FIFA president Sepp Blatter may have survived the storm ravaging soccer’s global governing body, but don’t expect his reelection to quiet the growing challenges to the organization’s status quo. Nor will critics be placated by the procedural changes Blatter has outlined for the way FIFA will choose which countries host the 2026 World Cup — the process by which host nations are chosen to host the lucrative tournament has drawn recurring allegations of impropriety. The 75-year-old Swiss was reelected, unopposed, despite calls for the vote to be postponed, his detractors now smell blood — and will be waiting to strike as soon as the next, inevitable, round of allegations of irregularities or corruption surface.Blatter secured his new term on Wednesday by defeating an effort led by England’s Football Association to rally fellow FIFA members to suspend the presidential vote pending investigation into a new round of allegations of scandal. Joined by Scotland (which has separate status in the world body), England sought to turn the election into a genuine democratic contest by postponing the election to allow for a reform candidate to be fielded after Blatter’s only challenger, Qatar’s Mohammed Bin Hammam, was disqualified pending an ethics inquiry into bribery charges.
Many officials and fans around the soccer world agreed with England FA president David Bernstein when he warned Wednesday that Blatter’s “coronation without an opponent provides a flawed mandate” for leadership. Bernstein said FIFA’s credibility had been so compromised by allegations of scandal over the past week that the organization urgently needed to show that it understood the gravity of the situation, and was prepared to clean house—starting with the way chooses its president. Instead, after a week of controversy, threats, disciplinary action, and frantic wrangling within FIFA’s top leadership, 172 of the organization’s 208 members voted against England’s plan to postpone the vote.
From the outside, the emphatic show of support for the embattled leader seemed as surreal as Blatter’s dismissal of the suggestion that FIFA is in crisis. Indeed, despite dark warnings on Tuesday from major sponsors like Coca-Cola, Adidas, and Emirates Airlines about the destructive impact the corruption allegations, Blatter won the support of 186 of the 203 delegates. And Blatter celebrated his victory to raucous acclaim as the sound system played the triumphant aria that usually greets World Cup and Champions’ League teams as they take the pitch. Blatter then hailed the “unity” and “strength” of FIFA reflected in his re-election—an analysis that provoked snorts of derision around the planet.
Staging the vote under a cloud of scandal simply reinforced the beliefs of critics who say the secretive, tightly-controlled organization is a virtual oligarchy bereft of transparency and accountability. While some of the larger member associations, like England and Germany, were willing to challenge Blatter, he received solid backing from the vast majority of smaller countries and poorer regions whose soccer associations and officials benefit from FIFA development funding. They not only backed the incumbent, but lashed out at what one African delegate called “unfounded allegations” of graft and cronyism.
FIFA’s structure isn’t likely to undergo any significant revamping any time soon. True, Blatter said he’d change the way World Cup host nations are selected by allowing FIFA’s 208-member general congress choose the winner of future bidding competitions. However, the same old 24-person FIFA executive committee that previously picked hosts in its own secretive, suspicion-generating manner will still be responsible for drawing up the short-list on which the general congress will vote. That, critics contend, leaves similar margin for potential bargaining, lobbying, and bribery among executive committee members as before.
The reelected Blatter may soon find himself at the center of a new storm of controversy: Germany has called for a full examination of the process that resulted in the 2022 tournament being awarded to Qatar — victory that one FIFA executive claimed had been “bought”. That official has since said his comment was taken out of context, and that no graft was involved in that or other FIFA decisions. However, the candidate disqualified from running against Blatter on charges he tried to bribe FIFA delegates to vote for him is the same Qatari representative who was instrumental in his nation’s successful 2022 bid. Bin Hammam insists no corruption was involved in Qatar winning the 2022 Cup, and he has insisted that Blatter had in fact condoned some of the payments to be investigated by the inquiry.
The repeated accusations of corruption in FIFA from multiple sources may never be substantiated, but Germany, England, and other members determined to force FIFA to clean up its act may yet succeed in forcing the federation to hold inquiries that could turn up more evidence of impropriety. And that could potentially damage Blatter’s authority down the road.