that Blatter’s re-election be delayed (on the laudable grounds that ”a coronation without an opponent provides a flawed mandate”) was Moucharafou Anjorin, president of the Benin Football Association. It got payments of US$400,000 in 2002, 2006 and again in 2009 from FIFA to build offices, a football school and a training center. FIFA says its money also bought a new bus for the Benin national team. Haiti, another association that piped up for Blatter, earning loud applause, also got similar funding from FIFA’s so-called Goal Program in 2001 and 2008.
”We all are dependent on FIFA,” Anjorin told the congress. ”Why would we want to kill FIFA?”
Why indeed, not if you’re on the gravy train.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/johnleicester