Blat­ter drops de­fi­ant tone as he agrees to re­sign

He con­cedes, ‘FIFA needs a pro­found over­haul’ as he makes abrupt about-face

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David Whar­ton and Nathan Fenno

It was only four days ago the most pow­er­ful man in soc­cer stood be­fore the cam­eras with a broad smile, seem­ingly un­fazed by mount­ing al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, say­ing: “Why would I step down?”

That de­fi­ant mood had shifted dramatically by Tues­day, when Sepp Blat­ter agreed to re­sign as pres­i­dent of FIFA, the gov­ern­ing body for soc­cer world­wide, yield­ing to the pres­sure of a U.S. fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion and grow­ing un­rest within his sport.

“I cher­ish FIFA more than any­thing,” he said. “And I want to do only what is best for FIFA and soc­cer.”

His an­nounce­ment capped a tu­mul­tuous seven days in which the U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice un­veiled an in­dict­ment of 14 high-rank­ing soc­cer of­fi­cials and busi­ness­men, cit­ing a pat­tern of bribery that spanned decades and to­taled more than $150 mil­lion.

Blat­ter has emerged as the lead­ing tar­get in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, ac­cord­ing to two fed­eral of­fi­cials who spoke anony­mously be­cause the case is on­go­ing. One of­fi­cial said pros­e­cu­tors hope some of those al­ready charged will roll over on other FIFA of­fi­cials.

“You get the lower-level peo­ple to co­op­er­ate, then you work your way up,” said Dou­glas E. Small, a for­mer FBI spe­cial agent who is now a direc­tor at the Berke­ley Re­search Group in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “That’s the nor­mal way to work any of th­ese in­ves­ti­ga­tions.”

The 79-year-old Blat­ter plans to stay in of­fice sev­eral more months, help­ing to ini­ti­ate a se­ries of re­forms while FIFA finds a suc­ces­sor.

His sud­den change of mind sparked

ques­tions about what might have hap­pened be­hind the scenes and what lies ahead for the sport.

“I don’t think FIFA is any­where close to be­ing able to present it­self in a pos­i­tive light,” said Gareth Sweeney, edi­tor at Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional, a self-pro­claimed global coali­tion against cor­rup­tion. “It’s go­ing to get a lot worse be­fore it gets bet­ter.”

This isn’t the first time Blat­ter has faced ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion since tak­ing of­fice in 1998. But the Swiss na­tive has never been sanc­tioned for wrong­do­ing and, un­til now, had proved adroit at weath­er­ing con­tro­versy.

Calls for his res­ig­na­tion grew louder this week, widen­ing to in­clude crit­i­cism from Michel Pla­tini, head of the pow­er­ful Euro­pean soc­cer con­fed­er­a­tion, and a much-viewed rant on the HBO show, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”

On Tues­day, the New York Times re­ported inves- tiga­tors have fo­cused on a top FIFA lieu­tenant, Jerome Val­cke, whom they sus­pect of mak­ing $10 mil­lion in bank trans­ac­tions con­nected to an al­leged bribery scheme that re­sulted in South Africa be­ing se­lected World Cup host in 2010.

Blat­ter also might have felt pres­sure from an­other di­rec­tion — cor­po­rate part­ners such as Coca-Cola and ma­jor net­works that pay bil­lions for com­mer­cial and broad­cast rights to the glob­ally popular World Cup.

McDon­ald’s is­sued a state­ment say­ing cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions against FIFA had “over­shad­owed the game and taken away from the sport.” Adi­das said Tues­day’s de­vel­op­ments were a step in the right di­rec­tion.

“It seems as though the pres­sure from spon­sors is yield­ing pos­i­tive re­sults, more than most pun­dits would have ex­pected,” said Mark Friederich, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Nav­i­gate Re­search, which spe­cial­izes in mar­ket­ing and spon­sor­ship.

Christo­pher Cake­bread, an ad­ver­tis­ing pro­fes­sor at Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity, took an­other view, cit­ing the de­mo­graphic value of a sport that reaches bil­lions of fans.

“There are a lot of com­pa­nies that don’t care about public opin­ion,” he said. “If one pulls its spon­sor­ship from FIFA, some­one else would prob­a­bly just take over the spot.”

Dur­ing his brief an­nounce­ment, Blat­ter laid out — in broad strokes — a se­ries of pro­posed re­forms.

