Holding onto the ball
As the private jet glided down onto the airstrip outside Rafah, near the Egypt-Gaza border, the four men on board were about to embark on a long journey together. It was November 1999 and Sepp Blatter, then the little-known, recently-elected president of Fifa, global football’s governing body, was undertaking one of his first major pieces of official business. He was charged with welcoming the federation’s newest member: Palestine.
Among the party was Jérôme Champagne, a former French diplomat who was then Blatter’s right-hand man and who would go on to successfully run his 2002 re-election campaign. “The feeling was that it was a historic moment,” says Champagne. “We chose to charter a private jet and landed in the south of the Gaza Strip for the symbolism.”
Alongside Champagne and Blatter sat Michel Platini, the former French captain and co-president of the organising committee for the 1998 World Cup finals. The fourth passenger was Mohamed Bin Hammam, a Qatari businessman who sat on Fifa’s powerful executive committee, which votes on important matters including which countries get to host World Cup tournaments.
The men from Fifa were given a hero’s welcome. Palestinian crowds hailed the motorcade as it travelled north before it was stopped at the Erez crossing into Israel. They were held there by Israeli security forces until night fell. “Outside there were floodlights and young soldiers with M16 machine guns,” recalled Champagne. “The soldiers came out for autographs; not just from Platini [regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time], but also Blatter. Blatter said: ‘You’ll get the autograph when you get [me] my passport stamp!’” The soldiers laughed, Blatter signed the autographs and they were let through.
The four colleagues who found themselves in that car travelling a dusty road north through the Gaza Strip in 1999 would go on to change the face of modern sport. In the 16 years since the trip they have each served a crucial role in turning Fifa into a multi-billion-dollar concern, which has in turn influenced every other major sporting body. Those days in the desert were also a microcosm of how Blatter would run Fifa – embracing smaller nations, unafraid of controversy and always prepared to do a deal to get what he wants.
Whilst covering world football over the past decade, I have met all four of these Fifa lynchpins. I have seen the organisation’s influence – and the personal appeal and legacy of Sepp Blatter – across six continents. In Samoa, I hitched a ride on the back of a truck to the JS Blatter Stadium, named in the president’s honour. In Haiti, I saw how Fifa money had been used to smartly renovate the national stadium, Stade Sylvio Cator, which had been damaged in the 2010 earthquake. In Rwanda, two brand new artificial pitches gleamed amid the mud and squalor that surrounded them. Fifa’s stock was so high that the nightclubs I visited in the capital, Kigali, played a strange ragga remix of Fifa’s awful corporate anthem. It always got the loudest cheer of the night.
But in Europe and the US, Fifa has been compared to everything from a “mafia” to a “diseased and corrupt” organisation. The truth, in my experience, lies somewhere between the views of the Rwandan fans and the western critics.
When Joseph “Sepp” Blatter joined Fifa as technical director in 1975 it seemed highly unlikely that anyone would ever applaud the organisation’s corporate jingle. Fifa in the ’70s was very white, very European and very, very short of cash. Blatter would help to change all of that.
For one of the most recognisable, even infamous, figures in world affairs, little is known about his early life. Blatter was born in 1936 into a working-class family in the small, majority German-speaking Swiss town of Visp. His father worked at Visp’s huge chemical factory and his mother worked as a cleaner. The family managed to put Sepp through a degree in business administration and economics at the University of Lausanne.
Blatter was a footballer himself, playing for FC Visp in Switzerland’s top league, which was then all-amateur. In one hagiographic profile of Blatter’s playing days in Fifa’s in-house weekly magazine, he was described as a “feared top-flight striker” who had earned the nickname ‘the Uwe Seeler of Upper Valais’ after the great West German striker. It also detailed how Blatter was once the Valais sprint champion in 1956, having run 100 metres in 11.7 seconds. But it was not the sports field but the corridors of power that proved to be Blatter’s natural habitat. A succession of administrative jobs, including general secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation, led him to the watchmaking company Longines, his final stop before Fifa.
