Blatter leans on political acumen to win fifth term as FIFA president

FIFA president Sepp Blatter took the stage in Zurich one last time in the moments before the presidential vote started. He spent 15 minutes speaking to the assembled delegates in French and underscoring his credentials to secure a fifth term in office.

Blatter grabbed credit for the incredulous scene that unfolded between Israeli FA president Ofer Eini and Palestinian FA president Jibril Rajoub earlier in the day. He highlighted his willingness to shoulder responsibility for the ongoing mess, though he did so reluctantly. He reinforced his desire for evolution and touted his ability to lead the organization through the turmoil.

As he wound down his remarks, Blatter issued a final appeal to extend his 17-year tenure. He probably expected to defeat Prince Ali and prolong his time in charge, but he urged the delegates to choose his familiar leadership and stay the course through this storm anyways.

“We need a strong leader, an experienced leader,” Blatter said. “A leader that knows all the ins and out of the situations. We need to work with our political partners. Thank you, and I hope that I will be able to be with you in an hour or two.”

Those entreaties, plus the deft political work carried out during his time in charge at FIFA, carried the day once more as Blatter retained his post for another four years. Blatter won the first vote by a 133-73 margin, but he fell short of the two-thirds majority required to secure election on the first ballot. Prince Ali conceded before the second round of elections to ensure Blatter’s return as president.

Blatter praised Prince Ali in his acceptance speech for his challenge, but his presence at the podium mostly reflected his enduring ability to survive the storm and emerge victorious in difficult circumstances. 

Who supported Blatter in his bid to remain as president?

Blatter received public backing from the Asian Football Confederation (46 votes) and the Confederation of African Football (54 votes) to remain in his present post. Some individual countries in those confederations, including Australia and Egypt, expressed their willingness to vote for Prince Ali, but most federations on those two continents cast their ballots for Blatter.

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The combined might of Africa and Asia provided a firm base as Blatter sought his fifth term even with UEFA firmly in Prince Ali’s corner. He also garnered support from CONCACAF (with the notable exceptions of Canada and the United States), CONMEBOL (Uruguay declared its support for Prince Ali) and the Oceania Football Confederation (New Zealand excluded).

Why did Blatter retain widespread in the wake of the 14 indictments handed down this week?

FIFA is remarkably successful from a financial perspective. The organization generated a $338 million operating profit from 2011 through 2014 and retained operational reserves of $1.523 billion heading into 2015, according to a financial report issued in March.

Blatter used a significant portion of the revenue generated to invest in the game in smaller countries. FIFA spent $1.052 billion on developmental projects from 2011 through 2014, according to that same financial report. Those investments permitted smaller federations to apply for grants and reinforce the infrastructure in countries without the means to do so on their own.

Instead of focusing exclusively on the welfare of the larger nations, Blatter devoted significant time and energy across the spectrum of his membership. He visited several of those nations over the course of his tenure to lend the power of his office to those ventures.

The evident commitment fostered plenty of goodwill and loyalty among federations often overlooked within the membership of the organization. Those measures, plus the continued financial success of the organization, laid the foundation to retain the status quo.

Prince Ali generated wider-than-expected support with his reform-based message, but his campaign — even with the public backing of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States in addition to much of UEFA — ultimately fell short as voters plumped for Blatter’s experience instead. 

Does this election mean Blatter will serve the full four years of his term?

Probably, if he remains healthy and able to do so. FIFA does not allow for impeachment within its statutes. The members would not take such drastic measures even if they were available, based on the vote on Friday.

There are two readily apparent ways for Blatter to leave his office: (1) Blatter resigns from office for some reasons during the course of his tenure; (2) the Independent Ethics Committee bans him from football-related activities in the wake of an indictment.

Blatter has repeatedly denied he will resign. His re-election strengthens his hand considerably in that stance, though future events could play a role. His role in the investigations ongoing in Switzerland and the United States, including his status as a potential target of those inquiries, remains unknown, but he has not been charged with any crimes at this point.

What sort of fallout will U.S. Soccer face for nominating and supporting Prince Ali?

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said he felt it was important for the federation to cast its vote for good governance, but there are potential political repercussions for such a public break from Blatter. It remains to be seen whether Blatter or other FIFA delegates will hold that viewpoint against U.S. Soccer moving forward as the federation contemplates a bid to host the 2026 World Cup and potentially pursues it over the next two years.

How did U.S. Soccer respond to Prince Ali’s defeat?

"While we are disappointed in the result of the election, we will continue to push for meaningful change within FIFA," Gulati said in a statement. "Our goal is for governance of FIFA that is responsible, accountable, transparent and focused solely on the best interests of the game. This is what FIFA needs and deserves, and what the people who love our game around the world demand. We congratulate President Blatter and it is our hope he will make reform his number one priority to ensure the integrity of the sport across the world."