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In FIFA politics,Sepp Blatter is the consummate player

Ahead of crucial meeting,president may have final say on shifting Qatar WC,much like he has during 15 years as chief.

Written by New York Times | Zurich | Published: October 3, 2013 1:21 am

Sam Borden & James Montague

Technically,Sepp Blatter is a president,the president of FIFA,soccer’s global governing body. To use that label alone,though,is to sell short the dominating stature with which Blatter rules. Think of it this way: how many people can arrive in virtually any country with a minimum of pomp or protocol and then request an audience with the head of state,and receive one?

Blatter can. (And he has. In the past few months he has met with the president of Cuba,the prime minister of Guinea and the president of South Africa.) In more private moments,Blatter has likened FIFA to a sovereign nation. He may not be so far off: after all,FIFA has its own flag and anthem. And it has,in Blatter,an outspoken and commanding figurehead who has led it through periods of prosperity,and a fair bit of shame and scandal,too.

In nearly four decades with FIFA,however,Blatter has never overseen an issue as hotly debated as the one in front of him now. Beginning Thursday in Zurich,Blatter will preside over a meeting of FIFA’s executive committee,which consists of 25 voting members who essentially make soccer’s most important decisions. If Blatter has his way,one of the issues called for a vote will be whether to shift the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from its traditional summer schedule to the relative cool of late fall and winter in the Middle East.

The ramifications of such a switch would be multiple and momentous. Blatter has made it clear that he believes a change in dates is necessary but doing so will disrupt schedules around the world. But when Blatter states a preference,that has historically meant only one outcome is possible.

Cynics note that FIFA rules play into the hands of a smart politician: the 25-member executive committee consists largely of representatives of FIFA’s six confederations,but Africa (four) and Asia (four) have more votes than Europe (seven). That gives Botswana,Iran and Thailand as much voice as,say,Germany,England and France,something Blatter has exploited,currying favor,and votes,in Africa and Asia.

Though his playing career was limited to Switzerland’s amateur leagues,his primary fame has come from his work in soccer. Since 1975,he has risen from technical director for FIFA to general secretary to president in 1998. A polyglot who speaks German,French,English,Spanish and Italian,Blatter conscientiously built a deep network of influence as he advanced. He combined the talent of being the executive and operational head with also being a political mastermind.

Defenders of Blatter are quick to note his achievements. He has taken the game’s biggest prize to virgin territory,overseeing the first World Cups in Asia and Africa,and the awarding of the first to post-Communist Eastern Europe,in Russia in 2018. One of his first acts as president was to push through the recognition of Palestine as its own soccer-playing nation,when FIFA became one of the only major international organizations to recognize the Palestinians in this way.

Controversies

In recent years,he has noted that a female member of the executive committee is both “good and good-looking”; advised fans in England to pray to God if they ever hope to host the World Cup again; and suggested,apparently jokingly,that gay fans who attend the World Cup in Qatar “should refrain from any sexual activities” because homosexuality is illegal there. Less benign are the allegations of corruption that have lingered over FIFA for years. Several senior figures and a significant number of former executive committee members,many of whom worked closely with Blatter,have stepped down after FIFA’s ethics committee implicated them in a bribery scam. FIFA’s critics frequently note that Blatter has stayed remarkably upright as the people around him seem to topple amid charges of bribery,conflict of interest and other unsavory activity. Nonetheless,he has been surrounded by scandal. Of the 24 men on the executive committee who were set to vote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids in December 2010,two were suspended and later removed for taking bribes before the ballot took place.

Decision 2022

On Thursday,world soccer’s most powerful group will meet in FIFA’s gleaming,state-of-the-art offices in a quiet suburb of Zurich to take a decision that could reshape the future of soccer as well as Blatter’s legacy. A tournament in Qatar in January and February would clash with the Winter Olympics and one in November and December would disrupt not only Europe’s top club competition,the Champions League,but also play in most major European leagues. Equally problematic have been recent news media reports of abuse and mistreatment of Qatar’s huge migrant work force. All of it piles up to be a considerable headache for Blatter,who insisted as late as last year that the 2022 World Cup must take place as planned in the summer. As the prevailing wind has changed direction,though,so too has Blatter.

Some believe that Qatar will be the final piece of Blatter’s legacy,but even that is uncertain. Among the myriad criticisms levied by Wrage and others against FIFA is an absence of term limits on its presidency,and so it does not matter that Blatter is 77. It does not matter that he has been president for 15 years. It does not matter that he said before his last election that this would be his final one. All that is sure is this: There is another election in 2015,and Blatter may not be done.

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