Fifa only had 11 employees back in 1975. Blatter was the twelfth. Its headquarters was a relatively modest building in Zurich and to cut down on costs its general secretary, Dr Helmut Käser, lived on site. There were no youth or women’s tournaments and there were scant resources. “When [Brazilian former Olympic swimmer João] Havelange was elected president in ’74, there was no money,” says Champagne. “Then someone from outside Europe comes in, wants to recognise the football association of the People’s Republic of China and to expel the South African FA because of apartheid.”
Havelange had beaten the British former president, Sir Stanley Rous, to become the first non-European to hold the post. In many ways Havelange laid the groundwork for Blatter. He won his campaign feeding on the resentment felt by African and Asian nations about the West’s dominance within the organisation. At the 1974 World Cup finals European and South American teams had taken 13 of the 16 qualification spaces. Worse still, Rous had been a supporter of apartheid-era South Africa. Havelange beat Rous 68-52 in the second round of voting.
Havelange hired Blatter for his corporate experience, trusting him to sign Fifa’s first marketing contracts and create its first development projects. Landmark deals with the likes of Coca-Cola followed, swelling Fifa’s coffers, and by 1981 Blatter had replaced Dr Käser as general secretary. He and Havelange then set about distributing the wealth and power away from the European power centre, primarily through a breakneck expansion of Fifa’s membership.
Between 1975 and today, FIFA grew its membership from 144 to 209 footballing nations, with most of the new countries coming from outside of Western Europe and many from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Each association, from Tonga to the United States, gets an equal vote within Fifa’s congress, which in turn votes for the president. When the time came, the new voters apparently remembered who they had to thank. “For years Blatter helped the development of football from Colombia to Vietnam, from Ethiopia to Panama,” says Champagne. “If you help a country, friendship and trust are built.”
Even so, when Havelange decided to stand down, triggering an election in 1998, Blatter was considered the outsider. It was the first presidential election since 1974: no one had dared to stand against Havelange. Yet Blatter beat the Swedish Uefa president Lennart Johansson by 111 votes to 80. The defeat infuriated Johansson, who alleged that votes had been bought. Blatter himself later admitted vote-buying might have occurred, but denied having had anything to do with it. In the same year, Havelange was elected honorary president.
The controversy didn’t hold Blatter back, and he went on to become the most powerful sports administrator the world had ever seen, courted by statesmen, dictators, royalty and CEOs alike – and winning further elections in 2002 and 2007. He deftly pulled the levers of power in a complex bureaucracy to grow the organisation politically and financially. Fifa’s congress may have kept Blatter as president but its most powerful body was still the executive committee. If the congress was Fifa’s parliament, the executive committee was its cabinet – and Blatter had little choice over who was chosen for this body as they largely came from the organisation’s six autonomous regional confederations, covering Asia, Africa, Europe, North and Central America, South America and Oceania. When corruption allegations emerged later in his tenure, Blatter would complain that almost all the alleged wrongdoing had taken place in the confederations, far from his area of effective control, and not at Fifa itself.
Between 2002 and 2014, Fifa’s revenues tripled. Hundreds of development projects – through its ‘Goal’ initiative, which doled out cash to the poorest national federations – cemented both Fifa and Blatter’s popularity outside Europe. In 2010 South Africa hosted Africa’s first ever World Cup tournament, which had followed Asia’s first tournament, in Japan and South Korea in 2002. But there were scandals too. The most significant for Blatter was the 2001 collapse of ISL, Fifa’s former sports marketing arm. Swiss court papers had exposed how several leading Fifa executives had been taking huge bribes in exchange for marketing contracts. Fifa’s ethics committee eventually found that Havelange, as well as former Fifa executive committee members Nicolas Leoz and Ricardo Teixeira, had taken millions of dollars in bribes connected to World Cup deals in the 1990s. Havelange resigned from his honorary presidency: Leoz and Teixeira had already quit their posts. Blatter was cleared of any wrongdoing by the ethics committee.
