The big, bad wolf has been howling outside Sepp Blatter’s FIFA empire for the past few months, but now the entire foundation around him looks blown away with a mighty wind that hit this week. Not only did the embattled FIFA president’s native country of Switzerland open a criminal investigation into supposed misappropriated contracts signed by Blatter, but now some of the world’s most powerful sponsors have stepped forward to demand the 79-year-old call it quits.
When 14 of his fellow executives and business partners were indicted in May on criminal charges by the United States Department of Justice, the earth around Blatter changed for good, even though a few days later Blatter appeared as upbeat and jovial as ever when he was elected to his fifth consecutive presidency atop FIFA. What did it matter, then, that allegations of purchasing votes from member countries again came from the opposition? After all, it seemed wherever Blatter went where a vote or a contract was involved, allegations of corruption followed him.
Though he’s been the head of international football since 1998 and led the sport to unprecedented levels of popularity over that time, the widespread and constant claims of corruption are sure to cloud over Blatter’s legacy.
In June, Blatter announced that he would resign from his position in February. But now, it seems, the man who has long been considered one of the most influential figures in sports is struggling to last another few days at his job. Here’s why he should leave now:
1. Criminal accusations
When the Swiss attorney general opened a criminal investigation on Blatter last weekend, it seemed a long time coming. The statement from the attorney general’s office claimed Blatter had signed a suspicious television contract that was very favorable to the Caribbean Football Union, which was headed by former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner. Swiss authorities also accused Blatter of making a “disloyal payment” to Michel Platini, who is the head of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and ran against Blatter in the 2011 FIFA elections.
But getting Blatter on these two charges alone would be akin to getting Al Capone on tax evasion. Besides complaints of vote-rigging in every presidential election Blatter participated in, the 2011 decision to give the World Cup to Qatar remains the most powerful accusation levied at Blatter. The richest country in the world still uses slavery and has no football history to speak of, yet it was somehow deemed an acceptable host for the sport’s signature event.
In 2011, investigative journalist Phaedra Al-Majid claimed that high-ranking FIFA officials sold their 2022 World Cup votes to Qatari officials for millions of dollars. Al-Majid said she personally witnessed some executive committee members accepting checks from Qatari representatives. A report in 2012 by the Council of Europe said it was “difficult to imagine” that Blatter was ignorant of the alleged purchase of votes for Qatar.
2. Guilty by association
Speaking of vote buying, which one often does when on the subject of FIFA, the U.S. indictment issued claims in May that Blatter’s former righthand man Warner accepted a $10 million payment in 2004 for voting for South Africa as the World Cup host nation in the 2010 tournament. Chuck Blazer, a former executive committee member-turned-whistleblower, corroborated claims that the votes for South Africa were bought.
“I and others on the FIFA executive committee agreed to accept bribes in conjunction with the selection of South Africa as the host nation for the 2010 World Cup,” he told a New York judge in 2013.
At the opening ceremony for the 65th FIFA Congress, following the arrests of some of FIFA’s top officials, including Costa Rica’ Eduardo Li, Blatter was forced to acknowledge the mess of allegations that had been spilled before him.
“I know many people hold me ultimately responsible for the actions and reputation of the global football community – whether it is a decision for the hosting of the World Cup or a corruption scandal,” he said. “We cannot monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it. But it must fall to me to bear the responsibility for the reputation and well-being of our organization and to find a way forward to fix things.”
3. Constant tone-deafness
Blatter, who once said women’s football teams should wear skimpier uniforms to attract more viewers, has often been a textbook case of political incorrectness. Though even his most vocal critics can admit his grandfatherly charm, there has been ample evidence to suggest Blatter is completely unaware of the larger issues surrounding him.
In an apparent, but failed, attempt at jest, Blatter once said that any gay fans that go to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar “should refrain from any sexual activities” since homosexuality is outlawed there. At the same time, however, Blatter, has never found words to respond to the country’s use of slaves to build the stadiums and infrastructure for FIFA’s famed tournament. Nor has he taken the time to comment on how many slaves and migrant workers are dying each day under the Qatari heat in preparation for the tournament. The death toll is so high that in May, campaign group PlayFair Qatar estimated that 62 slaves will have died for every World Cup game played in 2022.
The British organization’s website says that more than 1,400 migrant workers have died while building infrastructure for the World Cup. Yet Blatter and other top FIFA officials, who could have easily decided to pull out of the country, have done nothing to even protest the continuing deaths.
4. Sponsors ultimately pay the bills
With his stubborn insistence on keeping himself in office until February, even while corruption allegations mushroom, Blatter has seemed like the unbeatable boss at the end of a video game. No matter what new tactic arises to dethrone him, like, say, a criminal investigation, Blatter and his team of lawyers have worked hard to keep him atop international football’s governing body.
But Friday’s chain of statements from FIFA’s biggest sponsors demanding Blatter’s resignation should ultimately prove to be the final blow. If there’s a language — besides denial — that the FIFA heads speak fluently, it’s money. Its hard to imagine that when sponsors like McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Visa and the maker of the U.S.’s most popular beer threaten to cut off funding to FIFA, that the executive committee would side with a 79-year-old man who was already slated to leave in February rather than the billion-dollar corporations that ultimately give them their six-figure pay checks.
Still, Blatter contends that he’s done no wrong. A lawyer for Blatter issued a statement on Friday, saying: “While Coca-Cola is a valued sponsor of FIFA, Mr. Blatter respectfully disagrees with its position and believes firmly that his leaving office now would not be in the best interest of FIFA nor would it advance the process of reform and therefore, he will not resign.”
The next few days will prove whether or not those final four words ring true.