KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Sepp Blatter has set himself defiantly on an astonishing collision course with four of the World Cup’s major sponsors after rejecting demands from Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa and Anheuser-Busch that he step down with immediate effect as president of crisis-swamped FIFA.
Coca-Cola is the most loyal and long-serving sponsor, having been brought on board in the mid-197os by the then FIFA president Joao Havelange and his advisers. The company’s financial power underpinned a sports marketing revolution that was ultimately rewarded with ongoing record revenues which continue to defy the global recession.
But finally Coca-Cola’s patience has evaporated and the other tfree swiftly followed suit in what appeared to be a co-ordinated exercise among the United States sponsors.
Within minutes Blatter hit back with a statement issued through his lawyer, Richard Cullen, stating: “While Coca-Cola is a valued sponsor of FIFA, Mr Blatter respectfully disagrees with its position and firmly believes 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.”
Notably, FIFA itself did not respond. This is because Blatter and FIFA, for reasons of legal distance, have to work with independent lawyers. Blatter can speak only for himself; FIFA can speak only for the organisation.
Any freezing of funds by sponsors would not wreck FIFA’s finances but would impose severe reputational damage to the world football federation which relies almost entirely on World Cup broadcast and sponsor revenues to finance its worldwide operation.
A statement from Coca-Cola said: “For the benefit of the game, The Coca-Cola Company is calling for FIFA president Joseph Blatter to step down immediately so that a credible and sustainable reform process can begin in earnest.
“Every day that passes, the image and reputation of FIFA continues to tarnish. FIFA needs comprehensive and urgent reform, and that can only be accomplished through a truly independent approach.”
McDonald’s echoed the uncompromising message, saying: “We believe it would be in the best interest of the game for FIFA president Sepp Blatter to step down immediately so that the reform process can proceed with the credibility that is needed.”
Visa and Anheuser-Busch In-Bev followed through.
The finance card company stated: “As we’ve previously said, we believe two things need to happen to ensure credible reform: First, an independent, third-party commission led by one or more important leaders is critical to formulate reforms; Second, we believe no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA’s existing leadership.
“And, given the events of last week, it’s clear it would be in the best interests of FIFA and the sport for Sepp Blatter to step down immediately.”
Anheuser-Busch InBev weighed in similarly, saying: “It would be appropriate for Mr Blatter to step down as we believe his continued presence to be an obstacle in the reform process.”
Such statements from the United States-headquartered companies had been awaited after Blatter was made the subject of a criminal investigation by the Office of the Swiss Attorney-General last week.
Above all, however, an even greater concern was the image-tarnishing effect of the FIFAGate investigation into an alleged $150m corruption scandal at the highest levels of international football in the Americas.
The danger of FIFA being formally designated as a RICO – Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization as designated under a formal act of law – was beyond anything a major American corporation could be expected to accept.
Hence the sponsors’ statements, as well as being expressions of impatience and disapproval, could also be seen as self-defensive. None of them was threatening to withdraw their sponsorship of the World Cup which remains by far the greatest promoted ‘vehicle’ in international sport.
Notably Kia Motors and Adidas, the German-centred sportswear group which is also a long-time FIFA sponsor, were not party to the domino-effect demands from across the Atlantic.