5th June 2015: it was football’s equivalent of the Saddam statue toppling, or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man exploding in a flurry of crossed streams and gooey confectionary. Just a week after being re-elected for a fifth term as FIFA president, Joseph S. Blatter suddenly announced his resignation, with the FBI net closing around his cronies, and the widespread corruption many had assumed was endemic apparently set to finally be exposed. There is hope, even amid whispers of a surely-doomed plot to stay in power, that this is the end of FIFA as the evil empire – that democracy and transparency can sprout and take root where once there was greed and sleaze.
Yet there is an argument that FIFA might have undergone such a change 17 years ago, had Blatter not upset the heavy favourite, UEFA president Lennart Johansson, for the top job at the 51st FIFA Congress in Paris, just two days before France ’98 kicked off. Johansson had positioned himself as the ‘honesty candidate’, who wanted to end the autocracy and dodgy dealings so prevalent during Joao Havelange’s 24 years in office, and devolve power to the confederations.
The Swede went to bed on the eve of the vote confident that he had the victory in the bag. Ultimately though he was forsaken by a succession of last-minute turncoats, and Blatter, Havelange’s protégé, swept to power on a ‘continuity’ ticket.
Carved very much in the image of his mentor, Blatter, who had spent the previous 17 years as FIFA General Secretary, set about earning himself a reputation (in the West at least) as football’s Sith Lord, casting a dark shadow over the beautiful game. He periodically purged the organisation of his detractors, made excruciatingly embarrassing and unhelpful statements on such issues as race, homophobia and the women’s game, and generally treated the sport as his personal plaything. How was this allowed to happen?
A little help from his (Qatari) friends
It has been strongly suggested that the election was, to all intents and purposes, ‘bought’ for Blatter, either with or without his knowledge, by sinister forces acting on his behalf. Blatter had only declared his candidacy four months before the vote, while Johansson had been campaigning solidly for two years. The foundation of the Swede’s support came from Europe and Africa, with an agreement between UEFA and the CAF signed in January 1997. As the day of the ballot loomed, Johansson believed he had at least 100 votes pledged to him. Blatter’s strongholds were the Americas and the Gulf states, but a number of CONCACAF and Latin American football associations were, according to a Blatter interview with David Yallop (about whom more later), disqualified from voting, because they owed FIFA money. Blatter told Yallop that it was still possible for these federations to vote provided they came up with the money up to an hour before the congress, which was possible if they found “a sponsor who at the last minute is paying whatever is needed”. Most of these disqualified nations mysteriously found a ‘sponsor’ by the morning of the ballot – Yallop records that in late April there were 165 federations eligible to vote – by 8th June there were 191…
When the results of the first round of voting were announced, Blatter polled 111 votes to Johansson’s 80. Though neither had achieved the clear two-thirds majority needed to win outright, Johansson saw the writing on the wall, and withdrew. Blatter was president.
So where did Sepp’s votes come from, and where did Johansson’s go?
Enter one David Yallop, a former Eastenders screenwriter (sacked, according to Wikipedia, for proposing an IRA storyline) turned investigative reporter. Having already written an exposé on corruption in the Vatican, he turned his attention to FIFA. The resulting book, How They Stole The Game, proved explosive on its publication in 1999. The biggest allegation it made was that, the night before the vote, in Paris’ Meridien Hotel, a number of African and Asian delegates were offered $50,000 each – flown over from Qatar – to vote for Blatter. Indeed, CAF Vice-President Farah Addo insisted he ‘d been offered $100,000 by none other than Mohamed bin Hammam, a long-time Blatter loyalist and big wheel in Qatari football, who would be dogged himself by corruption accusations in years to come.
Blatter certainly had a close relationship with Qatar. Shortly before announcing his run for the presidency, he paid a secret visit to the Gulf state, and was given use of the Emir’s private jet for campaigning purposes. So helpful did Qatar prove to Blatter that Yallop suggests with spooky prescience in How They Stole the Game:
‘I would not be terribly surprised if there is a FIFA announcement in the near future that one of the many meaningless tournaments that the Havelange presidency gave birth to has been scheduled to be held in Qatar.’
The only thing he got wrong, over a decade before the announcement, was the size of the country’s reward.
