Column: Blame Blatter? Blame soccer, too
”Resign!” howled Sepp Blatter’s critics in England after the
FIFA boss spouted ill-timed and offensive views on racism in
Easy. Too easy.
It’s the sort of thing many people would agree with. But simply
saying something is unpleasant doesn’t make it go away.
That takes action. And, in that regard, soccer has failed.
It is soccer’s own fault that Blatter is still in charge, still
able to dismay and infuriate from FIFA’s glass fortress in
Those who run the global game, the soccer federation officials
around the world who, ultimately, are Blatter’s electorate, have
had umpteen reasons to ditch him or call for his head before this
latest episode. But they’ve stuck by him.
So they shoulder responsibility for giving a platform to his
views, too. Remember: FIFA member countries awarded Blatter a
fourth four-year term just five months ago despite bribery
allegations, ugly internal politicking and match-fixing and
corruption cases in the sport that have shredded the credibility of
soccer’s governing body and the men who lead it.
Not only did the fawning FIFA congress allow Blatter to stand
unopposed, it gave him 91 percent of the vote. The regime in North
Korea couldn’t have done much better. There are no courageous
rebels leading an Arab Spring uprising in soccer and none on the
One reason is money.
Under Blatter, FIFA has raked in mounds of the stuff. It has
built financial reserves of more than $1 billion. It has the
cash-cow World Cup. It sits atop a giant of a sport that is still
growing in popularity, especially in promising markets in Asia and
the Middle East.
One of Blatter’s tricks during his nearly 14 years as FIFA
president has been to ensure that gravy is spread around. Tens of
millions of dollars in soccer development money doled out here,
special $550,000 bonuses for all FIFA member associations in 2010
there. Seats on FIFA committees for the favored.
The former amateur soccer player is also a proven master of
keeping friends and enemies close. It is a testimony to Blatter’s
power, to his people and management skills, and to inertia and
acceptance within soccer that even at the end of this year of
atrocious headlines for FIFA, there appears to be so little
appetite at the top of the sport to question Blatter’s leadership
Clearly, judging from his subsequent efforts to extract both
feet from his mouth, Blatter realized that he wasn’t clever to say
this week in television interviews that racism isn’t an issue on
soccer fields. Even worse, he suggested that players who are
victims of racist slurs should simply shake hands with and forgive
their abusers at the end of a match.
That Blatter could blithely voice such absurdities when police
and soccer officials in England are investigating two cases of
on-field alleged racist abuse between players in the Premier League
made the FIFA president look willfully insensitive and hopelessly
out of touch.
When Blatter later backtracked with a statement acknowledging
that ”racism unfortunately continues to exist in football,”
FIFA’s website published it with a 2009 photo of him embracing
Tokyo Sexwale, a South African government minister and former
Robben Island prisoner. How clumsy. All that was missing was a
caption reading, ”Look, Blatter likes black people and they like
But where was the subsequent outpouring of shock and anger from
the global game? Didn’t happen. Soccer federations around the world
were hardly lining up to distance themselves from Blatter. Aside
from Britain, where Sports Minister Hugh Robertson declared, ”For
the sake of the game, he should go,” the FIFA president’s comments
didn’t seem to cause much of a ripple from soccer authorities. Many
Blatter hasn’t seen a need to step aside over any of the
numerous corruption allegations that have undermined faith in FIFA
and his leadership.
He didn’t see fit to slink off for calling on female soccer
players to wear ”tighter shorts” in 2004 or for making light of
the strict laws against homosexuality in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup
He’s not going to resign now.
Of course, the great global game of soccer should have a
forward-looking, scrupulously honest, modern, transparent, humble,
open and intelligent leader.
It has Blatter. Who’s fault is that? The easy route is to say he
should go. The more constructive one would be if those with power
in soccer actually did something about it.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow
him at twitter.com/johnleicester