He said he has rec­om­mended new checks and bal­ances for the six con­ti­nen­tal con­fed­er­a­tions that op­er­ate un­der FIFA’s um­brella. That would ad­dress a cru­cial por­tion of the Jus­tice Depart­ment case.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors con­tended sports mar­keters were awarded com­mer­cial rights to high-pro­file tour­na­ments af­ter pay­ing mil­lions in bribes to of­fi­cials from CON­MEBOL, which over­sees soc­cer in South Amer­ica, and CON­CA­CAF, re­spon­si­ble for Cen­tral and North Amer­ica and the Caribbean.

At a higher level, FIFA will con­sider stream­lin­ing its pow­er­ful ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee, which se­lects host cities for the World Cup, and en­forc­ing term lim­its for com­mit­tee mem­bers as well as the pres­i­dent.

“FIFA needs a pro­found over­haul,” Blat­ter said.

The ef­fort has been handed to Domenico Scala, the in­de­pen­dent chair­man of FIFA’s au­dit and com­pli­ance com­mit­tee.

“While it would be pre­ma­ture to spec­u­late on the out­comes of this work, noth­ing will be left off the ta­ble,” Scala said.

Sig­nif­i­cant change might re­quire dis­man­tling the cul- ture Blat­ter spent years es­tab­lish­ing.

FIFA is made up of 209 na­tions — each has an equal vote — and Blat­ter built his con­stituency on smaller coun­tries, some of which re­ceived fund­ing or other fa­vors from FIFA.

In terms of cor­rup­tion, soc­cer of­fi­cials from small, poor na­tions might be more vul­ner­a­ble, ex­perts said. The in­dicted de­fen­dants in the U.S. case in­clude rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Cay­man Is­lands and Trinidad and Tobago.

“Ev­ery­one has a price,” said Richard Shee­han, a Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame fi­nance pro­fes­sor who has stud­ied in­ter­na­tional soc­cer. “Th­ese of­fi­cials get bribed be­cause it works.”

The al­le­ga­tions that South Africa paid bribes to get the 2010 World Cup res­onate with many who won­der about FIFA award­ing the qua­dren­nial com­pe­ti­tion to Rus­sia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

Qatar’s se­lec­tion seems par­tic­u­larly star­tling, given that the re­gion’s un­bear­able heat re­quired shift­ing the tra­di­tion­ally sum­mer­time event to a later date in fall, caus­ing a dis­rup­tion of sched­ules for some of the top leagues in Europe, in­clud­ing the English Pre­mier League.

A re­vamped FIFA could re­con­sider its se­lec­tions for 2018 and 2022.

“I think the odds have in­creased dramatically,” Shee­han said. “If I was Qatar, I’d be sweat­ing.”

If FIFA were to make a move, it might have to choose a coun­try that al­ready has enough sta­di­ums in place. The field would prob­a­bly be limited to ma­jor na­tions such as Ger­many, Spain, Eng­land, the U.S. and China.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s congress is ex­pected to vote on sug­gested re­forms at a meet­ing later this year or early in 2016. Mem­bers would elect a new pres­i­dent at that time.

Lead­ing can­di­dates ap­pear to be Pla­tini and Prince Ali bin al-Hus­sein, who lost to Blat­ter last week.

Blat­ter will now see out the fi­nal days of a ten­ure that ranks among the most en­dur­ing and po­lar­iz­ing in the his­tory of sports.

“It is my deep care for FIFA and its in­ter­ests, which I hold very dear, that has led me to take this de­ci­sion,” he said. “What mat­ters to me more than any­thing is that when all this is over, soc­cer is the win­ner.”

Va­le­ri­ano di Domenico AFP/Getty Images

FIFA PRES­I­DENT Sepp Blat­ter, who was just re­elected to a fifth term last week, an­nounces his de­ci­sion to step down amid broad cor­rup­tion scan­dal.

Michael Probst As­so­ci­ated Press

IN 2004, FIFA chief Sepp Blat­ter con­grat­u­lates for­mer South African Pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela af­ter Man­dela’s coun­try was cho­sen to host the 2010 World Cup.

Wal­ter Bieri As­so­ci­ated Press

UEFA’S Michel Pla­tini, left, and Jor­dan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hus­sein are likely can­di­dates to lead FIFA.

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