Telling a powerful boss he should quit might be the hardest call an aide can make.
On Monday, one of Sepp Blatter’s closest advisers said, he did just that. Meeting with the chief of global soccer in Zurich, he told Blatter he should resign -- for the sake of his sanity.
“I told him he was going to go cuckoo,” the adviser said, noting that Blatter looked both somber and frail. “I’ve never lied to him, so my recommendation is he should step down because this is not going to get better.”
Blatter had won re-election three days earlier as president of FIFA, yet the corruption scandal engulfing the organization was expanding. Blatter, 79, didn’t flinch at the suggestion. “To my astonishment, he said he had been thinking about that the whole weekend,” said the adviser, who asked not to be identified to maintain personal relationships.
The tipping point for Blatter’s reversal has been the subject of much speculation, and to date, the man himself has provided scant explanation. But the adviser’s conversation revealed one telling detail: Blatter, the master vote-counter who ruled global soccer by cultivating scores of FIFA delegates from obscure countries, had miscalculated his support.
His tepid backing in the May 29 presidential election -- 133 of a total 209, the worst since he was first elected in 1998 -- had “shocked the wits” out of him, the adviser said. “I know he expected a much higher turnout in his favor, and he would have felt, ’Look at me, they all still love me.’ ”
Interviews with FIFA officials and Blatter confidantes suggest the soccer boss realized his fortunes shifted after initially underestimating the anger of FIFA’s electorate, the scope of the U.S. government’s case and the growing discomfort of sponsors, including Coca-Cola Co., which sent him a sharply worded letter urging reform.
On Tuesday morning, in an 11 a.m. phone call, Blatter confirmed that he would resign, the adviser said. Blatter made it public later that day in a news conference that had to be delayed: He wanted to reach out to the heads of soccer’s six global confederations, at least the ones not in jail, to inform them first.
He wearily acknowledged in his brief statement afterward that “FIFA needs a profound overhaul,” and that while he was given a mandate from FIFA’s members, it was clear he didn’t have the same support from “the entire world of football -- the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at FIFA.”
Blatter had long ruled the sport by commanding a disciplinary and financial apparatus that had the power to ban officials, block national teams from competing or dump sponsors. The early morning arrests of seven soccer officials in Zurich on May 27 made him the most vulnerable he’d been in his 17 years at FIFA’s helm. And it emboldened those who previously feared him.
The U.S. indictment of 14 sports-marketing executives and officials from the Federation Internationale de Football Association, as well as a separate Swiss probe, seemed to drain the fear from Blatter’s voters and sponsors alike.
“He realized he couldn’t hide things any more now the FBI is involved,” says Lennart Johannson, the Swede who in 1998 was the loser in Blatter’s first election, which was marred by bribery allegations.
To Chris Eaton, FIFA’s former head of security, the abrupt resignation may also prove to have been triggered by something as yet unknown, precipitating a moment of reckoning that was long overdue. “It’s highly unlikely that there wasn’t some stark motivation for it, some motivation that we’re currently unaware of and that will come out I’m sure in the fullness of time,” Eaton says.
To be sure, Blatter is a master tactician, and his resignation plan takes off some of the heat and gives him at least six months to do whatever he needs internally to secure his future and perhaps lay groundwork for picking a successor.
Many don’t think he should stick around. “Blatter cannot oversee the ’new’ FIFA,” Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International said Friday in a statement. “He must go now. World football cannot be left in limbo.”
Even Blatter’s adviser acknowledged the FIFA boss will find it difficult to push through reforms from a hostile executive committee, still resistant to change.
Hours before his re-election, Blatter was already losing his grip on global soccer.
Just before midnight, on Thursday, May 28, Caribbean delegates to the FIFA vote gathered over glasses of lager at their Zurich hotel’s outdoor bar. They discussed the raids the previous morning in which Swiss police had arrested seven of their soccer colleagues, including one staying at that very Sheraton. And, with back-of-the-envelope calculations, they dared to broach a topic previously unthinkable: That Blatter might lose.
