Increasingly, the clown princes of FIFA are becoming unbuckled from reality.
Barely two weeks ago, Sepp Blatter, the longtime head of the criminal syndicate masquerading as soccer’s world governing body, and Michel Platini, who was once Blatter’s heir apparent, were suspended from involvement with the sport for eight years.
Neither man could offer a plausible explanation for a $2 million payment to Platini in 2011, a curious transaction unearthed last year by investigators looking into evidence of rampant corruption at FIFA under Blatter’s leadership.
Blatter, who approved the payment, said it was deferred compensation for work Platini had done from 1999 to 2002, when Platini was a ‘technical adviser’ to the FIFA president.
But Platini’s written contract made no provision for such a payment, and an ethics committee concluded there was ‘no legal basis’ for Blatter to hand over $2 million of FIFA’s money to his onetime ‘adviser.’
Of course there was no legal basis for it. Blatter never spent five seconds worrying about legalities. He treated FIFA’s assets the way Tony Soprano treated the cash drawers at the Bada Bing. If he needed money, he took it.
Why did Blatter need $2 million for Platini in 2011?
Quoting from The New York Times:
Investigators found the late payment suspicious in part because of its timing — a few months before Mr. Blatter began campaigning for re-election to a fourth term as FIFA president. UEFA [the European soccer federation], led by Mr. Platini, supported Mr. Blatter, who subsequently won the vote after the only other candidate in the race withdrew.’
In other words, Blatter bought the election, using FIFA’s money.
He didn’t have to buy it. FIFA’s election rules tilt so heavily in favor of incumbents that a sitting president almost has to die in office before the organization’s 209 member nations will replace him.
There have been just four FIFA presidents since 1961. Blatter, first elected in 1998, ran unopposed in 2007 and 2011. (His predecessor, João Havelange, held office for 24 years, until he was accused of accepting millions in bribes, along with improper gifts that included diamonds, artworks, and rare porcelain.)
Even last year, when Blatter was up to his nostrils in scandal, he was re-elected, and by a large margin. That Pyrrhic victory occurred days after Swiss authorities, acting on behalf of the U.S. Justice Department, raided a luxury hotel in Zurich and arrested more than a half-dozen FIFA executives who were implicated in bribery plots related to FIFA’s awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, to Russia and Qatar, respectively.
If Blatter could maintain his grip on power despite sending his sport’s premiere event to the searing deserts of Qatar — roughly akin to awarding a Super Bowl to Bullhead City, Arizona — then he really didn’t need to buy Platini’s allegiance in 2011.
On the other hand, it didn’t cost Blatter anything — remember, he was using FIFA funds, not his own — so why not ensure a coronation completely free of opposition?
When the $2 million payment surfaced, Blatter and Platini of course denied that it was a payoff.
Not only that, Blatter feigned outrage that anyone would dare suggest such a thing.
“I’m a man of principles,” he said after his suspension was announced. “I will fight for me, and I will fight for FIFA.”
At his age, 79, an eight-year suspension is tantamount (we can hope) to a lifetime ban. So it wasn’t at all clear how Blatter intended to “fight for FIFA,” particularly with his criminal indictment growing more likely with each passing day.
As former FIFA chieftains continue to be arrested around the world — close to 40 already — some are cutting deals to save their own necks by testifying against bigger fish. Blatter may be too unhooked from reality to fully realize it, but a case against the biggest fish of all is being methodically assembled; slowly but surely, the noose grows closer. (Blatter is not completely naive about this. One reason he skipped the championship game of last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada — a match he’s always attended — reportedly was his fear that U.S. authorities would cause his plane to be diverted to American soil so they could snatch him up and store him for safekeeping in an American prison cell.)
Blatter’s pledge to “fight for FIFA” was no nuttier than a half dozen other things he’s said about his defrocking.
“I have never cheated with money,” he said.
“These are values passed on to me by my parents which I have always lived by,” he said. “Never accept any money which you have not earned.”
He and Platini “are in a situation we don’t deserve to be in.” he said.
It’s like the Inquisition, he said.
“Suspended eight years for what?” he said.
“I’m not the cleverest man in the world,” he said, “but like they say in French, je ne suis pas un imbécile.” (“I’m not an imbecile.”)
“I have never lost my mind,” he said.
“I’ll be back,” he said.
Alas, his fight for FIFA was almost as short as Mike Tyson vs. Bruce Seldon.
Eight days after his suspension, Blatter changed his mind.
“I now no longer fight for FIFA,” he told a German magazine.
“They abandoned me. I am now only fighting for myself and my honor.”
He added that he was being treated like “a punching ball.”
Platini, not to be outdone in unhookedness, on Friday withdrew as a candidate to succeed Blatter. FIFA elects a new president on Feb. 26.
“The timing is not good for me,” he said.
No, it is not.
I’m sure he’s disappointed. After all, he was this close to getting the keys to the bank vault.
But given his eight-year suspension, the decision cannot have required a great deal of forethought.
It’s not as if Platini had a choice. It’s not as if “president of FIFA” remains a viable career option for someone who’s banned from having anything do with international soccer.
His withdrawing from the presidential race is sort of like Keith Richards’ announcing that he doesn’t plan to become a DEA agent.
It’s like Larry the Cable Guy saying he won’t audition for Hamlet at the National Theatre in London.