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Blatter Is a Fallen Emperor, Clothed in Self-Pity

You knew this news conference was about to spin splendidly off the rails when Sepp Blatter, the emperor of world soccer, opened with an apology that wasn't.

"I am sorry," he told the news media in Switzerland on Monday after learning he would be suspended from soccer for eight years. "I am sorry that I am still somewhere a punching ball."

Blatter, a plump, balding man of 79 whose remaining hair sweeps ski-jump style off the back of his pate, has commanded the throne of the Beautiful Game for more than a decade. His professional life was magnificent: so many hours spent in grand hotels, eating grand meals and sipping grander wines, with an annual salary estimated as north of $6 million.

Seven months ago, F.B.I. agents and the Swiss police began pulling his empire apart. These Visigoths dragged his friends and allies, from soccer federations far and wide, out from beneath their goose-down comforters in excellent hostelries and trotted them off to the local hoosegow, where they learned of their indictments on all manner of malefactions.

Now the FIFA ethics committee, a creature of Blatter's own devising, has come knocking for Blatter. The committee found that Blatter had given an entirely off-the-books $2 million payment to a powerful FIFA princeling who -- praise God for the coincidence of it! -- decided not to run against Blatter for the organization's presidency.

This payment tiptoed to the edge without quite crossing the line into a bribe. Such payments did not display "an ethical attitude," the committee said, citing Article 21, Paragraph 1 of FIFA's code of ethics. Blatter's "assertion of an oral agreement was determined as not convincing," the committee found.

As this is FIFA, we are wisest to defer to its expertise in what precisely constitutes a bribe.

Blatter would hear nothing of this. He is a don of international sport, until recently holding twin appointments as the president of FIFA and a member of the International Olympic Committee. An ebullient sort, he once declared of himself, "I am the president of everybody."

He also suggested that female soccer players would do well to consider wearing skintight shorts, saying, "Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so."

These were the sayings of the Emperor. At the same time, as detailed in a vast indictment filed by the United States Justice Department, entire provinces in the FIFA empire functioned as a flea market for the giving and taking of bribes and the related avocations of money laundering and conspiracy.

Blatter's performance Monday had a wonderful, ever-so-slightly unhinged quality. On and on he spoke, for almost an hour, mixing pepper-pot defiance and poetry-slam stream of consciousness, all delivered excitably in four languages.

"I'm not the cleverest man in the world," Blatter said, "but like they say in French, je ne suis pas un imbécile." ("I'm not an imbecile.")

And, he said, "I have never lost my mind."

A powerful man who makes such declarations is to be cherished.

Toward the FIFA ethics committee that pierced his armor, Blatter expressed shock and dismay. "I am ashamed about the committee," he said, adding, "This committee has no right."

"Has no right": Those three words capture the entitlement that so often rules world sport, which from soccer to track to the Olympics resembles a ball of thread rapidly unwinding. (On Monday, according to an Agence France-Presse report, the French authorities issued new charges against Lamine Diack, a former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations who is accused of having ignored doping allegations against Russian track athletes in exchange for large payments. Diack's family has termed such accusations "insignificant," not to mention "excessive.")

It's not as if Blatter has no accomplishments to point to. As The Guardian's David Conn noted, he took a sport dominated at its highest reaches by colonial-style powers in the 1960s and 1970s and redirected money to poorer soccer federations.

Some of that served to refurbish and underwrite the sport in poorer regions. But so much of that cash was sluiced off into bribe making and money laundering. As a number of indicted top officials have pleaded guilty, allegations have turned into the hard bone of fact.

This past summer in Bern, Switzerland, I spoke with Roland Büchel, a member of the Swiss Federal Assembly who once worked for the marketing company created by FIFA. For years afterward, he kept blowing the whistle on what he had seen.

"The executives all flew first class," he told me. "To stay in less than a four- or five-star hotel? Mais non.

"We lived on bribe paying."

These past months and days have offered a fascinating spectacle. FIFA's corrupted leaders coexist in the same buildings and offices and often sit chair to chair at fancy dinners with the putative reformers. It is in truth not always easy to distinguish one from the other. As the most recent round of Justice Department indictments described, corrupt princes have so hungered for bribes that they posed as reformers, the better to gain access to thick envelopes and Swiss bank accounts.

Blatter presided over all of this, a sport in a state of spectacular, explosive expansion and a sport shot through with corruption. He straddled it while insisting that he knew only of the good while the malignant occurred beneath his lofty station.

"I will fight for me and for FIFA," Blatter said at the news conference. Then, his eyes flashing and his head bobbing like a lowrider car, he added, "I'll be back."

He intended that as a promise. It sounded like a threat.

[Source: By Michael Powell, The New York Times, 21Dec15]

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Corruption and Organized Crime
small logoThis document has been published on 23Dec15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.