The World Cup is about to start, but this man is ruining everything


FIFA President Sepp Blatter arrives for a news conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 5, where he talked about the organization and infrastructure of the upcoming World Cup. (Andre Penner/AP)

Is there a technocrat in the world more universally reviled than Sepp Blatter? The president of FIFA, the global body that governs soccer, the world's most popular sport, is routinely lambasted for his high-handedness, his sexism and the reported venality of his institution. Through its corporate cynicism and gaudy excesses, FIFA under Blatter seems to embody what's ugly in the beautiful game.

Comedian John Oliver devoted a whole 13-minute segment on his weekly HBO this past Sunday eviscerating FIFA for its alleged profiteering, airing also recent bribery allegations that surround FIFA's controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup to the tiny Gulf kingdom of Qatar. (It's worth the watch.)

In recent days, Blatter has rounded on his critics, branding the English media "racist" in their attacks on him and certain FIFA delegates in Blatter's camp.

Blatter -- whose career is a long, uninteresting journey in sporting bureaucracy, starting in his native Switzerland -- has led FIFA since 1998 and intends to run for reelection yet again next year. This week, a number of leading European soccer officials raised the heat, calling on the 78-year-old Blatter to give up his post by next year.

But Blatter is not one to heed criticism. On Tuesday, FIFA staged its congress in Sao Paulo. For stretches, the diminutive Blatter stood on stage alone, distributing medals and making somber speeches with all the self-importance that now regularly makes soccer fans grimace.


A man walks past posters with caricatures of member of the FIFA World Cup 2014 Organizing Committee, former Brazilian soccer player Ronaldo, and FIFA President Sepp Blatter, in Brasilia. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Almost like a pantomime emperor or pontiff, Blatter presides over a pantomime United Nations. FIFA is a sprawling institution, a reflection to a certain degree of the universal popularity of the sport. At the congress, FIFA delegates will actually discuss some pretty interesting things. David Goldblatt, author of a tremendous political history of soccer, lays out what will transpire at the congress, pointing to the important part of the agenda:

The real business of football governance is dealt with in Item 11, Strategic and sports-political matters. This includes reform of the system of licensed player agents whose income depends on moving players around for the highest-possible transfer fees; the contested football politics of Israel and Palestine, Kosovo and Cyprus; and the increasingly worrying and widespread problem of match-fixing.

But it's hard to take any of this seriously when reminded of Blatter and his co-hort. Thousands in Brazil plan to protest the World Cup being held on their native soil -- something that's hard to understand until you reckon with their government's lavish spending on stadiums (rather than hospitals and public infrastructure) and the profits FIFA will likely make at the event.

For Oliver, as for this reporter, the World Cup is a source of boundless joy and excitement. But Blatter and FIFA dampen one's enthusiasm.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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