Sepp Blatter, "The Godfather" Of Soccer, Faces His Toughest Opponent: Loretta Lynch – BuzzFeed News
“We used to call him years ago the ‘Teflon Man’ because nothing sticks,” one former European sports media executive told BuzzFeed News.
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After U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced charges Wednesday against 14 international soccer officials and corporate executives over alleged corruption at the pinnacle of the world’s most popular sport, the first question she was asked by a reporter at her Brooklyn, New York, press conference was about a man not named in the federal indictment: Sepp Blatter.
The 79-year-old has captained soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, since 1998, despite his organization being dogged by corruption allegations for years.
“We used to call him years ago the ‘Teflon Man’ because nothing sticks,” one former European senior sports media executive, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely on the issue, told BuzzFeed News. “He gets away with everything.”
In her response to the reporter’s question, however, Lynch made clear that Blatter isn’t yet out of the woods: “I’m not going to comment on the status of any individual who isn’t named to date, because that would be unfair…[but] I can say this investigation is ongoing. It’s continuing.”
For years, allegations have simmered about ugly, criminal conduct at the highest levels of “the beautiful game:” bribes and kickbacks from sports marketing companies to FIFA officials in exchange for lucrative contracts; an insular executive concerned only with protecting — and enriching — itself; a bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments marred by purchased votes (a claim Swiss prosecutors are now investigating, in addition to FIFA’s Ethics Committee). But, despite it all, no evidence has been found to tie Blatter to any of the alleged criminal conduct.
“He’s street smart,” the European senior executive told BuzzFeed News. “There is nothing written down because he uses all his idiots around him to do the dirty work so he’s never in the firing line.”
“He’s the ‘Godfather,’” the executive added, describing FIFA as a mob-like organization. “He created this system.”
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Alexandra Wrage is a corporate governance consultant who was hired by Blatter to sit on a FIFA committee designed to clean up the organization. She ultimately resigned in April 2013 out of frustration at a perceived lack of progress.
Wrage told BuzzFeed News the sport’s governing body had been corrupt for years.
“It’s really time for FIFA to draw a line and put this era of corruption behind them,” she said. “Shoddy governance, widespread misconduct, and now clearly illegal conduct cannot continue — and neither can those who have presided over it.”
Before the federal charges were announced Wednesday, Blatter was widely expected to be comfortably re-elected for a fifth term as FIFA president at a meeting of officials on Friday. Among those calling for a postponement of the FIFA Congress meeting and presidential elections was the executive committee of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), one of six continental confederations that comprise FIFA.
“There is a need for the whole of FIFA to be ‘rebooted’ and for a real reform to be carried out,” UEFA said in a statement, citing “a strong need for a change to the leadership of this FIFA.”
Loretta Lynch and Kelly Currie at Wednesday’s news conference. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Also calling for a “new start” for FIFA was Acting U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie of the Eastern District of New York, who helped steer the Department of Justice investigation.
“After decades of what the indictment alleges to be brazen corruption, organized international soccer needs a new start,” Currie said.
“Let me be clear: This indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation,” he said, echoing Lynch’s comments.
But, under American law, any possible charges against Blatter by U.S. officials will depend on prosecutors finding evidence of not only criminal conduct, but conduct which somehow spread, however slightly, to the U.S. legal or financial/banking system.
“If you look at what happened today,” the European executive said, “you only have people from North, Central, and South America who were arrested.” (Briton Costas Takkas, attaché to the president of Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, was the only exception.) “They have only indicted people who committed a crime on American soil, involving an American bank — something where the Department of Justice can really get its hands on.”
The indictment, the executive said, doesn’t apply to the African and Asian football officials who, in his words, “are so much worse than the guys arrested today.”
“If you arrested everyone involved with corruption today, you probably wouldn’t have a FIFA Congress,” he said.
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Blatter has previously made light of the corruption allegations against his organization and critics of his tenure as president.
“Perhaps you think I am a ruthless parasite sucking the lifeblood out of the world and out of football — the Godfather of the FIFA gravy train,” he told students at Oxford University in 2013. “There are those who will tell you that FIFA is just a conspiracy, a scam, accountable to nobody. There are those who will tell you of the supposed sordid secrets that lie deep in our Bond villain headquarters in the hills above Zurich.”
However, despite his past tendencies to shake off controversy, the Department of Justice investigation represents the biggest threat to Blatter’s tenure as president, one that could also shake the very foundations of FIFA.
“This is a difficult time for football, the fans, and for FIFA as an organization,” Blatter said in a Wednesday. “We understand the disappointment that many have expressed and I know that the events of today will impact the way in which many people view us.”
For now, though, Blatter’s somber mood has his detractors celebrating.
“I’m really cheerful today,” the sports media executive told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a good start. It’s only the beginning, but I don’t think Blatter is sleeping well at the moment.”