The president seemed unstoppable. But a seemingly innocuous suggestion by his then general secretary, Jérôme Valcke, was to change everything. It was decided that the 2010 vote for the right to host the 2018 World Cup finals would double up to include the 2022 tournament vote as well. Whilst Russia’s successful bid to host the 2018 finals was not much of a shock given Fifa’s globalist outlook, the choice for 2022 was greeted with disbelief: Qatar. A desert country the size of Yorkshire with a questionable human rights record, where summer temperatures regularly reach 50°C, was to hold the biggest tournament in world football.
Taking a stand
Of the four Fifa executives who travelled to Palestine in 1999, only Bin Hammam returned for the national team’s first ever competitive match at home. It was March 2011 and I met the Qatari president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in Ramallah. A lot had changed in 12 years. Champagne had been removed from his administrative role in 2010 following an internal power struggle. Platini had become the president of European football’s governing body, Uefa, in 2007 and had been tipped as a future Fifa president. He had become a key ally of Blatter, who would often refer to their relationship as one of father and son. With Platini apparently reluctant to stand, Bin Hammam was now seen as the only credible potential challenger to Blatter in the 2011 presidential election. But would he break rank?
Since Fifa recognition, Palestinian football had also made huge progress. Fifa money had been used to rebuild the main stadium in Gaza City and now a new stadium was to be inaugurated, with a state-of-the-art artificial pitch. Above one of the stands hung two portraits: one of Yasser Arafat, the other of Sepp Blatter.
It was here that Bin Hammam told me of his plans to challenge Blatter for the presidency later in the year. On the face of it, Bin Hammam was the first presidential challenger who had a real chance of beating Blatter. The AFC accounted for almost a quarter of the votes, Bin Hammam had sat on the executive committee for 15 years and headed up the Goal Bureau, which had distributed millions of dollars of development funds and built up plenty of goodwill. It also helped that Platini had chosen not to
stand, making it easier to win Europe’s support.
“Blatter and Platini had clashed repeatedly since the 2010 World Cup vote and were now playing a game of veiled criticisms and back-handed compliment”
“I wouldn’t be thinking of standing if I didn’t think I’d win,” Bin Hammam told me. He had been hailed as an important factor in securing the 2022 World Cup finals for his home country. “He’s always been advising us and always been by our side,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad al Thani, the chairman of Qatar’s 2022 bid team, was quoted as saying in World Football Insider in the weeks before the 2010 vote. “He’s definitely our biggest asset.” The bid team has since denied that he was involved in any way.
That evening, Bin Hammam was the guest of honour at the match. He stood on the pitch as a storm blew through the West Bank’s Faisal al Husseini stadium and the national anthems of Palestine and opponents Thailand were played. His portrait was hoisted high above the stand, creating a triptych of Bin Hammam, Blatter and Arafat. The next day the Qatari launched his campaign to become president, promising “more transparency in Fifa”.
It took two months for the whole enterprise to unravel – and to show what can happen when you put your head above the parapet at Fifa. Three days before the vote, Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy. Fifa’s ethics committee announced that it was suspending Bin Hammam and Trinidadian Fifa vice president Jack Warner over allegations that bribes had been paid to 25 members of the Caribbean Football Union: $40,000 each, allegedly handed out in plain envelopes by Warner in return for votes for Bin Hammam. Chuck Blazer, the American general secretary of Concacaf, football’s governing body for North and Central America, had blown the whistle on the alleged bribes.
Warner resigned almost immediately and Fifa said that as a consequence “all ethics committee procedures against him have been closed and the presumption of innocence is maintained”. Bin Hammam, Blatter’s one-time staunch ally, had been stripped of his privileges and thrown into the footballing wilderness in a little over eight weeks. He would later be banned from all football-related activities for life by Fifa.
Blatter was left unopposed to run for a fourth term in Zurich, and won 186 of a potential 203 votes. The Sun ran a memorable front page showing an image of Blatter next to that of Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi with the headline “Despot the difference”. His re-election was another victory for Blatter, but unbeknownst to him the seeds of his greatest crisis yet had already been planted by Chuck Blazer on the other side of the ocean.
