PARIS (AP) The delicious irony of it: Sepp Blatter tossed out of football, at least temporarily, by a FIFA policing body that he himself helped create when the world was still his oyster.
And if that can happen, if the now ex-most powerful leader in football can be hoisted with his own petard, then perhaps there’s hope for the future of FIFA, after all?
Bashing world football’s governing body has been all the rage for years now. And rightly so. Those who led it may not all be crooks or inept, but enough of them have been on Blatter’s 17-year watch to tar all with the same brush.
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Still, credit where credit is due.
When Blatter was in his pomp, treating himself and being treated like a princeling where ever he went, master of all he surveyed in the game of football politics, this day never looked like coming. It seemed ridiculously naive to believe that forces within FIFA itself might one day freeze Blatter out. And that was why the rot seemed incurable, why FIFA looked beyond redemption: Not only were its corridors of powers apparently knee-deep in shady dealings, but there seemed to be no one inside remotely capable of or even interested in really wielding the broom.
Ultimately, that still may prove to be true. Banning Blatter, if his lawyers don’t beat on appeal his 90-day suspension from all football activities, is only a first baby step in what will need to be a revolution by his successor to turn FIFA from a global byword for sleaze into a modern and valued institution offering moral and clean leadership to a multi-billion dollar football industry desperately short of those virtues.
And who might lead this change? Is there a Mikhail Gorbachev of football? Someone with enough trust inside the system to be elected at FIFA’s congress on Feb. 26 but who then is ready, if that is what it takes to start anew, to see the whole edifice come crashing down?
There are candidates who like to think they would grasp the nettle of reform when seated where Blatter used to, that bandy the word around like he did. But on the very long ladder of rebuilding faith in FIFA, they will start on the lowest rung, with everything to do.
Well, perhaps not everything. The FIFA ethics committee that banned Blatter took down Michel Platini, too, with the former France midfield star and president of European governing body UEFA also suspended for 90 days with immediate effect, dealing a likely fatal blow to the FIFA vice-president’s ambitions on the presidency.
That’s quite a one-two punch from a committee that FIFA critics are leery of. Maybe its investigators and adjudicators aren’t simply FIFA toadies, after all? FIFA revamped the committee in 2012, naming former United States attorney Michael Garcia as its first independent lead prosecutor with authority to investigate corruption, part of a reform process Blatter himself launched to get critics off FIFA’s back after his re-election unopposed in 2011.
It hasn’t worked: Outside clamor for root-and-branch change is now louder than ever. And Garcia subsequently quit. Also, the ethics committee has only sunk teeth into Blatter and Platini now after justice officials in the United States and Switzerland did much of the heavy lifting, exposing football corruption and looking for evidence of criminal mismanagement across FIFA’s day-to-day business. That external scrutiny led to Blatter’s announcement in June that he would soon step aside, for the fresh elections in February. Without those outside forces, would FIFA’s ethics court ever have taken on Blatter and Platini alone, ever reached the point of banning them under its own steam?
For now, it is impossible to say. The committee didn’t detail its motives, beyond saying that Blatter, Platini, and FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke were provisionally banned because it is investigating them. No transparency. From such flimsy statements, one cannot conclude that the suspensions, as remarkable as they are, prove that reforms set in motion under Blatter are becoming genuinely effective or whether this is all just another bout of FIFA politicking.
”There have been important reforms. Nobody can deny it,” says Sylvia Schenk, a sports governance expert with corruption watchdog Transparency International. But ”if the commission never discloses the reasons for its decisions, that’s a big problem.”
Still, when Blatter announced with a flourish at a July 2012 news conference that the revamped ethics court was beginning its work and that its decisions ”will be accepted. There is no doubt,” he surely didn’t envisage it eventually coming after him.
That his lawyer is now questioning its methods, accusing the committee of breaking FIFA rules, only heightens the sense of irony. The lawyer, Richard Cullen, added that Blatter ”looks forward to the opportunity to present evidence that will demonstrate that he did not engage in any misconduct, criminal or otherwise.”
So, all in all, too early to declare the beginnings of a new dawn at FIFA.
But perhaps a glimmer which suggests that not the entire machine is defunct.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester