KEIR RADNEDGE in ZURICH —- Sepp Blatter was back in his element. The Russian book shop in Zurich did not compare with the grand congress halls and conference centres when the football world hung on his every word. But he had a friendly audience to regale with anecdotes and tales from a unique career which he probably thought could never end*.
Blatter has recovered much of his bounce after having been knocked off his feet both physically and psychologically from the day when the football world exploded beneath his feet with a police raid on the Baur au La hotel, a 10-minute walk up the road.
FIFA, post-Blatter, has abandoned the Baur au Lac: all big bills and bad memories of the day seven self-entitled grandees of the game were whisked away by police as the game’s greatest corruption saga unfolded.
Blatter can talk about it now with a degreeof personal perspective. Gone is the rage of incomprehension. He is settling into a strange new world without the title of ‘FIFA this or that.’
He can throw in the jokes again, he has regained a twinkle in his eye for the ladies and he even mimicked the puppet-like steps of the old Russian leaders Brezhnev and Chernenko – just as he once, famously, mimicked Cristiano Ronaldo for the Oxford Union.
The Russian connection remains alive, more than 50 years after a youthful Swiss marketing executive attended the Spartakiade on behalf of his pre-FIFA employer, Longines/Swiss Timing.
His book Mission & Passion Fussball, hurried out last yeari, is being published in Russian in February so Blatter will head back to Moscow for the event**.
Vladimir Putin has given it the seal of approval with a presidential invitation for Blatter to return as a personal guest for one of the set-piece occasions of the 2018 World Cup – Opening Match or Final – awarded to Russia by Blatter’s FIFA.
Two years after being re-elected for the last time in May 2015, after hastily summoning a press conference to announce his decision to step down, after being shaken to the core by what became a six-year suspension, Blatter reflected on the pride of his achievements and pain of his betrayals.
He joined FIFA, only the 12th member of staff, in 1975 as technical director. He rose to become general secretary and then succeed Joao Havelange as president in 1998. To outsiders he appeared to enjoy himself the most as general secretary, running the show in Zurich for a king across the water in Brazil.
Blatter has a different take, saying: “I was in my happiest situation as development officer. This was because my role was to deliver the good message.
“I was not so happy to be general secretary because to deal with that particular president was not so easy. But I could manage. After that I thought it would be easier to be a president but it was not especially because in 2001 we had the bankruptcy of ISL.”
Blatter delights in the figures which, for him, illustrate the eventual success of his work.
He says: “The best thing in FIFA is that there are 211 federations with organised football in all the world. There are more than 300m active players, coaches, referees involved in all these countries in football which is also a school of life – fairplay, education, respect and so on.
“But, at the same time we have given to the whole world a broadcasting signal so that all the big matches – the big FIFA matches anyway – are available everywhere.
“The emotion that football is giving through the development programme and through television is my Achievement No1 and I am very proud of that.”
Blatter’s first step in expounding his ‘development mission’ was at a meeting with a sceptical African confederation in February 1976.
He says: “I said we didn’t want European football here. We were not colonialists . . . and, in the end, everybody applauded and I realised football is more than kicking a ball. This, for me, was the kickoff of everything.
“I love Africa but if you look at Africa, especially southern sub-Saharan Africa, it is still made up mostly of poor countries who need help so Africa was, and still is, my baby.”
Five years later, now general secretary, Blatter has a searing memory of the first major crisis of his FIFA tenure.
He says: “In October 1981 the accountant came and said to me – at the time we were a bit more than 20 people: ‘We have no money for salaries. Nothing. Finished.’
“So we had to go here in Zurich to the Swiss bank corporation asking for 300,000 Swiss francs to pay the wages. I asked the FIFA president what to do and he said: ‘We have a president of finance, Artemio Franchi, ask him.’
“Franchi, an Italian, told me: ‘You are the general secretary and in Italy we say it is not the title it is [what you do with it] so change something.”
So Blatter and FIFA did, courtesy of the late Horst Dassler’s creation of ISL and the trend-setting exclusivity deals for broadcasting and sponsorship of the World Cup.
The New York trial, which Blatter has followed closely, has demonstrated how this system was open to exploitation while not necessarily solving all FIFA’s financial problems.
Blatter says: “When I started as president in 1998 we were in the red but when I left FIFA after the 2015 congress we had $1.4m in reserves, $1m in cash and, thanks to the World Cup, a surplus of $141m.
“So this was a good job . . . and then I was suspended not because of bribery or corruption but for not having a correct business attitude.”
The irony of the contradiction saddens him.
May 27, 2015, the day of the dawn arrests at the Baur au Lac hotel was “definitely my worst moment.”
Here the theme of double betrayal enters Blatter’s narrative.
He says: “The first I knew was at six o’clock that morning when I heard the news. I should have been alerted beforehand because when I went in to FIFA at seven o’clock three of the people, at least, had definitely known what was to happen because they were there already before me.
“This is what it was to be betrayed.”
Blatter does not name names.
The ‘B’ word arises again over the revelations of multi-million-dollar bribery exposed by the current FIFAGate trial in New York. Blatter continues to defend FIFA on the basis that the corruption revolved only around individuals in north and south America and not the world federation per se.
Blatter has been criticised, lambasted, even lampooned for, at the least, turning a blind eye and, at worst, acquiescing in the murky mayhem, but he assesses his own “worst error” as having been too trusting.
He says: “I had no suspicion. It was, for me, incredible what has happened. When people ask me, as you have, what was your biggest error, I can say this: “My biggest error was that I am a trusting man. I gave people my confidence.
“I trusted people and I have been betrayed. And then, at that time in 2015, I didn’t have the strength or energy to fight back because I was destroyed.
“That’s why I put my mandate at the disposal of congress. I could have done something in the next months . . . but then [the ethics committee] suspended me so it was boom, boom, boom.”
Blatter has always loved football the game: it set him apart from many of the rip-off merchants who fed greedily on the football monolith he had helped build.
Alfredo Di Stefano has always been his favourite player; coincidentally, within hours of Blatter’s foray into downtown Zurich, Di Stefano’s Real Madrid successors were parading in the UAE the Club World Cup, FIFA-branded and expanded on Blatter’s watch.
So the game runs on while Blatter, whether his FIFA successors like it or not, remains out there . . . now only as a spectator, but a spectator with unrivalled inside knowledge of people and places.
He will present the Russian translation of his book in Moscow in the new year. But a new autobiography is already in preparation. It will be launched with exquisite Swiss timing, shortly before the World Cup.
Sepp Blatter is not finished with FIFA and football yet.
* ZentRus, Seidengasse 13, Zurich.
** Sepp Blatter: Mission & Passion Fussball, published by Werd & Weber Verlag.