ZURICH (AP) — Sepp Blatter is arguably the most powerful man in world sports and certainly its greatest survivor.
Now comes the biggest challenge of his 17-year rule of FIFA: dealing with the U.S. and Swiss criminal investigations into corruption among soccer officials, including some who were sipping drinks with Blatter in the hours and days before being arrested on Wednesday morning in Zurich.
Despite the corruption scandals that have scarred FIFA for years, the Teflon-coated Blatter has successfully held onto the presidency, his authority seemingly undiminished.
The ability to deflect responsibility onto one-time allies and then disown them has been a hallmark of the 79-year-old Swiss administrator’s term in office.
In fast-paced developments on Wednesday, U.S. authorities indicted 14 people, including members of FIFA’s executive committee, the ruling body headed by Blatter, over commercial deals.
And Swiss police launched a dawn raid on FIFA headquarters to seize data and documentation as they investigate the already-tarnished 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests.
It’s not the first time Swiss investigators have come looking for evidence in a FIFA probe. That happened in a 2005 kickbacks case.
But the timing of this raid could not be worse for Blatter.
It comes only two days before he goes up against FIFA vice president Prince Ali of Jordan in the first contested election for the FIFA presidency since 2002.
Blatter hid away in his office on Wednesday, canceling planned meetings with regional confederations, while sending out a spokesman to defend him in front of the media on the darkest day in FIFA’s 111-year history.
Media chief Walter de Gregorio seemed bemused by any suggestions Blatter should be considering his position, only accepting that his leader’s “stress factor is higher.”
“He is not dancing in his office. …. He is not kind of a happy man today saying, ‘That’s really cool what happened,'” De Gregorio said. “But this is the consequence of what we initiated. … The timing might not obviously be the best but FIFA welcomes this process.”
The raid on FIFA was a result of Blatter announcing in November that its secret World Cup investigation report had been handed over to Swiss authorities to assess. It suggests Blatter was sure the finger of suspicion would not fall on him.
Now, with an election to be won, FIFA is trying to accentuate Blatter’s role as the person to lead attempts to banish soccer of its “devils” — a word he has used in the past — and clean up the “Beautiful Game.”
It is a mission Blatter suggested in December was ordained by God.
“I believe in the Lord,” the staunch Catholic said. “From time to time he tells me I can go directly to the Vatican. …. I will bring back FIFA.”
Blatter is credited with turning FIFA into a commercial behemoth. The $5 billion quadrennial World Cup is a magnet for fans, broadcasters and sponsors, funding handouts for the 209 national associations, many of whom are indebted to Blatter for FIFA’s generosity.
After working for athletics and ice hockey federations in Switzerland, Blatter was brought into FIFA by Adidas to work on development projects funded by Coca-Cola in the 1970s.
“Blatter became FIFA employee number 12,” read a FIFA portrait of its president in the in-house magazine last year. “A fact that still rankles with him today as the 12th man in a football team is a substitute.”
Blatter made sure he would always have a place in FIFA by overseeing, as general secretary, the rapid commercial expansion of world soccer.
“Blatter was a living example of globalization before it became an economic catchphrase,” read the fawning FIFA profile, which describes the president as “multilingual, eloquent, quick-witted, savvy, jovial and by no means introverted.”
That was clear when he danced around the stage at Oxford University in November 2013, attempting to impersonate Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo. The same appearance featured Blatter’s most strident defense of his integrity.
“Perhaps you think I am a ruthless parasite sucking the lifeblood out of the world and out of football — the Godfather of the FIFA gravy train,” he told the Oxford students. “There are those who will tell you that FIFA is just a conspiracy, a scam, accountable to nobody. … There are those who will tell you of the supposed sordid secrets that lie deep in our (James) Bond villain headquarters in the hills above Zurich.”
Now some of the secrets of soccer’s dirty dealings are out in the open, exposed in detail by U.S. and Swiss prosecutors on Wednesday.
But Blatter’s ability to survive years of scandals unscathed suggests this week’s most likely outcome: Blatter being re-elected to serve as soccer’s leader for a fifth, four-year term.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris
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