As the delegates for world soccer’s governing body counted votes in the next room, Sepp Blatter prayed.
While Blatter’s reelection as president of FIFA was widely expected, the 79-year-old native of Switzerland admitted he felt nervous after a week in which several of his lieutenants were led from a Zurich hotel in handcuffs, and America’s top law enforcement officer termed corruption in his organization “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted.”
So while he waited to find out whether he would keep his job, Blatter asked for help from a higher power: “God, Allah, or whatever spirit it is,” he said later.
Blatter’s prayers were answered Friday, as FIFA’s member nations returned him to office despite calls from top soccer officials in Europe and America for a change atop the organization he has run since 1998.
Blatter received 133 votes to 73 for his challenger, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan. While Blatter’s total was just shy of the two-thirds majority needed to secure a win in the first round of voting, al-Hussein conceded before a second round, which would have been settled by a simple majority.
“For the next four years, I will be in command of this boat called FIFA and we will bring it back offshore,” a jubilant Blatter said after his victory. “I am not perfect. Nobody is perfect. But we will do a good job I’m sure. . . . Let’s go FIFA!”
It had been a trying week for Blatter, a former public relations executive who worked in FIFA administration for decades before ascending to the presidency. While Blatter was not charged with a crime, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the U.S. investigation uncovered endemic corruption within the governing body that runs the World Cup and other soccer tournaments around the world.
In the strict democracy of FIFA, in which small nations carry as much weight as superpowers, the network of support Blatter has built proved too strong for a chorus of critics led by Michel Platini, the head of European soccer body UEFA. Platini refrained from applause after Blatt’s victory was announced and released a defiant statement after the vote.
“I am proud that UEFA has defended and supported a movement for change at FIFA,” Platini said. “Change which in my opinion is crucial if this organization is to regain its credibility.”
U.S. Soccer, which also voted for al-Hussein, released a statement expressing disappointment.
“We will continue to push for meaningful change within FIFA,” the statement said. “We congratulate President Blatter, and it is our hope he will make reform his number one priority.”
The ballots cast Friday were secret, but some nations made their decisions public. Several South American nations joined European nations and the U.S. in supporting al-Hussein.
Rodolfo D’Onofrio, vice president of the Argentine Football Association, told media in his country that the leadership of CONMEBOL — the organization that oversees soccer in South America under the FIFA umbrella — met Friday and decided to support al-Hussein, the brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Blatter’s support network likely included most of Africa and Asia. Blatter has spread FIFA money across developing nations for years, building a strong coalition of countries that may fear a change in leadership would lead that spigot of cash to be turned off.
As hotly contested elections go, the competition between Blatter and al-Hussein was amiable. In a ceremony earlier Friday, Blatter presented al-Hussein, who was stepping down from FIFA’s executive committee, with a small, ceremonial flag. When it came time for the candidates to trade 15-minute speeches, neither had a bad word to say about the other.
“There could not be a more defining moment in time for our governing body than this one,” al-Hussein said. “We stand here today at a crossroads for football, and it will take a committed leader to fix this mess we are in.”
Blatter told delegates that “we don’t need revolutions, but we always need evolutions.”
“You know me already; I don’t need to introduce myself. You know who you’re dealing with,” Blatter said. “I would just quite simply like to stay with you.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.