x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sepp Blatter: a footballing force to be reckoned with

Profile: Blatter has presided over unprecedented economic growth at Fifa, but a storm is never far away, says Ian Hawkey.

Sepp Blatter, centre, the president of Fifa, loves to take centre stage at ceremonies and draws, as seen here in Tokyo in 1999.
Sepp Blatter, centre, the president of Fifa, loves to take centre stage at ceremonies and draws, as seen here in Tokyo in 1999.

Sepp Blatter was once again left nervously counting his allies yesterday, facing another test of how successfully he has, over three decades, projected himself as a man of the people while operating as a consummate bureaucrat.

He has seen long-term colleagues turn against him these last few days, and has been required to call on his deep resources of energy and political finesse. It would be an error to underestimate his skills in those areas.

It would also, in the blizzard of criticism and genuine anger at the position in which Fifa finds itself, be wrong to ignore his popularity. He has not won his many big battles and elections only through subterfuge. Blatter has a charisma and carries off an aura of gregarious enthusiasm for the folk, both poor and rich, he meets during his globe-trotting.

His public image is studied carefully. He is a man capable of a light informality that wins friends around the world. His rapid one-liners have also become a neat device to deflect criticism, although they can sometimes make Blatter, 75, look out of touch with modern ways. He once offended many when he suggested that women's football might be better promoted if the athletes wore tighter shirts and shorter shorts.

But he has always made great capital out of casting himself as the sport's Robin Hood. Earlier this month, he was greeted warmly in Johannesburg, where he attended an event designed to promote South Africa's World Cup legacy. His own legacy from 2010 was also on vivid display, as various officials speaking for sections of the African continent committed their votes to Blatter in the Fifa presidential election due to take place tomorrow.

Blatter is popular in Africa, not just for having pushed for a World Cup and several major junior international tournaments to take place there, but because he reaches out to people in the world's poorest continent in a way his last two presidential rivals could not. Lennart Johansson, the Swedish former head of Uefa, whom Blatter beat to the Fifa throne in 1998, once had to apologise publicly for using a racist term in an interview describing a trip to Africa. Issa Hayatou, the Cameroonian who Blatter defeated in the 2002presidential election, has a haughty image that has hindered his becoming popular on his own continent.

Blatter relishes the public stage, the lectern and the gaze of global television audiences when he makes major announcements or oversees trophy and draw ceremonies.

His catchphrases and slogans as Fifa president style him as head of a homely institution - "the Fifa family", devoted to "the good of the game". That family includes men, on the executive committee, to whom Blatter has shown steadfast, pragmatic loyalty despite repeated controversies surrounding them. Jack Warner, the suspended head of Concacaf had, until last week, been among the most prominent of those.

Blatter has been forced to deal with several crises since becoming president and Fifa has weathered them enough to become more successful, financially, than ever before. The bottom line, as his electorate have heard him say often in the build-up to this year's vote on the Fifa presidency, is that in his 13 years in charge, his organisation's bank balance has grown beyond what almost anybody might have imagined before he took office, or after the ISL crisis. Fifa's current surplus stands at around US$1.28 billion (Dh4.7bn).

He has overseen a period where the World Cup felt like it belonged to a greater chunk of the world. He consistently lobbied for Africa to host the tournament last year, and - barring a new vote because of corruption allegations - the Middle East will host a World Cup for the first time in 2022, as Qatar was awarded the right to do so under Blatter's watch.

Hooliganism, at least at major international tournaments, has declined under his reign. Blatter can hardly be credited alone for that, except in as far as the sport has been significantly rebranded and the profile of travelling supporters changed. The game itself, the spectacle, has improved to the extent that the important rule changes of the early 1990s - the back-pass rule, crackdowns on brutal tackling, amendments in favour of strikers to the offside law - have become second nature to today's players. Refereeing is better and more widely coached, though technological tools - above all, television replays - are, controversially, not used by match officials during matches.

Corruption, though, has been a blight on his presidency, not just because of the current allegations. Within the game itself, the Blatter era has suffered from refereeing scandals implicating two high-profile club champions from western Europe - Juventus and Porto - and it has coincided with the growth of online, cross-border betting, a business vulnerable to exploitation by match-fixers.

And as Fifa is obliged to provide a lead in combating the corruption of matches, it is unhelpful, as Blatter knows, if the very top of the organisation is seen as dishonest.

sports@thenational.ae

Approachable, chirpy with verve and vision

Childhood

Sepp Blatter was born in Visp, Switzerland, about 200km from the modern Zurich headquarters of Fifa. His native language is German but he also spoke French well as a boy and was a good student at school and a keen sportsman.

Sporting background

A career as a professional footballer seemed a possibility when the Lausanne club offered Blatter, a speedy, diminutive striker, a contract when he was 18. He chose instead to go to university, where he studied economics.

Professional life

After graduating, he worked in public relations for local government and then took his first dedicated post in sports administration working for the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. There he rose to general secretary. He was a sportswriter for a period, too, and had stints with the International Olympic Committee during the Olympic Games of 1972 and 1976.

Fifa roots

His work impressed the hierarchy at Fifa, where Joao Havelange, the Brazilian who was eventually Blatter’s most important patron, assumed the presidency in 1974. Havelange appreciated how Blatter responded with verve and imagination to Fifa’s new drive to expand the game. He worked on the creation of the Under 20 World Cup, whose inaugural tournament, in 1997, was staged in Tunisia – a pioneering step at the time.

Rise to power

Blatter became general secretary, Havelange’s deputy, in 1981 and was active in bringing sponsors into Fifa, and negotiating broadcast contracts for Fifa events. They made an interesting pair: Havelange, the tall, upright Brazilian with an imperious air, alongside his much shorter side-kick, who was chirpier, smiled more often and always seemed more approachable. Blatter was elected president in 1998.

Personal life

Married three times, Blatter is said to be an enthusiastic and doting grandfather to Selina, the daughter of his only child, Corinne, who helps manage his election campaigns.