Blatter, in the aftermath, refused all calls for an inquiry into the result, arrogantly declaring: “The game is over. The whistle has blown. The players have returned to the dressing room.” He attempted to suppress Yallop’s book, successfully getting it banned in his native Switzerland. Years later, he seemed to finally acknowledge that vote-buying might have taken place at the Meridien, though denied any direct involvement.
So that’s it, right? Case closed? Certainly corruption and FIFA were a strong double act long before Blatter took the throne, as the ISL scandal shows, Havelange and his son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, were paid over $41m in bribes linked to TV rights for the world cup. Havelange, aged 96, eventually resigned his honorary president title in disgrace in 2013.
As much fun as it is to get worked into a frothy lather of outrage and discrimination however, the reality and context into which Blatter’s ’98 victory must be placed is a lot more complex…
The Blatter campaign
Irrespective of what foul play may or may not have been involved, the truth is that Blatter fought much the wilier campaign. He used every trick in the book to claw his way into contention. For starters, although everyone had known for months that he was going to run, he only announced his candidacy one week before the official deadline, which meant that he’d been able to use his position as FIFA General Secretary to travel the world, using the organisation’s resources to develop an unofficial campaign. Previously, the Swiss (only the 12th employee working at FIFA when he was appointed in 1975) had been little glimpsed, known best for being humiliated onstage by Robin Williams during the USA ’94 draw. Suddenly, he was everywhere, and it was only pressure from UEFA that forced him to (reluctantly) stand down as General Secretary when he formally declared his interest in the presidency, the European body citing a significant conflict of interest.
It should come as no surprise that Blatter’s strategy was practically identical to the one his mentor used to unseat Englishman Sir Stanley Rous in 1974. Havelange was all too aware that Rous’ FIFA was highly Eurocentric and that the developing world was poorly represented – indeed, a number of African and Asian nations boycotted the 1966 World Cup after the two continents were awarded just a single qualifying spot between them.
The laughable vanity project/whitewash that is the FIFA-commissioned, Tim Roth-starring United Passions predictably goes OTT in portraying Rous and his English colleagues as moustache-twirling, villainous, borderline racists. Yet it was true that Rous had a low opinion of the standard of African football.
Rous’ biggest faux pas was his eagerness to welcome Apartheid-era South Africa back into FIFA. The Englishman was a firm believer that politics had no place in sport, but his stance alienated the rest of the African continent, and Havelange exploited that. An Olympian swimmer who competed at the 1936 Berlin Games, Havelange was already enormously popular in Latin America, and visited 86 countries in his exhaustive presidential campaign, vowing to increase the influence of developing nations, reaching out to those who felt snubbed by Rous. They responded by voting him into power.
Blatter represented Havelange’s legacy – a figure moulded in his image, who would carry on his work (however one might choose to interpret that). Johansson, meanwhile, with his calls for democracy and promises to shed light on allegations of corruption, represented a threat to his peaceful retirement. So, just as Pele had accompanied Havelange on his globetrotting (before they fell out), so Havelange was at Blatter’s side, the incumbent embarking on a ‘farewell tour’, showering African and Asian federations with gifts from fax machines to cash, and making promises of future investment. The implication was clear; Blatter would be the man to deliver on Havelange’s pledges.
Johansson’s bid, on the other hand, was – by his own admission – ‘naïve’. For all his noble visions of equality and devolving power to the confederations, he could never convince the developing world that he didn’t represent a return to a Europe-dominated game. His power base was founded on an alliance between UEFA and the CAF (the two confederations concluded an agreement in early 1997), and CAF President Issa Hayatou pledged the support of African federations to the Swede. However, Johansson did not sufficiently consider the tensions and fissures within African football. There was already considerable resentment towards Hayatou in certain quarters, and being told who to vote for didn’t exactly play too well with many federations. As Alan Tomlinson highlights in his book FIFA: The Men, The Myths and The Money, while Johansson was busy schmoozing with the African game’s top table, Blatter was wining and dining the rank and file, visiting some of the smallest, poorest federations on the continent and making promises to the men who would actually be doing the voting.
Just as Rous torpedoed himself with the South African gaffe, Johansson proceeded to further raise suspicions in Africa with a cataclysmic, breathtaking own goal. In an interview with Swedish publication Aftonbladet, he was quoted making racist remarks, allegedly saying:
‘When I came into the assembly hall in South Africa it was full of blackies and it was getting f***ing dark when they were all sitting together.’
