Sepp Blatter Decides to Resign as FIFA President in About-Face

June 3, 2105

Sepp Blatter, who led world soccer’s governing body for 17 years and who was regarded as one of the most powerful people in global sports, said Tuesday that he would resign his position. He made his announcement in Zurich as law enforcement officials in the United States confirmed that he was a focus of a federal corruption investigation.

Mr. Blatter had for days tried to distance himself from the controversy, but several United States officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that in their efforts to build a case against Mr. Blatter, they were hoping to win the cooperation of some of the FIFA officials now under indictment and work their way up the organization.

Mr. Blatter’s resignation speech, which he delivered in French to a mostly empty room at FIFA headquarters, served as a stunning coda to a dramatic sequence of events that began last Wednesday with a police raid at a five-star hotel, where seven soccer officials were arrested and held for extradition to the United States on corruption charges.

The arrests were followed by a detailed explanation by United States Justice Department officials on their investigation into FIFA. And from there came an initial dismissal by FIFA of the widespread nature of the charges; a defiant Mr. Blatter winning re-election to a fifth four-year term as president and his claiming that he would pilot FIFA’s battered boat “to shore”; a linking by United States officials of Mr. Blatter’s top deputy to a series of payments that are believed to be bribes; and, finally, just before 7 p.m. Central European Time on Tuesday, Mr. Blatter’s announcement that he would step down from the organization he has served, in various roles, for 40 years.

“FIFA needs a profound restructuring,” Mr. Blatter said. Referring to his re-election, he then added, “Although the members of FIFA have given me the new mandate, this mandate does not seem to be supported by everybody in the world of football.”

After finishing his prepared remarks, Mr. Blatter walked off the dais and disappeared through a door without taking questions from the few reporters who were able to attend the speech, which was given on short notice. Mr. Blatter’s face was grim, a sharp change from the demeanor he showed just days earlier when he brashly responded to a question about resigning with incredulity. “Why would I step down?” he said then. “That would mean I recognize that I did wrong.”

Given Mr. Blatter’s sudden, and unexpected, change of heart, soccer officials around the world were left with two overarching questions on Tuesday night: First, what changed between Friday and Tuesday to persuade Mr. Blatter to resign? And with his departure from the body that oversees the world’s most popular sport, what will happen next to both him and the organization?

Who Will Succeed Sepp Blatter?

A look at the possible candidates to succeed FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

The second question has a clearer answer. Mr. Blatter’s resignation is not immediate. According to Domenico Scala, the independent chairman of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee, a special meeting of FIFA’s member nations will be called to elect a new president. According to FIFA’s rules, members must be given at least four months’ notice for such a meeting, so Mr. Scala indicated that the probable window for an election is between December 2015 and March 2016.
Mr. Blatter will continue his duties in the interim, and in his speech he said he would use his remaining time to focus on a program of reform, which would be directed by Mr. Scala.

The first question, however — as to what persuaded Mr. Blatter to leave — is more complex. While Mr. Blatter has not been directly implicated in any criminal cases, the disclosure that law enforcement officials in the United States are targeting him speaks to the legal vulnerability he may be facing.

A high-ranking soccer official said Mr. Blatter had been advised by his legal counsel that continuing in his current position could make defending him against possible future prosecution more difficult.


After announcing that he would resign, Mr. Blatter left the podium without taking questions from reporters. Credit Valeriano Di Domenico/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The soccer official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said in particular there were concerns about Mr. Blatter, as president, needing to make public comments on either the continuing Justice Department investigation or a separate investigation by Swiss authorities into allegations of improprieties during the awarding of the hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments. While such comments might be considered the norm for an organization’s leader, the official said, in this instance they could create additional legal problems for Mr. Blatter.

The soccer official added that pressure on Mr. Blatter from soccer’s corporate partners, as well as from various FIFA members, increased considerably over the weekend as it became clear that the Justice Department indictment was not looking just at corruption within Concacaf, the regional governing body overseeing soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

Initially, much of the public focus of the investigation was on Concacaf’s role, and FIFA officials, including Blatter, portrayed the arrested officials as rogues. But The New York Times on Monday, based on information from several United States officials and others briefed on the case, linked Mr. Blatter’s top deputy, Jérôme Valcke, to a series of payments that are believed to be bribes connected to South Africa’s winning the vote that gave it the 2010 World Cup.

Mr. Valcke and FIFA both denied that he knew about the specifics of the wire transfers, but according to the same soccer official, Mr. Blatter — and his lawyers — felt that the current situation had become untenable and probably would only get worse.

Mr. Blatter’s resignation apparently brings to an end an enigmatic career in sports. Born in Visp, a Swiss village, Mr. Blatter studied economics at the University of Lausanne. Later, he worked for the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation and the watch company Longines. His mentor at FIFA was its former president, João Havelange, who was an Olympic swimmer from Brazil.

Mr. Blatter served as Mr. Havelange’s secretary general before becoming president in 1998. During Mr. Blatter’s tenure atop FIFA, he led a global expansion of the sport’s popularity (and profitability) as well as overseeing an expansion of youth soccer and women’s soccer. He also championed the importance of soccer development in FIFA’s smaller countries, a strategy that perhaps not coincidentally helped him retain control of the organization’s one-country, one-vote electorate.

Controversy, however, never seemed too far away. Whether it was allegations of corruption in marketing and broadcast agreements or concerns over the potential bribing of the officials who voted on World Cup hosting rights, Mr. Blatter often found himself defending the organization’s integrity.

Most of the allegations of improprieties centered on FIFA’s powerful executive committee, a body made up of several dozen officials from confederations around the world who were led by Mr. Blatter. Members of the executive committee — in particular two FIFA vice presidents — were the most significant officials arrested in the raid last Wednesday, when the Swiss police, working on instructions from the United States, began a sweep of the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich.

Although the arrests were not messy — hotel staff members even held up bedsheets in an attempt to keep pedestrians from seeing the soccer officials as they were led out a side door — the impact was powerful.

Both Mr. Blatter and Mr. Scala spoke Tuesday about the need to reform the executive committee if FIFA hoped to make any meaningful changes to its image. In a somewhat strange twist, given his lengthy tenure as FIFA’s leader, Mr. Blatter also cited the importance of term limits.

“For years, we have worked hard to put in place administrative reforms, but it is plain to me that while these must continue, they are not enough,” Mr. Blatter said. “We need deep-rooted structural change.”

Mr. Scala, in his remarks to reporters after Mr. Blatter’s speech, said “nothing will be off the table” in terms of reforms for FIFA. Changes could include a greater focus on transparency — including publishing the compensation earned by the president and executive committee members — as well as more stringent integrity checks, a proposal that had previously been rejected by FIFA members.

“There is significant work to be done in order to regain the trust of the public,” Mr. Scala said.

Mr. Blatter voiced a similar sentiment, though it is not clear just how involved he will be in any changes. FIFA did not immediately announce Mr. Blatter’s travel schedule, although he would normally appear at either Saturday’s European Champions League final in Berlin or at the Women’s World Cup, which begins the same day in Canada.

As for potential candidates to replace Mr. Blatter, it appears likely that Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, who lost to Mr. Blatter in last Friday’s vote, will stand again in the next election. Beyond that, Michel Platini, head of European soccer’s governing body, has long been seen as a potential successor to Mr. Blatter.

Mr. Blatter, in his speech, did not endorse any potential candidates. Rather, he focused on what he hoped would be the positive nature of his departure. “What matters to me more than anything,” he said, “is that when all of this is over, football is the winner.”

Source: New York Times

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