Why is Blatter still boss? Thank FIFA largesse

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 any 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 $550,000 (euro380,000) to
help them function, grow and run football competitions.

Such handouts can buy not only many footballs, equipment,
pitches, training and jobs 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 $1.3
billion (euro900 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 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 $177 million
(euro123 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 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 figure 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 $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, 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.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or
http://twitter.com/johnleicester