After Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s interview with Dutch daily newspaper de Volksrant comes a 21-minute interview with BBC Sport’s Richard Conway, available on the Beeb’s website to gaze at in wonder. At the end an appropriately nauseating still of Blatter appears, a camp pursed-lips look of someone trying to smile and simultaneously hold in a fart. The smell induced by Blatter’s answers and occasional silences suggests he failed. The interview was meant to discuss Blatter’s legacy, to judge by how often Conway referenced the word. But if the “departing” Fifa president thought it would cover what he saw as his legacy, he was wrong. Conway frequently prefixed his questions with “people may think,” or variants thereof. And that may be a different “legacy” altogether.
In fairness, Blatter at least submitted himself to some of the key questions he currently faces about his seventeen years as Fifa president. However, while he fully utilised a well-rehearsed strategy, including speaking English as a fourth or fifth language when the pressure really mounts, his arguments will need far more work before/if he “lays down his mandate.” “Fifa is not corrupt,” he declared boldly, to the sound of jaws dropping everywhere. “The institution is not corrupt, there is no corruption in football, Liz Kendall will be the next leader of the Labour Party.” OK, he didn’t say that last one (on camera, anyway). But even if he had, Conway’s incredulity could hardly have been greater.
“There’s no corruption within Fifa?” he spluttered. Apparently not. “It is with the people serving Fifa,” Blatter continued, perfecting the art of semantics. And Blatter couldn’t prevent that: “It is easy to control players because you have boundaries…you have a referee. Who can control 300 million (players) directly, 1.6 billion (fans) indirectly?” Conway wasn’t having that. “But people may expect you to control your executive committee,” he said, correctly, before nailing what many see as Blatter’s true “legacy.” “A number of people within the Executive Committee left because of proven corruption or alleged corruption or have walked away because of investigations and you were presiding over that organisation the entire time. So either you knew about this and turned a blind eye to it or you didn’t know about it. And that, perhaps, observers say, shows a level of incompetence on your part…that you let this flourish.”
Blatter’s pause in response spoke more eloquently than anything else he could muster, as well as giving “observers” the chance to stop grinning broadly. Then he blamed the Confederations. Back on the semantics again, he declared, firmly, if not entirely accurately: “All those…arrested in Zurich” (prior to May’s Fifa congress) “were arrested for their activities in their confederations and not as Fifa.” The “problem,” he added, “was the composition of the Executive Committee,” as it wasn’t elected by “the same entity as the president. I have a government that is coming through elections through the confederations.” Thus, “I have to take people, they are not my people (and) I cannot be morally responsible for them.”
Conway’s problem here was that if he pulled Blatter up on every gaping hole in this “defence,” he’d still be in Zurich now…whenever you read this. “Moral” responsibility wasn’t the issue. Nor was the electorate, nor whether they were “his” people, possibly a damning insight into one reform Blatter would like introduced. Conway then referenced former Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer’s infamous “apartment in Trump Tower for his cats,” and asked: “That didn’t arouse suspicion, that these people had so much money, that this was going on under your watch, that you thought everything was OK? It’s only in recent months that you’ve realised…the scale of this problem?” “This was the Secretary-General of a Confederation. Who is responsible for these people?” Blatter pleaded, possibly hoping that the question would be considered rhetorical. “You,” countered Conway, speedily dashing those hopes, and pointing for emphasis. However, Blatter cited Fifa statutes, surprisingly suggesting that Fifa “has no rights to go to any Confederation to ask them what they are doing with the money.” As some of the money Blazer used was allocated by Fifa, this was preposterous.
Blatter was also foiled in his attempts to end discussion on a $10m payment to former Fifa Vice-President, the repugnant Jack Warner, in connection with the vote to award the 2010 World Cup to South Africa, money which “was wired from a Fifa account in Switzerland,” according to the recent FBI indictment of senior Fifa bods. “Indictment against whom? In what activities?” Blatter sneered pompously down his nose. “Against one of the vice-presidents who sat in the (Fifa boardroom) with you,” Conway replied, adding: “Let’s look at the…accusations that votes were bought and paid for.” Blatter replied, nose still pointing to the heavens: “I don’t speak about that.” The South African World Cup was “the cleanest that has ever been done and these items that you are turning around, this is not an item.” In reply to which a once-again-incredulous Conway whispered intensely that “$10m was passed from a Fifa account to Mr Warner.”
