x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Fifa's Sepp Blatter is a man fans love to hate

Fifa president Sepp Blatter has been a driving force behind the expansion of high-level competition to the Middle East.

Meet Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who has been a driving force behind the expansion of high-level competition to the Middle East.
Meet Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who has been a driving force behind the expansion of high-level competition to the Middle East.

Forget the goalie facing a desperate, last-minute charge in the dying moments of a World Cup final. The man with the toughest job in football - the man the fans and, sometimes, even his colleagues love to hate - is Sepp Blatter, the eighth president of Fifa, the International Federation of Association Football.

Blatter, in town for today's final of the 2010 Club World Cup - the second consecutive staging of the tournament in Abu Dhabi - will no doubt enjoy the warm reception he will receive in the UAE, one of the beneficiaries of his determination to see the benefits of football spread further afield from its traditional roots.

It will certainly make a change from the cold weather in Europe - and the icy storm still blowing out of the UK as a result of the decision by Fifa's executive committee not to award the 2018 World Cup to England.

Earlier this month, when it was announced that Russia had won the bid to host the World Cup in 2018, and Qatar in 2022, members of England's bid team claimed that five Fifa executives had promised them their votes but later reneged.

For once, it wasn't only abusive fans who voiced their disappointment. Roger Burden, acting chairman of the Football Association of England, withdrew his candidacy for the permanent post, saying, "I'm not prepared to deal with people whom I cannot trust."

In a letter to FA board members, quickly made public, Burden bluntly accused Fifa officials of having lied to the faces of three high-profile members of Britain's bid team: Prince William, David Cameron, the British prime minister, and the former England captain David Beckham. "In football," Blatter later sniffed, "we learn to lose."

Some felt that England's case had been undermined by the broadcast on the eve of the vote of a documentary by the BBC's Panorama programme. In "Fifa's dirty secrets" reporter Andrew Jennings accused three members of the organisation's executive committee of taking bribes and a fourth of involvement in the corrupt sale of World Cup tickets. All four were among those who voted on which country would stage the two World Cups.

"I'll say it clearly: there is no systematic corruption at Fifa. That's nonsense," Blatter told the Weltwoche newspaper. "We are financially clean and transparent."

It was later reported that when Blatter addressed the 22 Fifa delegates before they began voting, he referred to the UK's "evil media", for which he has been widely criticised.

But he treated with contempt suggestions in the European media that staging a World Cup in the heat of the Middle East was misguided.

"With Qatar, we are opening football to a new world and a new culture," he told L'Equipe this week. "The Middle East and the Arabic world have been waiting for a long time."

And it seems certain that the entire region will benefit; Blatter told AP this week that "some matches could take place in nearby countries", raising the prospect of World Cup games being played in the UAE.

Blatter is no stranger to such controversies; when you are the leader of an international sport to which millions of people are dedicated with a passion bordering on obsession, every decision your organisation makes will create two camps: happy winners and angry losers.

Blatter has always had his eye on a bigger game - spreading the benefits of football to all corners of the world. After all, Fifa's motto is "For the Game. For the world" and the organisation has lived up to it during his presidency, which has seen the World Cup return to South America for the first time since 1978, staged in Africa for the first time and scheduled for eastern Europe and the Middle East, also for the first time.

With such global ambition Blatter has been careful to accommodate the sensitivities of different cultures; it was under Blatter, for example, that from 2004 Fifa began penalising players for removing their shirts during celebrations for fear of offending opinion in some nations.

Yet such cultural sensitivity can backfire. When it was announced that Qatar would be hosting the 2022 World Cup, Blatter was asked what advice he would give to gay football fans planning to visit the Islamic state, where homosexuality is a criminal offence. There was outrage this week - in the West, at least - when he replied: "I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities".

Seen by many purely as a football bureaucrat, in fact Blatter has known football from the ground up - as a young man he played in the top division of the Swiss amateur league from 1948 to 1971 and from 1970 to 1975 was a member of the board of Xamax Neuchâtel FC.

In his own way Blatter is as passionate about football as any diehard fan. For him the game stands for "basic education, character formation and fighting spirit, allied with respect and discipline", and as such is instrumental "in fostering better understanding among all people around the world".

That, he says, is why his personal motto is "Football for all, all for football", a game with the potential of inspiring "hope and the promise of social advancement" in the world's less privileged areas.