Fifa’s headquarters in Zurich are at the end of a tram line, next to the city’s zoo. They are peaceful and quiet, set in rolling green countryside. The building itself is an expensive, modern glass and stone construction which cost an estimated $200 million to build and, when I visited in October 2012, housed some 400 employees.
It was a year and a half since Blatter’s controversial re-election. I met him in a glass corner office with views out over Zurich’s green and pleasant landscape. He was short, charismatic and friendly and spoke in an expansive, rather loose English, one of five languages in which he is fluent.
We were not here to talk about the 2015 presidential election, nor corruption, but rather the potential recognition of Kosovo by Fifa. It was an issue that Blatter supported. Michel Platini, however, was against it and the issue looked set to divide the two just as European calls for Platini to stand for president were reaching a crescendo.
As head of Uefa, Platini was in charge of the Champions League, the world’s most lucrative club competition. The friction in recent years between clubs and national teams had become open warfare. The wealthy clubs from Spain, Germany, France and especially England resented the fact that the players – their property, their investments – were being used to feather Fifa’s nest through the World Cup. Platini was a man, they reasoned, who would fight for their interests.
“Blatter’s run for a fifth term was now inevitable: he could not go out on such a low”
Blatter and Platini had clashed repeatedly since the 2010 World Cup vote and were now playing a game of veiled criticisms and back-handed compliments. The next unofficial presidential election campaign had apparently begun. “I have just seen this morning, that the opposition [to Kosovo’s recognition] has always come from Uefa but I [also] just had this…” Blatter passed me a printout of an article from a sports news website. The headline read: “Platini gives fresh hope to Kosovan football”. In it Platini suggested that he might make a U-turn. Blatter gave me a satisfied smile. “I am happy that my colleague Michel Platini has now abandoned his very strong position,” he said, insisting I kept the article.
Potentially the most damaging issue the two had clashed over was that of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup finals. The fallout from the vote had seen a level of scrutiny over the process that was unprecedented for Fifa. Allegations of vote buying, vote swapping and political pressure had been raised. France Football magazine ran an investigation that claimed that on the eve of the World Cup vote in November 2010 Platini had been invited to the Elysée Palace for a meeting with then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the crown prince of Qatar, who was later to become emir. Platini denied that any pressure had been put on him to vote for Qatar, but he admitted that he had voted for the bid. “It was a secret ballot,” Blatter told me, visibly annoyed, “and if it’s a secret ballot you should not disclose who you are voting for. This is a democratic principle.”
A few minutes later Blatter was gone, back on his rollercoaster of handshakes and platitudes. He wouldn’t talk about whether he would stand for the 2015 presidency. Insiders had claimed he would bow out before the vote, but would make an announcement only at the last minute to avoid being a lame-duck president. But he decided to stand after all. A key event would be the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, a warm-up tournament for the World Cup finals a year later. Anti-government protests had swept the cities where matches were being played. The protesters were angry that little of the infrastructure that had been promised to Brazilians as part of the World Cup deal had been built. Blatter had become persona non grata. The signs they carried said it all: “Fuck Fifa. Fuck Blatter”.
Far from being garlanded for bringing football back to its spiritual home, Blatter had been castigated. He chose to leave Brazil midway through the tournament. At the World Cup opening ceremony a year later he was loudly booed when his face was shown on the big screen. Blatter had talked frequently about his legacy. But he had become a hate figure. He played such a low-key role at the World Cup that he was virtually invisible. His run for a fifth term was now inevitable: he could not go out on such
a low. The question was: would Platini finally stand against him?
The final whistle?
At 6am on 27th May 2015 – on the eve of Fifa’s latest presidential election – a group of plain-clothes Swiss police officers flooded the lobby of the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich with a list of names but no room numbers. The receptionist gave up the numbers, seven doors were knocked on, and seven Fifa executives were marched out.
