Ken Early: Blatter still the wiliest mountain goat of them all

FAI chief John Delaney and Uefa may one day work out the secret of the Fifa president's success

Watching an incredible week in the history of Fifa unfold from this distant corner of planet football, we can be grateful to one man for helping us feel as though we’re at the centre of things.

John Delaney has been the breakout star of the Fifa Congress. On Tuesday, he issued a scathing condemnation of Sepp Blatter. By Wednesday morning, much of the rest of the world had rallied behind Delaney, as the US and Swiss attorneys general fell upon Fifa in a terrifying pincer movement.

In several interviews, Delaney displayed a penetrating insight into the psychology of Sepp Blatter. “Blatter has had a hell of a run at it,” he told the BBC. “But surely he knows, in his private moments, he must know, that outside of the voting chambers, that the world, the football public, the players and supporters, want change.”

Does he really, though? Does Sepp Blatter really think that he’s no longer the right man for Fifa? Does he really, in his heart of hearts, believe he has done anything wrong?


Sepp Blatter is not the kind of man who lies awake at night, tossing and turning in self-reproach. Last week, he boasted to a Zurich newspaper: “I’m like a mountain goat – I run and I run, and they can’t catch me!” Blatter is now 79 years old, yet his love for himself grows with every passing day.

I was once in a group of journalists in a hotel lobby in Sandton, Johannesburg, watching Blatter slowly ascend a gigantic escalator. He looked around with a twinkly smile, then started to wave down at us as though he was the queen mother.

What was striking about it was the self-absorption of the gesture. Blatter doesn't think of himself as a sports administrator. In his head, he's a superstar – an international legend like Nelson Mandela or Bill Clinton.

Only someone who knew they were a superstar could, at the age of 77, dance on stage with an embarrassed female presenter and assume the audience was loving every minute. Only a man of bulletproof self-regard could repeatedly be booed by crowds at football stadiums the world over, and still look genuinely surprised and hurt every time it happened.

Victory celebrations

Blatter’s astonishing self-absorption shone through in his victory celebrations in Zurich last night. Gazing out into a hall which he knew seethed with hundreds of bitter enemies, he had words of consolation and reassurance. The words were: “I like you. I like my job.”

A few minutes later, he giggled his way through a Punch and Judy show with general secretary Jérôme Valcke, before reminding the audience: “I like you . . . I am the president of everybody. President of the whole Fifa.”

Blatter told the congress: “I find that the time I’ve spent at Fifa is very short. The more one ages, the more time flies by quickly.”

That’s one of the keys to Blatter. People condemn him when they hear him saying women footballers should wear tighter shorts, or urging female Fifa committee members to speak up “because you’re always speaking at home,” or laughing at the notion that some people might have a problem with Qatar’s laws against homosexuality. But you have to remember that in his head, the 1970s seem like practically yesterday.

It was in 1975 that Blatter began his work at Fifa under the corrupt former president, João Havelange. Today’s Fifa is radically different. Blatter told congress that Havelange once said to him: “You have created a monster.”

As usual, Blatter’s humblebrag gave himself too much credit. What he meant was that Fifa’s revenues have grown exponentially in his time as president. But the trend has little to do with the business genius of Sepp Blatter. The growth in Fifa’s earnings has been driven by the global growth of TV and marketing that has transformed sport from community recreation into multibillion-dollar industry. Blatter was just the guy whose job it was to accept the money.

Fifa’s annual income passed the $2 billion mark in 2014. As Blatter told congress: “Fifa has become a business. It is no longer a club as it is in the Swiss civil code, like a swimming club or a fishing club.”

There was an unmistakeable note of nostalgia here. Even a 70s man like Blatter would agree that some aspects of the 21st century, such as massively increased TV revenues, are quite pleasant.

Others, not so much. Some of the less pleasant aspects of the 21st century appeared at a press conference in New York on Wednesday afternoon. The US attorney general, the director of the FBI, and the head of criminal investigations at the IRS declared that they were giving Fifa the red card.

It wasn’t like this in the old days.

Sprawling federation

If you ever did sit down and have a heart-to-heart with Blatter about the mess he’s made of Fifa, he might ask you: how else am I supposed to run this thing?

The Fifa president is the nominal head of a sprawling federation of 209 member associations. Each association reflects the political and institutional culture of the country it comes from. In countries where corruption oils the wheels of commerce and politics – which is to say, most countries – is it reasonable to expect football associations to be exemplars of correct corporate ethics?

Blatter doesn’t think so. His attitude is: since Fifa is so big, there’s no point in the president being a control freak. His reign has been founded on a simple pact with a majority of the associations. To each of them, he doles out a few million dollars a year from the central coffers. He doesn’t need to see the receipts. All he asks in return is that they remember him at election time.

Blatter’s style is laissez-faire, liberal, tolerant, permissive. What happens on each association’s patch is no concern of his. He trusts them to take care of their own business.

This is convenient for corrupt administrators around the world, because they know head office won’t want to know where every penny went in every deal. And it’s convenient for Blatter too, because it frees him up from the boring work of actually running the organisation, and allows him to concentrate on enjoying his life as Fifa president.

The perks include a huge salary and a limitless expense account, but Blatter has never really been motivated by money, or he would have retired already. The thing that he loves about his job, the thing that he can’t give up, is the status. The packed halls of delegates all staring up at him, the photo-ops with world leaders, the daily affirmation that he really is one of the world’s most important people.

Blatter’s decadent empire rolled happily along for almost two decades, but last Wednesday it suffered a sickening head-on collision with the formidable legal apparatus of the 21st century’s most intrusive police state. All over the world corrupt administrators in sport – and perhaps many other fields – watched in horror as the unsmiling avenging angels of American justice read out the indictments.

Two days later, Blatter was re-elected with an imposing majority. This can seem perplexing to those in Europe and the United States to whom it is obvious that a man who has presided over such a disgrace has lost all credibility.

Proper structures

Foremost among those voices is our own John Delaney. On Thursday, he wrote in the Irish Independent that "National associations across the globe should look to Uefa as an example of what can be achieved with the proper structures (etc)" On Friday, he told RTÉ: "Blatter has presided over a farce . . . They must understand, the other Africans and Asians . . . They have to see the light."

Somehow, Delaney’s message isn’t getting through to Africa and Asia. Blatter has always understood why. Maybe one day Uefa, too, will figure it out.