Football’s autocrat in first class gets a red card

Like Fidel Castro, Sepp Blatter possessed a kind of genius: not for running things, but for staying on the horse. Like Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Communist party, the uncharismatic Swiss built his power base in the global football authority Fifa as a bureaucrat, before seizing control of the organisation in 1998. Like Saddam Hussein, Mr Blatter has now been removed by a crusading US. Like the other rulers above, he leaves no worthwhile legacy. By the time he resigned as president on Tuesday evening, his organisation was being hit by a scandal a day. But Mr Blatter’s departure will not in itself cure Fifa, just as the capture of Saddam in his hole did not sort out Iraq.

Mr Blatter likes to boast that he “developed” global football. That claim is false. Admittedly his reign coincided with a growth in the game’s revenues and increased interest from regions that had never cared about football before. But that is due not to Fifa’s scanty development work — the odd all-weather field here, always unveiled to tremendous fanfare by an official flown in first-class — but rather to television. From the late 1980s, the new wave of commercial TV channels discovered the game’s magic. For the first time, regular league games began to be screened live in many countries. Football worked so well on TV that many viewers were prepared to buy subscriptions. Globalisation then spread the game to new countries.

No wonder that more people have discovered football since 1998, and that Fifa’s revenues soared under Mr Blatter. The organisation still is hardly “big business”, as he claimed last week. Fifa’s $5.7bn in revenues for the last four-year World Cup cycle was only about the same as Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona between them turned over in the same period. But $5.7bn was enough for Fifa. A large chunk of the money was paid out to national football associations, often in the form of cheques handed to individual FA presidents at Fifa congresses. Some of that money may have ended up “developing football” in the FA president’s country. Some of it will have ended up in offshore bank accounts. No matter: 133 of 209 grateful FAs were still prepared to vote for Mr Blatter in last Friday’s presidential election.

The rest of Fifa’s revenues flowed into the coffers in Zurich, Mr Blatter’s to do with as he wanted. He paid himself — and other Fifa executives — large undisclosed salaries.

His was a life removed from reality. Everyone else in the “football family” — by which Mr Blatter never meant fans or players but just senior international football officials — lives first-class, too. Almost everyone Mr Blatter met in those 17 years as president fawned over him. No wonder he formed the view that everyone supported him except the bitter English media and bitter US justice — both countries just unable to accept that they had lost the votes for hosting the World Cups of 2018 and 2022, he thought.

He may have to become used to a simpler life. Or he may have to brace himself for worse. Last week the US indicted nine Fifa officials and five sports marketing executives. More indictments will surely follow. American prosecutors will presumably offer these unhappy men plea bargains: squeal on a bigger fish, and we will cut you a deal. The biggest fish of all would be Mr Blatter.

The US can congratulate itself this week. Most westerners, at least, have been cheering the American pursuit of Fifa and the Swiss investigation of the awards of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar. The World Cup has become arguably the biggest media event on earth, too big for its host to be picked by 22 unaccountable old men, several of them concerned chiefly with buffering their personal bank accounts. Both Qatar and Russia deny any wrongdoing.

But Mr Blatter’s resignation is only a first step. Fifa still has a structure that encourages corruption. Each national FA has one vote at its congress — Germany the same as American Samoa. That structure will encourage any president to bestow gifts on smaller FAs in return for their votes. Moreover, if a couple of dozen officials in the executive committee can make decisions on big matters like who hosts the World Cup, attempts at bribery become inevitable. Roger Pielke Jr, political scientist at the University of Colorado who follows Fifa closely, says: “As long as they have one vote per FA, it’s going to be a patronage organisation. So effecting reform under western business practices is unlikely under that scenario.”

If the national FAs decide they want to reform — and turkeys rarely vote for Christmas — then one structure they could consider is that of the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA has seats on its governing Foundation Board for government ministers from many countries — though inevitably, the ubiquitous Mr Blatter sits on the board too. Mr Pielke suggests there could also be a role for the UN in a reformed Fifa. But many Fifa insiders may prefer, even now, to stick with the old patronage organisation.

Even if Fifa does clean itself up, it is hard to see it stripping Russia and Qatar of their World Cups. That could cause geopolitical ructions between the west, Mr Blatter’s ally Vladimir Putin, and parts of the Islamic world.

If there is one thing we have learnt since Saddam went, it is that getting rid of a tyrant is just the start. Often, in fact, the ousting turns out to be the sweetest moment of a sorry tale.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.