The arrests came at the behest of the US Justice Department (DOJ), which, a few hours later unsealed a 47-count indictment that charged 14 people, including nine current and former Fifa executives, with “racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies… in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer.” According to the DOJ the amount embezzled came to $150 million. One of the seven arrested was Jeffrey Webb, a Fifa vice president who had been tipped as a potential future president. Also on the list was Jack Warner. The US has requested his extradition from Trinidad
The arrests threw the election into doubt. After a long campaign that had briefly included Champagne (who couldn’t gain the endorsements of the five associations needed to stand) the field had been whittled down to two: Blatter and Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, brother to the king of Jordan. Platini was now openly calling for Blatter to stand down. “He is simply afraid of what is next because he has dedicated his life to Fifa,” he told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. “I understand the fear of emptiness that he must have as he is human. But if he really loves Fifa, he should put it before himself.” Even so, Platini refused to stand himself and instead backed Prince Ali. After the arrests, Platini called for the vote to be postponed, but Blatter rejected the move. The election would go ahead.
Fifa had become of serious interest to the US authorities after the 2010 vote for the 2018 and 2022 finals. The US had made one of the losing bids for the latter tournament. But it wasn’t until Bin Hammam and the 2011 presidential election that the investigation got its major breakthrough. When Chuck Blazer blew the lid on the alleged cash-for-votes controversy at the Caribbean Football Union, he appeared on the FBI’s radar. The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) discovered Blazer hadn’t paid any tax for at least ten years. A 2013 internal Concacaf report revealed that Blazer had received $15 million in hidden commissions over 15 years, while his office had run up a $29 million credit card bill. Concacaf was reportedly even paying $24,000 a month for two apartments in Trump Tower: one for Blazer, and one for his pet cats.
Blazer, who was morbidly obese, had been apprehended on his mobility scooter in New York in November 2011. He reached a plea bargain with the FBI and IRS and reportedly agreed to wear a wire during the 2012 London Olympics, recording conversations with Fifa’s top officials. The arrests at the Baur au Lac hotel, and the subsequent requests for extradition to the US, were the result of those conversations and are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite the arrests and bad press the election went ahead. Blatter won 133 to 73. It was close enough to force a second vote, but Prince Ali conceded. The outcome left Fifa split and four days after his election victory, Blatter stood down. “I did it to protect the institution and my family against the attacks on Fifa, not to protect myself,” he would later tell Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. “I don’t need any help when it comes to my personal integrity.” He continues to vigorously deny any wrongdoing.
The next Fifa president is scheduled to be elected in February 2016 and it seems likely that three of the four men who travelled to Palestine in 1999 will again play their part. In July, Platini finally announced he would stand for the Fifa presidency, declaring that “there are times in life when you have to take your destiny into your own hands”. He may be challenged by Jérôme Champagne, who is considering standing again, fearing that a Platini presidency would signal a return to Fifa’s Eurocentric past. “Considering that Uefa represents the wealthiest [nations] and has a third of the votes in the Fifa executive committee, it’s like the traders of Wall Street wanting to run [the] IMF,” he says. Bin Hammam, who now tends to his family’s construction business in Qatar, has said that he will play no part in the election. “I want to enjoy life away from my ex-lover, football,” he tells me via email.
And what of Blatter? He will remain president until the election, and seems likely to continue clashing with his former friend Platini. Few who have worked with Blatter believe he is personally corrupt, merely a canny politician who used the levers of power at his disposal. As Champagne pointed out, much of the corruption occurred in the confederations, which the president had little power over. “It is like President Obama winning the election and then letting his enemies choose his cabinet!” Champagne explained, referring to the executive committee.
Platini is the clear favourite, but there appear to be forces inside Fifa that want him defeated. In August 2015 a document entitled ‘Platini: Skeletons in the closet’, was sent anonymously to several journalists. The 1,400-word article allegedly came from within Fifa HQ and outlined Platini’s perceived flaws. “He was one of Europe’s most skilful players of all time,” one passage read. “But is he great enough to be Fifa president?” Uefa complained to Fifa about an “alleged smear campaign”: Fifa is investigating the source of the dossier.
For Platini and Blatter, a journey they began together in Gaza nearly twenty years ago will soon, finally, come to an end.
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