Updated: Fri. Nov. 18, 4.45 a.m. ET
The irony was inescapable. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, a man who can’t seem to avoid controversy and spends much of his waking life shaking hands, has found himself at the center of a new imbroglio by suggesting that pressing the flesh was a suitable remedy for racial abuse. Specifically, he advocated that players being racially abused by a rival in the course of a game should shake hands at the final whistle and move on. It’s hardly the first time the 75-year-old Swiss head of the world’s soccer federation has made bizarre public statements, but his comments during interviews on Wednesday (given to TIME’s partner CNN and al-Jazeera) that the game doesn’t have a problem with racism may bring him down for good. Here in the U.K., Blatter has sparked a fury as passionate as anything you’re likely to see in the English Premier League this weekend with his statement, “I would deny it. There is no racism.” He continued, “There is maybe one of the players towards another – he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one. But the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.”
The reason for the anger in the U.K. is two-fold: firstly, so much hard work has been done to eradicate the stain of racism from the beautiful game. Those dark days of the 1970s and 80s, where bananas would be thrown from the terraces at black players, have thankfully ended with football’s governing bodies, including FIFA itself, devoting considerable time and money to campaigns and initiatives to kick out racism. But incidents still persist, both in the stands and on the field. (And not just in Britain: Brazilian star Roberto Carlos recently walked off the pitch during a game in Russia when a banana was thrown at him and Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun was taunted during a game in Malaysia.)
That’s why the timing of Blatter’s gaffe couldn’t have been worse (or, playing devil’s advocate, if one wanted to shine a light on recent issues, better): It coincided with the Football Association announcing that it had charged Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez with racially abusing Manchester United’s French defender Patrice Evra during their recent match. And the FA still has to pass judgement on England and Chelsea captain John Terry allegedly abusing Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand in a match played in late October — an incident that continues to grab British headlines.
And it was Ferdinand’s older brother, Rio (who plays for Manchester United), that initially led the charge against Blatter, via Twitter. “Tell me I have just read Blatter’s comments wrong … if not then I am astonished,” he tweeted. Ferdinand then messaged Blatter directly, saying “Your comments on racism are so condescending it’s almost laughable. If fans shout racist chants but shake our hands is that OK?”
Blatter responded on Twitter as FIFA’s website went into damage limitation mode by publishing a statement from Blatter, accompanied by a photograph of him hugging Tokyo Sexwale, a South African government minister and former Robben Island prisoner. “He has done tremendous work against racism and apartheid in Africa,” said Blatter on Thursday: “We have done several joint activities to raise awareness on the struggle against racism in South Africa. Fifa has a long standing and proud record in the area of anti-discrimination which will continue.” And it took until Friday morning for a fulsome apology. “It hurts and I am still hurting because I couldn’t envisage such a reaction,”Blatter told the BBC. “When you have done something which was not totally correct, I can only say I am sorry for all those people affected by my declarations.” “I cannot resign,” he went on to say. “Why should I?”
But the damage had been done and Ferdinand was quickly backed up by a legion of former stars. Stan Collymore (“I ask every football fan, current and former player, managers and coaches to join me in asking for the resignation of Mr Blatter from Fifa.”), Mark Bright (“Mr Blatter, the football pitch is a place of work, racism in any place of work is unacceptable. You beggar belief with your archaic views.”) as well as current players like Clarke Carlisle, a Kick It Out ambassador: “We’ve come through some 20 or 30 years of campaigning to bring racism to the height of awareness that it is at the moment. To come so far on such a sensitive topic, [yet] in one fell swoop he can almost give carte blanche that racism is acceptable between the hours of 3pm and 4.45pm on a Saturday.” And the most recent to weigh in was David Beckham, who found the remarks “disgraceful,” adding that “I don’t think the comments were very good for this game. [Racism] can’t be swept under the carpet and it can’t be sorted out with just a handshake.”
Meanwhile, Professional Footballers’ Association chief Gordon Taylor said Blatter should resign and told the BBC “when you see the corruption they’ve had at FIFA, I just feel it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Politicians (who surely would have already resigned were they to utter something similar) have also leapt in. Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement issued Thursday that, “It’s appalling to suggest that racism in any way should be accepted as part of the game.” Cameron’s sports minister Hugh Robertson, as well as the shadow counterpart Clive Efford, both called for Blatter to step down while Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said “I think Sepp Blatter‘s comments are a disgrace frankly and I think that football needs new leadership.”
But where do we really go from here? Taylor hinted at the corruption within soccer’s governing body, presumably referring to Blatter being re-elected unopposed in June after his main rival (Mohamed Bin Hammam) was suspended amid corruption allegations. And the bidding process for the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups (to Russia and Qatar) was sullied by bribery allegations. As for Blatter’s backstory of bizarre remarks, where would you like to begin? In 2004, he said female players should “wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts … to create a more female aesthetic.” When asked about the illegality of homosexuality in Qatar, Blatter responded “I would say they (gay fans) should refrain from any sexual activities,” which was intended as a joke but failed to make anyone laugh. And he defended the “oppressed” Cristiano Ronaldo after his £80m switch from Manchester United to Real Madrid by stating that “I think in football there’s too much modern slavery in transferring players or buying players here and there, and putting them somewhere.”
More laughable still is that we’re not talking about a stupid man: Blatter is a lawyer by training and is said to harbor genuine ambitions to win the Nobel Peace Prize one day. When he does stand down in 2015 (if he’s not forced out by this scandal or subsequent ones), he’ll be remembered fondly within FIFA primarily because he made them so much money (and no laughing at the back, we know it’s a registered charity). But as the most powerful man in football, Blatter is meant to lead the way if players believe they are being verbally attacked by fellow professionals or supporters because of the color of their skin. When Blatter goes for good, they’ll be handshakes all round.