Blatter had had enough. “I don’t enter into this discussion,” he announced, with a finality to which all previous interviewers had succumbed, judging by his shocked expression when Conway had the temerity to ask “why not?” At this point, he dredged up the old “matters under investigation” line. But his refusal to speak spoke volumes. Again. As it did when he, again, refused to be drawn on what changed his mind between the triumphalism of his re-election as Fifa President for a 94th term and the “laying down” of his “mandate” four days later. Instead he limited himself to words which the world of football must hope will soon return to haunt him: He “laid down” because “I wanted to protect Fifa,” although from what he didn’t say. “I can protect myself because I know what I have done, what I have not done. I have my conscience. I know that I’m an honest man. I’m clean.” Then he reached for his well-thumbed book of defensive mechanisms and turned to the chapter on “woolly philosophising.”
Blatter cited the “handshake for peace,” where team captains shake hands in front of a “Handshake for Peace” banner, one of the cringeworthy Fifa initiatives which have pock-marked Blatter’s reign and have two-tenths of five-eighths of ****-all impact. “Can you imagine what the movement is?” Blatter asked, in full-on gobbledegook mode. “Not only discipline, respect and fair play. It is peace.”
Conway knew this was diversionary drivel. And he had an answer. “It’s an initiative you had with the Nobel Peace Centre. They walked away. They said ‘we don’t want anything to do with Fifa’ because you’re toxic.” The Centre actually said they wished “a dialogue to start about the ending of (their) co-operation.” And Blatter desperately clung onto this less-forceful sounding statement, even though it amounted to the same thing. “No,” he said, four times. “We have had a meeting.” And he blamed “this political movement that everybody wanted to leave Fifa because they saw that it is a boat that is going somewhere, there are not good people. But they say ‘yes, go on.’ You will see it is “handshake for peace” everywhere, you will see the official emblem they have created. And it works” (yes, he really said that last bit). It was classic Blatter. His command of the English dissolving with every dishonest word. A random nautical reference, think of the “ship-steadying” he cites after every Fifa credibility or corruption crisis. And grade one bullshit to finish.
The interview was by no means entirely adversarial. “You think that there’s a sense of injustice,” Conway noted, in what seemed like a planted question. “You’ve been unfairly targeted. The world is against you. Is that how you feel?” However, allowing Blatter to take credit for the “good things” he claimed to have “brought to the game” only highlighted the hypocrisy of his stance on “responsibility.” He happily took full responsibility for bringing the game economically from “minus when we started in 1998” to “when we speak about our economic resources and where we are now, its tremendous.” This appeared to airbrush from history the beginnings of football’s rampant commercialism under Blatter’s predecessor, the perma-unsmiling Joao Havelange.
He would leave a game that was “exceptionally good” and was “being played everywhere and by everybody,” as if Fifa was responsible for all, rather than just international, football, with the confederations all-of-a-sudden playing no part whatsoever, and as if football wasn’t a global game when Blatter was president only of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders. Or when he suggested women footballers should “play in more feminine clothes…for example, tighter shorts” for “a more female aesthetic.” Which reminds me: “What I brought in and what is so important is women’s football, this was a challenge which was made to me in 1986 in a Congress in Mexico.” So, Karen Carney, Steph Houghton et al, you have Sepp to thank. Who knew? “I have done a lot,” Blatter proclaimed, adding what sounded more like a hasty correction than a naturally-held belief, “not only me but Fifa has done a lot.” And “I have served this Fifa and I’m sure this will be recognised, the big job that has been done by Fifa and by myself.” However, thirty-three seconds later: “Somebody must be responsible but it’s not the head of state who is responsible for all the villains, it is the government.” Two faces for the price of one.
As for the future, Blatter “doesn’t mind” who succeeds him. “Why not?” he asked when Conway suggested that Uefa boss Michel Platini could be the man, having done “a very good job at Uefa, in the eyes of many.” The Platini whom Blatter accused of “intimidating” his elder brother at May’s Fifa Congress. The president of the Uefa organisation where, Blatter claimed, there is “an anti-Fifa virus.” “Don’t ask the president who is elected to make a comment on the race for the presidency,” he said, as he would surely have objected if Havelange had, let’s say purely for argument’s sake, claimed that Blatter “had all the qualities to be the president” or would make an “outstanding” president, just prior to the 1998 Fifa presidential election.
This interview will not help to establish the legacy Blatter wishes for himself. He claimed nonsensically that it was “impossible to only have friends in your life. If you have only friends, you are not good.” As if his enemies, detractors and those Conway claimed “may think” ill of Blatter were a sign of his inherent goodness. His closing “message to fans” was wishy-washy stuff about “believing” in football, even though it is “not perfect” because it is a “human game and humanity is not perfect.” An expert speaks, you “may think.”
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