Surely this was the ultimate expression of Fifa democracy in action: seven leading executives, who had converged on Zurich in the expectation of another week of convivial expense-padding, being escorted off their five-star premises by plain-clothes police under the cover of giant bedsheets. So much, then, for Sepp Blatter’s blather about transparency. The only glimpse one could catch of Jeffrey Webb, his anointed successor as president but now one of several men engulfed by charges of racketeering and wire fraud, was through the disguise of some luxury laundry.
In the week of Blatter’s re-election, once as grim an inevitability as an unpleasant gas bill, this faintly vaudeville spectacle served as a fitting epitaph for his risible leadership. The 79 year-old has been campaigning for a fifth term on the soaring prospectus that he is a “mountain goat” – in other words, “I just go on and on.” Not for much longer, though, if his friends at the FBI have anything to do with it.
Of all the majestic creatures that a deluded statesman could have invoked, the goat was a curious choice. For Blatter neglected to mention certain other characteristics of Alpine goats: that they are mulishly stubborn and tend to cling to the nearest available perch. But the extraordinary scenes on Wednesday morning at Zurich’s Baur au Lac Hotel ensure that his grip on power, which he has sought to extend in perpetuity in flagrant mockery of any notion of proper governance, now looks more precarious than ever.
A Fifa executive is shephereded into a car after being arrested
For this was the moment when Fifa’s dubious courtiers were finally smoked out. The fact that they were forcibly ejected from the Baur au Lac, the very bolthole where they have traditionally felt safest and most indulged by virtue of the Camp David-level security and their inflated per diems, signalled an unprecedented escalation from scandals past. It was the day when they at last became acquainted with that quaint little Western concept of being accountable within the law.
Over 17 years of Blatter’s wretched reign, Fifa have repelled a bombardment of allegations about corruption and charlatanism as effectively as a pane of bulletproof glass. Sadly for them, the old aloofness and twisting of the truth – think back to the president’s insistence that Fifa had “taken the lead” on ethics – no longer works in the face of a law enforcement agency as famously aggressive as the FBI. This was the point at which the secrecy of Switzerland, the place to which the venal and power-hungry have historically flocked to cover up the money trail, collided with the long, strong arm of American justice.
Sepp Blatter is standing for re-election as head of Fifa
The net appeared to be tightening on every facet of a Blatter regime loathed by anybody who had an eye for probity or who were not compromised by his patronage. Not only were the FBI acting upon an investigation into the oft-alleged culture of kickbacks and illegal payments under his watch, but the Swiss Federal Office of Justice was opening criminal proceedings against four people involved in the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Potentially, the repercussions are staggering. According to the US Department of Justice, two active Fifa vice-presidents are embroiled in a 47-charge indictment. The much-lamented move to take football’s greatest tournament to Russia and Qatar, those two cradles of democracy, could all be poised to unravel.
The timing of Fifa’s day of reckoning is delicious. All the cynical chicanery of Blatter’s re-election bid – the African and a South American voting blocs, the lack of any concrete pledges for the good of the game, the refusal to debate with rival candidates, the contemptible presumption that he could sweep back into office just by promising to feather his sycophants’ nests – is seen in its proper light when seven members of his top committee are turfed out of their beds at dawn.
Blatter, of course, is clasping the tiny mercy that the American and Swiss inquiries do not directly implicate him. He will make his usual vacuous appeals to the unity of the Fifa family, distancing himself from Webb’s Concacaf brigade even when he has shamelessly courted their votes. But there is no way he can be insulated from the toxic stockpile of alleged wrongdoing being dumped at his door. Throughout his rule he has operated cheek by jowl with every one of the seven gentlemen thrown out of the Baur au Lac into unmarked cars.
He was so friendly with Webb that he considered him presidential material. And he was never less than cosy in the company of Chuck Blazer, the former ExCo stalwart who has turned whistleblower in the FBI’s work. Blazer, with the full complicity of Fifa, was so shamelessly grasping that he used to be paid £4,000 a month to rent an apartment in New York’s Trump Tower for his cats.
Predictably, the damage-limitation press conference by Walter di Grigorio, Fifa’s head of communications and public affairs, turned into a ludicrous exercise in evasion and manipulation.
Chuck Blazer has turned whistleblower for the FBI
Di Grigorio even had the brass neck to employ Fifa’s usual trick of tilting the narrative 180 degrees so that they appeared the worthy party. “We initiated this process,” he said, somehow with a straight face. The bitter recent experience of Michael Garcia’s report on the Qatar World Cup voting process, which has still not been made public, should tell us enough about Fifa’s true commitment to investigating themselves.
This is also a time for Fifa’s sponsors, the global corporations who slavishly replenish that billion-pound cash reserve in Zurich, to wake up. Belatedly, the dramatic police raids have given Adidas, Visa, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, McDonald’s, Kia and Hyundai a vivid and sobering illustration of the type of organisation they are propping up. In any other business besides football, they would run a mile. And in any other enterprise besides Fifa, the man at the top would display a scintilla of humility by delaying his impending election, not rely on his official spokesman to say that he is “relaxed”.
In all likelihood, Blatter will wrap up his fifth term as president – a liberty that was not even extended to Franklin Roosevelt – on another tide of grace and favours. But the remarkable events on Wednesday mean there is a shaft of light, a hope that the entire edifice of greed and sharp practice that he has helped create could be about to come crashing down. The Americans might have been slow to embrace football, but their intervention the shadows of Fifa-land could yet prove the noblest contribution that any country has made to the game.