Johansson made a full apology, and never before had he done anything to suggest he was a racist, nor has he since, but (obviously) those quotes inevitably hung over him.
Havelange and Blatter were also able to fracture the European support for Johansson. France – hosts of a world cup due to start two days after the big vote – defected late in the day from Johansson to Blatter. So too did England. Yep, the English – for so many years the most vociferous critics of the FIFA President – played their part in bringing him to power. It was all part of the FA’s Gollum-like quest to bring the 2006 World Cup to England, an insane fixation that also caused long-time friends Bobby Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer to fall out and would see holders Manchester Utd fail to defend the FA Cup, in favour of partaking in the nascent Club World Championship in Brazil.
Johansson was already viewed with distrust in the UK after the ‘one team in Tallinn’ fiasco, in which UEFA decreed, following the notorious world cup qualifier that never was between Estonia and Scotland (in which the home side failed to turn up), that the nations would replay the match in a neutral venue rather than the anticipated award of three points to the Scots via forfeit. Scottish fans and the British media felt the decision had much to do with Johansson’s native Sweden being Scotland’s chief rivals for qualification.
The primary reason for England’s defection however, was that Johansson was known to support the German 2006 bid, citing the much-discussed ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between the two countries that saw Germany refrain from bidding for Euro ’96 in exchange for England allowing the Germans a clear run at hosting the world cup. Yet England reneged, and Johansson thought this was poor form. Blatter, meanwhile, had made vague, off-hand noises about England possibly, maybe being an option if his long-established favoured choice, South Africa, wasn’t ready to host the tournament. The FA, desperate for the merest crumb of comfort that their bid was a goer, clung onto this with both hands.
Havelange’s trip to meet Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 saw further teasing that England 2006 was a viable possibility (Blair, still in his ‘Cool Britannia’ phase, was as desperate as the Graham Kellys of the world for England to host the competition). The reality was that neither candidate seriously backed the England bid; Blatter, however, hoped dangling such a carrot might tempt one of European football’s big fish to publicly desert his opponent days before the vote, causing damage and embarrassment to the Johansson camp. To quote Yallop: ‘He did. They did. It did.’
In the wake of the result, there were calls for an investigation after rumours of dodgy dealings surfaced. Blatter was having none of it, brazen in his refusal, almost flaunting his distaste for transparency:
“Why should I? I cannot open an inquiry into myself. The elections are now finished.”
The saddest thing about the 17 years since is that nobody appears to have learned anything. Blatter was re-elected four times, surrounding himself with more yes-men on each occasion while ridding himself of his enemies, be they long-term foes like Addo (silenced by court injunction in 2002 then banned in 2004) or former friends like Marc Zen-Ruffinen (the man tipped to be his heir until he became disillusioned with all the secrecy and corruption). Not even bin Hammam, the man who had (allegedly) done so much to help his rise to power, was safe, as Blatter reneged on a reported deal to stand aside for the Qatari before seeing him indicted on corruption charges of his own in 2011.
Blatter has his supporters and, to a point, justifiably so: even if his motives were questionable, he has opened the game up to many more countries, taking the world cup to places it had never been and giving the sport a leg-up in impoverished nations thanks to FIFA’s Millennium Development Goals. Yet, as Tim Vickery has noted, the dependence of these tiny federations on FIFA means there is scope for corruption on a massive scale, and in the end Blatter pushed his luck too far on that front, the Qatar decision proving so ludicrously and obviously fishy that it sank the whole ship.
The English FA, meanwhile, has itself continued to behave like an entitled, hypocritical brat, consistently missing the point when it came to the reasons why Havelange and Blatter were able to drum up such support in the first place. Witness Sir Dave Richards, pre-fountain plunge, ranting about FIFA “stealing the game from the English”. We don’t seem to want to hear that it isn’t our game anymore – it’s everybody’s.
Whether or not there was an illegal element to Blatter’s victory in 1998, the twin themes of that election – storm clouds of corruption and the silver lining of football becoming a truly global game – are his legacy. Whoever does fill his shoes will need to well and truly banish the former while maintaining and building on the latter. Football, not greed, must be the passion that genuinely unites.