By Jeff Burbank
When lame-duck FIFA President Sepp Blatter emerged Monday from a car in Zurich, a reporter yelled, “Mr. Blatter, you’ve been kicked out in disgrace. How do you feel?”
Blatter, his face unshaven, a bandage on his right cheek from the removal of a mole, did not respond. He saved it for a news conference minutes later in the Swiss-based world soccer organization’s headquarters.
FIFA’s ethics committee earlier that day had banned Blatter and Michel Platini, the president of the UEFA, FIFA’s European division, from participating in soccer activities for eight years, citing ethics violations from a $2 million payment FIFA made to Platini in 2011. Blatter, FIFA president since 1998, was re-elected to the post this past May.
The ethics committee had ordered Blatter and Platini suspended for 90 days back in October pending an inquiry into the payment. The two men said the disbursement was based on a verbal agreement for Platini to work as a presidential adviser to Blatter from 1998-2002.
But FIFA made no payment on the deal as of 2002, and the statute of limitations on employee claims for money is five years under Swiss law, making the compensation to Platini nine years later illegal. Blatter, who did not account for the $2 million on FIFA’s books, insisted that the matter was an administrative mistake and had “nothing to do with the ethics regulations.”
The ethics committee said it was not convinced by the men’s explanations. The money amounted to a conflict of interest and the pair violated their “fiduciary duty to FIFA,” it stated.
Blatter and Platini, the committee contended, failed “to place FIFA’s interests first and abstain from doing anything which could be contrary to FIFA’s interests.”
The body also fined Blatter $50,000 and Platini $80,000. However, it determined that the affair did not rise to a charge of corruption.
It was yet another unfolding scandal for FIFA, which stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Founded in Paris in 1904, FIFA is soccer’s official governing body. It oversees the World Cup and many other international tournaments and arranges for television and sports marketing rights for matches worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
This year, FIFA’s leadership flow-chart has been exposed as a veritable organized crime ring. Corruption-related charges have been filed against 39 former FIFA officials. Federal prosecutors in the United States charged FIFA executives and outside business people this year with racketeering in connection with more than $100 million in bribes allegedly paid by sports marketing companies going back to the 1990s. Further inquiries are said to center on the FIFA’s awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
For Blatter, his eight-year suspension from soccer may be the tip of iceberg. He is currently the focus of parallel criminal investigations by the Attorney General’s Office in Switzerland and the FBI in the United States.
David Bernstein, former chairman of the Football Association, FIFA’s British affiliate, told an English media outlet that the suspension marks “the end” for the 79-year-old Blatter’s tenure as head of world soccer. “He’s a drowning man,” Bernstein said. “Blatter has presided over a corrupt organization for many, many years.”
Undaunted by his suspension, Blatter, a Swiss national who earlier this year agreed to step down as FIFA president in February, claimed Monday that he was a victim and didn’t deserve the punishment.
“Let me say that I’m really sorry,” said Blatter, who has worked for FIFA for 40 years. “I’m sorry that I am still somewhere a punching ball but I am as president of FIFA the punching ball and I’m sorry for football. … I’m also sorry about me, how I am treated in this world of humanity and (my) humanitarian qualities.”
“I am now suspended for eight years,” he said. “But I will fight. I will fight for me and I will fight for FIFA. … I’ll be back.”
Bernstein described the FIFA president’s pronouncement as “a typical Blatter statement” and “maybe he’s in denial.”
“He hasn’t gotten to where he is without being a very tough guy,” Bernstein said. “So he will fight, but he will not win.”
Swiss authorities in September announced they had launched a criminal investigation into Blatter on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and misappropriation.
Meanwhile, Blatter said he plans to appeal to FIFA to restore his rights to participate in soccer. He further hopes to convince representatives of FIFA’s 209 soccer federations from around the world to assemble in Zurich and elect him honorary president.
Platini, 60, once considered Blatter’s successor as head of FIFA, is seeking to clear his name to resume campaigning as an official candidate for the presidency.
Last week, the BBC News reported a Swiss newspaper’s claims that U.S. authorities have asked Switzerland to freeze 50 accounts in 10 Swiss banks linked to FIFA amid an investigation into the spread of $50 million to $100 million in “corruption money.” As many as 12 of the accounts are controlled by Nicolas Leoz, head of FIFA’s South American confederation, the BBC reported.
Andrew Jennings, the author of two books on alleged FIFA corruption, is a reporter for BBC’s Panorama news program and has been writing about corruption at FIFA – sometimes the only journalist to do so — for the past 15 years.
On December 7, BBC Panorama aired an hour-long program, “FIFA, Sepp Blatter and Me,” in which Jennings reviewed his years of reporting on Blatter and other top FIFA executives. Jennings in the show dubbed FIFA as “an organized crime syndicate.”
“Sepp Blatter is the Godfather, and silence is his code,” he said.
In a television news interview Monday outside FIFA headquarters in Zurich after the suspension announcement, Jennings said that his patience has paid off.
“This is a day of righteous justice as far as Mr. Blatter is concerned,” he said. “He’s got away with it for a bundle of reasons, including he should have had more unfavorable media coverage than he’s had. But today, the roof fell in. And you know, it’s a historic day for us to be here. Behind this FIFA house you might hear the sobbing.”
Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.