To those that admire and respect Joseph Sepp Blatter, he is a visionary, fair and charismatic man, who sees football as a tool for good and has worked tirelessly, for nearly 40 years, to globally spread the game’s gospel; for others, who loathe him – intensely – he is a wily, corrupt, power-crazed old bat, who could teach Niccolo Machiavelli a new thing or two about the malevolent use of power.
In his 14th year as football’s chief custodian, having served as FIFA’s general secretary for 17 years before that, the man from Visp, in the Swiss Alps, admits the game has been his world, at the expense of a happier, more stable personal life.
But that world has been rocked, to its very foundations, over the last few years, with the series of alleged and proven acts of high corruption – by FIFA’s chieftains – which have done terrible damage to the image of the organisation, which Blatter admits requires a thorough clean-up.
Over the ambience of the 2012 Olympic Games, some orange juice and water at the Mayfair Hotel, in London’s Green Park, Blatter gave Osasu Obayiuwana, our African Football Editor, an exclusive one-hour interview, in which he was compelled to confront this issue and the other burning topics in the sport.
Q: Osasu Obayiuwana: At the 2011 FIFA congress, you promised to clean up the image of football, following the continuous corruption allegations and acts of malfeasance that have tainted its image, severely. One year on from Zurich, have things really improved?
A: Joseph Sepp Blatter: Definitely, things have improved. But it’s not to the level that I expected or that I expect in future. Our reform process is on the right track, which the chairman of our governance committee, Professor Pieth, testified to recently… There are items that we had to deal with immediately. One was to enlarge the Ethics Committee and to ensure it has two chambers – one for investigation and the other a judicial body.
The second issue was concerning the audit and compliance committee. The set-up of this was at the congress in Budapest, Hungary and it starts its activities on the 9th of August in Zurich. So, two of the three matters have been tackled… The third one is the revision of the FIFA statutes. This committee is still working on it but hopefully we shall complete our reform process in 2013.
Q: The release of the Swiss court papers, disclosing the payment of bribes to former FIFA president Joao Havelange and former FIFA executive committee member Ricardo Texeira, have been a big talking point. It is revealed that you knew about the payment to Havelange but said nothing. Your argument is that his receipt of the money, under Swiss law, was not illegal. But surely, you can see there is an ethical issue here?
A: After the congress in 2011, there was an executive committee meeting in Zurich last October, which approved – although not with an overwhelming majority – to open the ISL file. We wanted to make the file public by the end of 2011 but there was legal opposition to it. Now it has been done.
On my proposal, before the executive committee, I said that once the file was opened, the information should be handed to an independent investigator who will examine it. This has now happened, even though there was a move, by some members in the executive committee, to stop this… It is now up to the independent prosecutor. And so, I will not enter into a further discussion about this matter.
Q: As the president of FIFA, there is no doubt that you are a powerful man with a lot of influence in the world. Do you have people that can confront you when you’ve erred, without fearing your retribution?
A: When you are at the top and I am at the top in football, it is very difficult to have friends, friends with a big F. And for those who are in football, it is very difficult for them to tell me the truth… But I can tell you that I have, at least, one member in my executive committee that tells me the truth.
Q: So, let’s talk about the media… Over the last year, you have made some very tough remarks about the media and the British media in particular. Do you feel that the British media has been unfair to you and are determined to hound you out of your position?
A: You cannot be admired, adored and accepted by everybody. That’s impossible. I have been doing my job and have been doing so for about 37 years in FIFA. I do it with a sense of conscience, with all the qualities that I have, my energy and my love for football. But with all the difficulties that one must face, when one is in a job of this nature…
I think that in Great Britain, there was tremendous disappointment when England did not win the right to host the 2018 World Cup and there was a lot of speculation, as to why it did not win. But I don’t mind if they criticise me. But I was really touched when they called me a racist. I had to accept that they said it but those [false] words really hurt me, deep in my heart and deep in my soul.
But it is not just the media in England. There are other parts of the world who feel I am too old and it is time for me to leave my position and FIFA. The congress has decided, with a huge majority in 2011, to allow me to stay for another four years. So, please, let me finish my four years and let me do my job. When I’m about to go, they can prepare someone to take over. So, those who want me gone should have a little bit of patience…
Q: Just one person, out of a 25-man executive committee, tells you the truth?
A: Yes. I know when he is telling me the truth. He is the one that can say to me “President, this is wrong” or “President, think about this decision twice…” But just ask anybody in a high-level position. It is very difficult to have friends that help you in doing your job. My daughter has been asking me why the hell do I continue to do this job? But I have told her that I have not finished my job yet. But no doubt, things inside FIFA can be difficult.
Q: Who is the name of this person that you trust on the executive committee?
A: I am sorry, but I cannot tell you that. [He smiles]