Published On: Sat, Jun 7th, 2014

Enemies at the gates, but king of Fifa-land isn’t ready to go

Beset by problems and sullied by corruption allegations, Sepp Blatter will stand next week before his dysfunctional “Fifa family”, ahead of theWorld Cup, and announce plans to stand for election as president of football’s world governing body for four more years.

Despite previously promising that this term would be his last, and amid a new wave of corruption claims overshadowing the start of the troubled 2014 tournament, it is a vote that Fifa’s president fully expects to win.

To those digesting the latest allegations levelled at Qatar‘s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, Blatter’s rallying of support from the 209 Fifa members will appear extraordinary.

Inside the plush hall, to the denizens of “Fifa-land” and the concentric circles of advisers, hangers-on and football officials present, it will seem the most natural thing in the world.

The majority of those present in São Paulo’s Grand Hyatt hotel are likely to loudly acclaim the 78-year-old. Only the European contingent led byMichel Platini will sit glowering. The former French midfielder’s disgust is less with Fifa’s pork barrel politics than the fact Blatter has effectively stymied his attempts to succeed him, endlessly reminding his audience of Platini’s well-documented links with Qatar.

Yet while happy to bask in the acclaim of his delegates, the normally publicity hungry Blatter has taken the pragmatic decision not to risk appearing before the crowds in any of Brazil‘s host cities.

Beyond the Fifa Congress, discontent is widespread – most pertinently from a section of the Brazilian public who viscerally love the game but hate Fifa’s approach and have used the World Cup as a symbol of their wider discontent with the government’s spending priorities. Anti-Fifa graffiti have spread and no one is quite sure whether mass street protests will flare in the same way as they did during last year’s Confederations Cup. Stadiums are still being finished and many associated infrastructure projects in Brazil have run out of time.

And yet, the World Cup remains a money-making machine. Fifa will make $4bn (£2.4bn) over this four-year cycle – provoking the ire of protesters who have seen their own government spend $11bn on the infrastructure to host it – and sits on a $1.4bn surplus.

Sponsors queue up, pouring $1.5bn into Fifa’s coffers every four years. Adidas, which along with Coca-Cola is the company most closely entwined in the story of how Fifa commercialised the tournament, recently extended its deal until 2030. And 2.96m of the 3.1m match tickets have been sold.

Blatter claims Fifa reinvests much of that money in the game. Yet it spends more on operating expenses, including wages and travel, than it does on “football development”, which accounts for less than a sixth of its annual budget.

If the latest corruption claims feel familiar, they are. For 2014 and the insight into how the former Fifa vice-president Mohamed bin Hammamlubricated the wheels of his own ambitions and, allegedly, the Qatari bid with cash payments, read any number of other scandals that echo down Blatter’s reign.

It was a tenure that began with claims that Bin Hammam, once a close ally of Blatter, had arranged the brown envelopes that saw him into office in 1998. By then, Blatter had already been employed at Fifa for 23 years, 17 of them as general secretary at the right hand of the Brazilian João Havelange, forging alliances, calling in favours and creating debts that would have to be paid.

Havelange, who plucked Blatter from the Swiss watchmaker Longines in 1975, tasked him with remodelling Fifa into the money-making behemoth it is today. He was also handed the role of expanding football’s reach around the globe through a “development programme” that also became a convenient hold on power thanks to the millions of dollars filtered through to the 209 members. When Blatter joined, Fifa employed 12 people. Today the staff numbers 452, earning $75.6m a year between them.

Around the executive committee table an outlandish cast settled in for long, lucrative stints at the top. They not only revelled in the status, perks and expenses, but soon found all manner of other routes to riches: claiming money for pitches and development centres that went unbuilt and forging lucrative sidelines in selling on World Cup tickets or TV rights. The culture of entitlement can be seen in the endless, casual requests for cash from the Bin Hammam piggy bank revealed by the Sunday Times emails.

Havelange, Blatter’s predecessor and one-time mentor, was eventually disgraced. A belated Fifa investigation in 2012 confirmed that he and others had taken a series of bribes over an eight-year period from the now-defunct sports marketing agency ISL. The report confirmed ISL paid out bribes – estimated at $100m – to a long list of officials between 1992 and May 2000 before collapsing a year later.

The central charge that dogged Blatter – that in March 1997, when he was still secretary general, a $1m payment meant for Havelange crossed his desk and was returned to ISL – was confirmed. Yet he was dubbed “clumsy”, not “criminal”.

His supporters have always insisted he is far from all powerful. That is due to Fifa’s structure, where the various confederations hold sway, and where the president is eternally compromised and has to seek deals and make concessions to get anything done.

Deep in the bowels of Fifa House, the $100m glass and chrome HQ that sits on a hill above Zurich wedged between the city zoo and a little-used tram stop, Blatter has become used to directing matters from his presidential suite and the bunker-like boardroom.

Like most things in the hall of mirrors world of Fifa, this is where the decision on whether to strip Qatar of the 2022 World Cup will be made. It should be remembered that it was Blatter’s decision to run both the 2018 and 2022 races simultaneously – ostensibly for commercial reasons but also because it suited his political ends – that caused much of the mess.

The decision over whether to strip Qatar of the tournament will be made not on the basis of whether it is good for football but on the basis of whether it is good for the president, who is said to have voted for the US for 2022.

It is one that Blatter will calibrate according to whether sticking with the tiny Gulf state, contending with temperatures of 50C-plus (122F) in the summer, and pressure over its treatment of migrant workers, is more trouble than jettisoning it.

He will be aware that taking on an entire country would be of a different order from besting his Fifa enemies. On the other hand, seven years is a long time and powerful influences that have been chipping away at Qatar, not least embittered losing bidders in the US and Australia, are unlikely to give up.

While he plots his way to another term, a potential geopolitical war is raging above Blatter’s head. It sets powerful parties in the US and Australia against a moneyed Gulf state fiercely proud of a World Cup that sits, however improbably, as a centrepiece of its multibillion-dollar nation-building ambitions.

Michael Garcia, the former New York district attorney appointed to investigate the 2018 and 2022 votes, will deliver his report in seven weeks. Characteristically, Blatter will try to keep his options open for as long as possible while he works out how to turn the situation to his advantage.

Blatter talked a good game in 2011 when the then FA chairman David Bernstein said Fifa was enveloped in the “stench of corruption”. “Reforms will be made, radical decisions will be taken. We must do something,” he declared, drawing up a “roadmap for reform”.

But Mark Pieth, chair of an independent group set up to oversee reform, saw his committee disbanded without the introduction of at least seven reforms it considered crucial. Before that Alexandra Wrage, president of the anti-bribery organisation Trace International, had quit after concluding Fifa was incapable of reforming itself.

Blatter has made elusiveness an artform. He can speak for hours while saying everything and nothing, frequently contradicting himself within a single answer. Part of his skill has been to keep his own nose relatively clean, while getting others to do his dirty work and endlessly turning a blind eye.

But then the Swiss has no need to fill his pockets with bribes on an undeclared Fifa salary that he said in 2011 was “$1m, perhaps a bit more”, swelled by generous expenses and bonuses.

More than that, he is totally addicted to the status his position affords him – he is feted and courted by heads of state, frequently flies by private jet on his endless travels and stays in only the finest hotels.

Those who have observed him up close for decades, even those who long to see him removed, pay tribute to his work ethic. He presumably envisaged the Brazil World Cup, gifted to the country seven years ago, as a sun-kissed, picture-postcard love-in for Fifa’s sponsors. It has become far more troublesome and complex than that.

He also promised it would be his swansong. But now Blatter says: “A mission is never finished and I am available to go on with this mission.”