Blatter, says Fifa, also believes football "bears a responsibility to society" and, little known to his critics, for many years he has sought to partner the organisation with a wide range of humanitarian projects. He was, for example, the driving force in 1994 behind a partnership with SOS Children's Villages and since then a series of collaborations with Unicef - the most recent of which was the Say Yes for Children campaign, launched before this year's World Cup to increase awareness of children's rights. Blatter has one child of his own.

Born in 1936 in Visp, the small capital of the German-speaking Swiss canton of Valais, Blatter left the University of Lausanne with a degree in business and economics. At least two of his previous jobs before he joined Fifa had sporting connections - as general secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation and the director of sports timing for the watchmaker Longines, with whom he was involved with the organisation of the Olympics during the Seventies.

Although Blatter seems to have been in the president's chair for ever, his position is not a lifetime tenure and is regularly put to the vote by the Fifa executive - and his 12-year reign is far from a record.

Whenever World Cup draws fail to fall their team's way, English football fans and commentators like to moan about world football being dominated by a foreigner but tend to forget that of the eight FIFA presidents since 1908, three have been English. Only France, which supplied the inaugural president, Robert Guérin, and the third, Jules Rimet - for whom the World Cup was named from 1930 to 1970 - has had more than one.

Since the 33-year reign of Rimet, who was president from 1921 until 1954, long tenure has not been uncommon among his successors. The Englishman Stanley Rous held the office for 13 years (1961 to 1974), while the one-time Brazilian Olympic swimmer João Havelange, who took the job from Rous, was in the hot seat for 24 years (1974 to 1998).

By contrast, Blatter has served for "only" 12 years, but is an old hand at Fifa; by the time he succeeded João Havelange as president in 1998, at the age of 62, he had already worked for the organisation for 23 years.

He joined in 1975 as the director of technical programmes, a job in which he was credited with having laid the foundations for today's women's and junior competitions. In 1981 he was made general secretary, a role in which he worked closely with the president and played a central role in organising five world Cups, starting with Spain in 1982.

How much does football's top man get paid? That's a question that Andrew Jennings, the reporter behind the BBC documentary and author of the 2007 book Foul! The Secret World of FIFA, had been trying to answer for years. In the end Blatter casually scooped him by volunteering the information to a Swiss newspaper.

"I do not get a salary but get compensation," Blatter told SonntagsZeitung in 2007. "I am a pensioner. I am paid one million dollars. That is appropriate for an executive president. Fifa represents great values not only financially."

Certainly, there is much for which Blatter can claim credit. In 1998, when he awarded Nelson Mandela Fifa's Order of Merit, he affirmed his support for an African bid to host the World Cup - a vision that came to pass this year. Simply put, said Blatter, "We trust South Africa with such a big competition".

Fifa also trusted Abu Dhabi to host the Club World Cup, a decision that helped to explode interest in football in the Middle East and which many see as paving the way for Qatar's successful bid for the World Cup.Certainly, Blatter's contributions to world football have earned him more medals and awards than even the largest trophy cabinet could be expected to hold - including South Africa's Order of Good Hope, Bahrain's Medal of the First Degree, Sudan's Order of The Two Niles, and the Golden Charter of Peace and Humanitarianism from the International Humanitarian League for Peace and Tolerance.

But for an honorary knighthood from the UK, Blatter may have to wait a little longer.

jgornall@thenational.ae

The biog

1936 – Born Joseph Sepp Blatter in Visp, Switzerland, on March 10
1948 – Began footballing career as player in Swiss amateur league
1956 – Member of Swiss Association of Sports Writers
1960 – Head of PR for Valaisan Tourist Board
1964 – General Secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation
1970 – Joins board of Xamax Neuchâtel FC
1975 – Appointed Fifa technical director
1981 – Appointed general secretary of Fifa
1990 – Made chief executive of Fifa
1998 – Elected eighth president at 51st Fifa Ordinary Congress in Paris
1999 – Becomes member of International Olympic Committee
2002 – Re-elected for a second term as Fifa’s head on May 29 in Seoul
2007 – Confirmed in the position for a third term of office on May 31
2010 – Announces his intention to stand for fourth term as Fifa president and launches his own Twitter page