FIFA’s Blatter and Yemen’s Saleh: Which International Strongman Will Fall First?

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An embattled leader — who has maintained his grip on power for years, is constantly dogged by allegations of corruption, and is well versed in the dark arts of politics — announced to much relief Tuesday a date by which he would finally step down. And in other news, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said much the same.

Uprisings aren’t merely confined to Middle Eastern and African countries you know, they can impact upon sports too. Soccer’s main man, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, is in the midst of trying to win reelection for a fourth and final time. He’s somehow managed to hold onto power ever since becoming the head of world football’s governing body in 1998, despite the constant claims of corruption that have often cropped up, most notably in last December’s suspect awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar when allegations of untoward behavior in the bidding process led to two executive committee members being suspended (to be fair, the 2018 tournament going to Russia that same day didn’t cause the same amount of fuss).

The 75-year-old Blatter hasn’t faced a challenge since 2002, when Cameroon’s Issa Hyatou stood against him to no avail. But Blatter, whatever you may think of him, is a canny customer and certainly knows when to jump or indeed jump onto a passing bandwagon. To that end, with Asian confederation chief Mohamed Bin Hammam posing a serious threat to his reign, Blatter took the soccer world by surprise on Tuesday announcing that he’ll step down in 2015, if he wins reelection this June 1. “You know very well that I aspire to another four years,” he told delegates in Paris. “These will be the last four years that I aspire to.”

The parallels with certain political leaders is striking. First and foremost, Blatter’s declaration came on the very same day that Yemen’s President Saleh reached a similar conclusion. Saleh confirmed that he’ll leave office after organizing congress elections by January 2012, which he hopes will appease the vitriolic wishes of the Yemeni protesters who want him gone now while at the same time refusing to hand over power to the military (in sport, as well as politics, one might call that a win-win). Keeping that metaphor going, Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years – or in Blatter terms, eight World Cups – won’t be seeking another term in office in 2013, though he vowed to defend his regime “with every drop of blood,” suggesting that any attempts to unseat him before January would result in widespread violence. And he certainly keeps plenty of plates spinning, what with a separatist movement in the south, a branch of al-Qaeda, and the periodic conflict with Shia tribes in the north.

But back to Blatter: those in the know had been predicting that, once again, he would go unchallenged and subsequently step aside for current UEFA (the governing body of the sport in Europe) chief and former legendary French player Michel Platini in four years time. But Hammam wouldn’t stick to the script and is wisely running an anti-corruption campaign, pledging to introduce a “more fair distribution of revenue and increased transparency,” if he becomes President. What’s more, Hammam isn’t opposed to possibly making a deal with Platini either. “I am not going to lie to you and say that I am not going to talk to Michel about possible co-operation in the future,” he said at the same conference in Paris.

Faced with defections and mutinies, both Blatter and Saleh, it appears, have worked out that ultimately, less is more. They’ve figured out that their days at the top table are numbered and may get what they want in the short term in order to be able to leave on their own terms. Rather hilariously, Blatter is also appealing to the 53 European countries (and Platini’s views will arguably be mirrored by the 53) to support him by claiming that he needs time to complete his vision – “Football is corrupted by all little devils which exist in the world,” he said, without a trace of irony – by having “zero tolerance” on the pitch (more education, respect towards the referees) and off it (“We can see cases of corruption that really hurt the whole football family,” he said in reference to the alleged World Cup vote rigging).

“We are in extra-time,” said Blatter, referring to the time that still remains before the June 1 election. “Let’s wait and see what the outcome will be.” Not for the first time, soccer and the wider world seem to be on the same playing field.