The uncertainty was a long way from the worshipful reception Blatter had gotten the previous month at a regional meeting in the Bahamas, where one delegate compared him with Jesus Christ.
The head of Jamaican soccer, Captain Horace Burrell, laughed when asked whom he thought would win the next day’s vote. “Who knows?” he said, throwing up his arms and heading back to his room.
As the Caribbean delegates finished their election-eve beers, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati got on a conference call with reporters to announce the U.S. would vote for Blatter’s opponent, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan. He said it was worth risking the U.S.’s chance to host a world cup to cast a vote against Blatter. “This is a vote for good governance,” he said.
The same day, pressure was building among the European delegates. The leaders of UEFA, the regional soccer body, dangled the threat of a World Cup boycott if Blatter didn’t step down. Without powerhouses such as Germany, Italy and Spain, the tournament would be meaningless.
And it couldn’t have helped that, across the Atlantic, a former FIFA vice president, the now-indicted Jack Warner, had exited a Trinidadian jail vowing to reveal information about his old colleague. “If I have been in FIFA for 30 years and I have been thieving all the money, who give me the money?” Warner asked supporters gathered in Port of Spain. After one blurted out, “Blatter!” Warner asked, “And why it is he ain’t charged?”
At about the same time, sponsors were ratcheting up what until then had been mild pressure. After the arrests, Coca-Cola issued a public statement saying it expected FIFA to ’’address these issues thoroughly’’ that had “tarnished” the World Cup.
Behind the scenes, Coca-Cola executives dispatched their strongly worded private letter immediately after the arrests. It urged action and asked FIFA to report back on its plan to address the issues, said a person familiar with Coca-Cola’s thinking.
At stake for Coca-Cola was the largest of its sports marketing programs -- even bigger than the Olympic Games. The company uses the World Cup to promote its products in 175 countries. For FIFA, sponsorships are the second-biggest source of income after broadcast rights.
Inside a Zurich convention center on May 29, Blatter got a rude surprise. The first ballot requires two-thirds of the 209 vote to win and Blatter fell short. Instead of going to the next round, which requires only a majority, his opponent, Prince Ali, conceded.
With Blatter still on the throne, Coca-Cola issued a public statement that mirrored its earlier letter. “FIFA must now seize the opportunity to begin winning back the trust it has lost,” the statement read. “We urge FIFA to take concrete actions to fully address all of the issues that have been raised, in a swift and transparent manner.”
The next day, during his Saturday victory news conference in Zurich, Blatter referred to letters he had exchanged with sponsors. “We will bring them all back in the right situation,” the newly re-elected FIFA president said. “We have already planned a personal visit.”
The U.S. government indictment is largely focused on bribery in the Caribbean and South America. But in the four days between Blatter’s election and resignation, it became increasingly clear that federal investigators were looking beyond bribery in the Americas and that the long-time soccer king was in their crosshairs.
On Monday, news reports surfaced that Blatter’s top lieutenant, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke, had authorized a $10 million money transfer that prosecutors had characterized as a bribe, to a Caribbean official in exchange for his vote for South Africa as host country for the 2010 World Cup.
Though Valcke denied any impropriety, the revelation shifted the focus of the investigation from the Americas toward Zurich and Blatter.
By then, Blatter and his adviser had already discussed his stepping down.
On Tuesday, by about 4 p.m., Blatter’s kin in his hometown of Visp, near the Matterhorn, knew the announcement was coming. “It was better for FIFA and the family in the end,” says Blatter’s son-in-law, Dominik Andenmatten, whose pub, Bistro Napoleon, displays three blue FIFA pennants on the wall behind the bar. Blatter made his resignation speech in time for the evening news in Europe.
“The investigations are a waste of time,” says Andenmatten, who is married to Blatter’s daughter. “In his own country, the prophet isn’t heard.”