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Can FIFA’s Sepp Blatter survive this scandal?

(Arnd Wiegmann / Switzerland Reuters)

Year in, year out, the allegations of corruption and naked greed swirl around FIFA and Sepp Blatter, its longtime president and the man who has long reigned as the most powerful person in sports.

The accusations and whispers always were shrugged off with the easy “Casablanca” quote from Capt. Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

But that does a disservice to Blatter, whose instinct for survival while running the multibillion-dollar business of the world’s most popular sport is unparalleled. Sure, the jokes fly, but there’s some grudging admiration there, too. He has been called “the dark prince of football, the godfather, Don Blatterone” by one Swiss paper (via BBC.com), but he’s also a Teflon-coated executive. He’s a “smug, self-righteous Zurich gnome” to the Daily Mail. To the Guardian, he is “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century.”

More diplomatically, “he’s a survivor,” one member of Parliament, Roland Buechel, told the BBC. “Nothing ever sticks to him; there is always someone between him and the bribes.”

[ U.S. indicts soccer officials | Blatter says FBI has nothing on him | What this means for soccer ]

A fresh and unprecedented scandal enveloped FIFA on Wednesday, with Swiss authorities arresting several top soccer officials and preparing to extradite them to the United States on federal corruption charges, but Blatter’s name, to no one’s great surprise, was not among them. He is facing reelection, with balloting so far expected to proceed on Friday. This scandal may be different because of the scope of the arrests and the investigation, which ABC reports will center on allegations of bribery and corruption in connection with the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

The decision to play the world’s biggest tournament there was not a popular one, and nothing has changed in the interim. Playing there in the summer was questioned from the outset, and there has been a debate about moving the games to the winter — an unprecedented step. Since then, FIFA has watched as headlines report abuses of workers building the stadiums in Qatar and as reporters have been detained trying to report on their living conditions.

Still, there is no reason yet to think that Blatter won’t be reelected Friday, because Blatter, a 79-year-old Swiss native who has run the sport since 1998, has been reelected four times and enjoys great support in Asia and Africa. There have been allegations of corruption over the years, but he has successfully put down any threats to his reign. Only hours before the arrests in Zurich, he shrugged off an accusation by former world player of the year Luis Figo that he is a dictator. Figo recently ended his bid to replace Blatter.

[ Watch John Oliver just crush Sepp Blatter | No plans to revisit World Cup votes ]

“Luis Figo is free to say what he wants to say,” he said (via Reuters). “He is a free man, he is a footballer. I have received so many titles but I still have the title of FIFA president at least until 6 o’clock on Friday.”

The 209 nations that comprise FIFA will choose between him and Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan. Michael van Praag, chairman of the Dutch football association, withdrew from the race last week.

Despite the latest scandal, Blatter shouldn’t be expected to go anywhere willingly. After all, this is a man who heard himself compared to Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. by a Dominican Republic representative at a CONCACAF Congress last month. From the BBC:

Some old friends describe Mr. Blatter as down to earth and open. Others who have worked with him say he is a man who resents opposition, pointing to the swift departure of FIFA colleagues who dared to question him.
What emerges, finally, is a man who both critics and supporters say cannot imagine his life without FIFA, a man whose tenure as president has outlasted three marriages.
But as scandal follows scandal, Mr. Blatter’s determination not to leave his post willingly could see him bundled unceremoniously out the back door.

 

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