It didn’t take long for oddsmakers to get over the surprise resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter and annoint his probable successor.
Michel Platini, a former Blatter protege turned fierce critic, is the man most likely to lead soccer’s governing body into a new era, according to the bookies.
Blatter’s announcement Tuesday that he’ll step down for a new leader came four days after he was re-elected to serve a fifth term and less than a week after his administration was plunged into its worst crisis following the announcement of criminal investigations. His departure clears the way to the top for Platini, who said last week a Blatter victory would “destroy football.”
“It was a difficult decision, a brave decision, and the right decision,” said Platini, installed as a 6-5 favorite by U.K.-based William Hill to be the next FIFA boss.
While Blatter’s exit was celebrated by his critics, finding the right replacement willing to undertake reforms to allow FIFA to emerge from its scandal-battered reputation will not be easy, according to the organization’s former reform adviser, Mark Pieth.
FIFA commissioned a group led by Pieth to improve corporate governance following Blatter’s previous election victory in 2011, when his only rival quit amid vote-buying claims. A year earlier, accusations of graft were made against officials who chose Russia and Qatar to be World Cup hosts.
Platini was among the first to acknowledge that he voted for Qatar, the world’s richest country per capita. The decision continues to roil world soccer as claims of impropriety over the World Cup votes linger.
“He is the favorite from the inside,” Pieth said of Platini, a former star of the French national soccer team. “He has some formidable skeletons in the cupboard, and not just Qatar.”
Platini, 59, coached France’s national team for four years after quitting soccer as a player at age 32. He then went into soccer administration, helping France organize the 1998 World Cup -- its team won the tournament at home -- and became the head of European soccer governing body UEFA in 2007. He told an eve-of-election news conference that he’d look Blatter in the eye and tell him to quit, even though he said the two were once so close Blatter was like an elderly uncle. Blatter was unmoved, leaving Platini to fume.
Jon Doviken, FIFA’s former deputy secretary general who was fired by Blatter after joining a group that tried to oust him claiming financial mismanagement, said Platini was the likely successor, though not the ideal candidate. “I think they need a person who has a proven track record of having the highest integrity, and if you ask me I would look to England,” he said.
England’s soccer body has been among the most outspoken when it comes to criticizing FIFA in recent years. Such sentiments carried little sway with most members, however. The federation’s chairman was jeered when he called for the 2011 election to be postponed as FIFA was engulfed in a vote-buying scandal.
During Blatter’s tenure, revenue at FIFA ballooned thanks to a boom in global television and marketing rights for the World Cup, a tournament that generates more attention than any event on the planet. That income helped to develop the game around the world but also poisoned FIFA, with Blatter’s tenure marked with allegations of wrongdoing against officials ranging from ticket scams to accepting election bribes.
“His fall will come as a tsunami to every corrupt leader in the confederations around the world,” Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning striker Romario said on his Twitter feed. “We need the corrupt ones in prison, and we need the contributions from great idols, good sports leaders and football lovers.”
Alexandra Wrage, president of Trace International, a non-profit organization that provides anti-bribery compliance advice to multinational companies, had been part of FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee before resigning after the group’s key reform proposals -- including independent oversight and term limits for FIFA’s board -- were rejected.
Wrage cautioned against allowing the euphoria of Blatter’s exit felt by some to overshadow the work needed to restore FIFA’s reputation. She pointed out that just four days ago almost two-thirds of FIFA’s electorate voted “more of the same.”
“We shouldn’t expect a sudden groundswell of support for reform,” Wrage said via e-mail. “I believe the best hope for FIFA is a new face with extraordinary leadership skills and unquestioned integrity. Whether they come from within football or elsewhere matters less than whether they’re free from the baggage of patronage.”
Prince Ali, brother of Jordan’s king Abdullah, suggested he’d be ready to make another run for the FIFA presidency, telling CNN he would consider standing again.
“I am at the disposal of all the national associations who want a change, including all of those who were afraid to make a change,” said Ali, who conceded defeat after getting 73 votes to Blatter’s 133.
Pieth said FIFA should name a caretaker president who could focus on pushing through much-needed reforms before those with their eyes on being Blatter’s longer-term successor should be considered.
“The reputation is so tainted and so horrible of this institution that that’s the absolutely primary interest,” Pieth said by phone. He suggested that U.S. soccer head Sunil Gulati could be the right person for the short-term role even though he isn’t a popular figure among soccer executives.
“You probably need a person who is not terribly likable like one of these Germans or Sunil Gulati, somebody whom they don’t really love but who is credible as a cleanup person,” Pieth said.
Gulati had long been advocating for Blatter’s exit and gave his backing to Ali, a candidate supported by Platini after the Frenchman decided against making a run himself. Should Platini run, he would likely take a significant portion of Ali’s votes with him.
Blatter said he’ll remain in office until his successor is chosen at a special FIFA congress slated to take place between December and March. In 2011, the 79-year-old said he wouldn’t stand again, before changing his mind.
“Sepp Blatter is still in office, still running FIFA,” said Michael Hershman, a co-founder of Transparency International, who was part of Pieth’s FIFA reform group. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”