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Will FIFA’s Sepp Blatter Be Shown the Red Card?

As corruption indictments swirl, soccer’s governing body prepares for a vote of confidence in its CEO.

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Has the full-time whistle finally blown on Joseph “Sepp” Blatter’s four-term reign of patronage at FIFA, soccer’s global governing body? Not quite. But the indictment and arrest of a rogues’ gallery of FIFA officials probably made Blatter quiver in his cushy Zurich office. His fate now depends not just on the actions of U.S. and Swiss authorities, but also on the FIFA members who have enjoyed a lucrative symbiosis with him. Will they keep Blatter on the field or give him the boot at last?

This is no idle question, since the election for FIFA’s president is happening on May 29. Blatter is seeking a fifth four-year term, which still wouldn’t make him the longest-serving head of the organization in modern times; his predecessor João Havelange, who was part of a bribery scheme affecting the selection of host countries for the World Cup, served for 24 years. Until recently, Blatter seemed like a lock, with Luís Figo, a former star player from Portugal, pulling out of the race in disgust at the apparently undemocratic nature of the process.

Blatter now faces only one opponent, Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, but the indictments have cast the election in a new light. Swiss police arrested seven people this week in Zurich at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has been investigating whether the United States lost its bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup as a result of corruption. A total of nine FIFA officials and five sports marketing executives have been indicted by the U.S. attorneys, and the Swiss have been carrying out their own inquest as well.

Despite these setbacks, the election can’t come soon enough for Blatter. He hasn’t been indicted, and his chances of winning are only likely to fall as the investigations reveal more malfeasance on his watch. Ali reacted to the arrests by saying it was a “sad day” for soccer. By contrast, FIFA called it a “good day” for the organization. Blatter probably knows that downers don’t win elections, and he only needs to keep up his eternally positive spin for a few more days.

FIFA’s voters still have to cast their ballots, though. As representatives of the soccer federations in FIFA’s member countries — and often beneficiaries of Blatter’s largesse — some of them have a tough choice to make. Giving him another term might be their last chance to prolong business as usual: perks, favors, and lucrative business deals from FIFA. Yet if Blatter is indicted or forced to resign in the middle of his term, the organization might be worse off, losing more prestige and possibly money as well.

Much of FIFA’s budget comes from its core sponsors, and several of them have already left in anticipation of the controversies surrounding the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 tournament in Qatar. This is unlikely to be a deal-breaker for FIFA members, however. If Blatter stays, the patronage pie might indeed get smaller; if he goes, there might not be any pie at all.

The one thing that may well give FIFA members pause is the style of the U.S. investigation. The Department of Justice is treating FIFA like a criminal gang — the same as a drug cartel or a mafia organization. The attorneys started by turning a critical informer, in this case former U.S. soccer supremo Chuck Blazer, and are now working their way up the FIFA chain of command. If the goal is to get to Blatter himself, the Feds are off to a splendid start.

On Friday, the FIFA members connected to Blatter face a particularly stark choice. Keep him as president, and they may eventually be pulled into whatever havoc envelops the organization. Turn their backs on Blatter, and he may try to bring them down with him as retribution. Neither option is attractive, but, like the old soccer saying goes (or should go), “When the fog lifts, you can see who’s been playing naked.”

MICHAEL BUHOLZER/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Daniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. @altmandaniel

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