There were few signs of the spectacle ahead in Zurich on Wednesday afternoon. FIFA called the press conference hastily, but there were no evident indications of the stunning news to follow.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter took the podium and soon uttered the words no one ever expected him to say: He announced his intention to resign as soon as FIFA could elect his successor.
"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," Blatter said. "Therefore, I have decided to lay down my mandate at an extraordinary elective Congress. I will continue to exercise my powers as FIFA president until that election."
The classic, off-key Blatter defiance wilted over the past few days as he gauged his options and surveyed the landscape.
All of the public pressure, heaped upon him and FIFA sponsors with fury in Europe and North America after years and years of skepticism, and all of the private entreaties — particularly from UEFA with its threats to boycott the next World Cup or leave the organization — brought his position into stark relief.
Blatter may have won the election, but he realized he did not have the necessary backing to continue in the post he had held since 1998. He knew the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department had targeted him as a part of their inquiry, according to several reports. The peril those investigations posed — and the uncertainty they fostered — made his position untenable.
Instead of consolidating his power, he ultimately decided to cede it.
Blatter will instead try to lay the foundations for change between now and the arrival of his successor at that promised extraordinary congress sometime between December and March. It is an awkward brief for the ultimate company man — the leader of an organization in which the U.S. Department of Justice alleges corruption flourished for more than two decades — to tear down the structure he worked so earnestly to build. He will attempt to do so nevertheless even with his power now at its lowest ebb.
"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," Blatter said. "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 ideas he proffered — comprehensive ethics checks for members of Executive Committee, electoral changes to ensure the entire Congress votes on potential Executive Committee members, term limits for the president and members of the Executive Committee — represent long overdue alterations to a body in dire need of comprehensive governance reforms. At this point, they are mere proposals. They will encounter stiff resistance within the privileged electorate, even if the weakened Blatter prods his members to adopt them.
As the past few days have shown, it is all well and good to profess the desire for change, but it is another thing entirely to adopt changes. Blatter’s departure represents a tangible step in that direction, but it is only the first one. There is a need for the organization as a whole to assess recent events and potential developments in the ongoing American and Swiss investigations, grasp the need for alterations and respond accordingly. External forces might foist more radical changes upon them if they exhibit too much reluctance.
The extent of the overhaul ahead may hinge on the identity of Blatter’s successor. Defeated challenger Prince Ali confirmed his intention to run again, but the timeframe will allow more experienced candidates to jostle for position. UEFA president Michel Platini is likely to stand if he believes he can build the necessary coalition to win, while Kuwaiti powerbroker Sheikh Ahmed could weigh a potential run as well. Other potential candidates will likely rise to the fore as well with each of them likely to differ on the required changes ahead.
There are complex times ahead for FIFA with Blatter now on his way out of the picture. There is a power vacuum in place now with each of the confederations and many of the entrenched figures looking to fill it. The next few months will reveal the depths of their political acumen and set the course forward for an organization on course to grapple with structural changes.
Blatter contended last week he felt capable of steering FIFA through these difficult times, but he ultimately reversed course. He will remain for now, but it is finally up to others to guide the organization into the future.