The riot shields of Sao Paulo’s Shock Battalion were ready when Sepp Blatter arrived at the five-star Renaissance Hotel here to face the heads of European football. There was something plainly ridiculous about the way they raised their shields in defence of him when he arrived by the seclusion of a side exit because there was not a protester in sight.
It was inside the hotel that the verbal bullets and bricks came his way. He sauntered across the red-carpeted conference room and took up a position at the lectern to address all 54 of Uefa’s national federations. But if he expected the usual mild dissent from a continent which has looked on aghast at the way he has brushed aside The Sunday Times’ allegations of Fifa corruption and backhanders – claiming 48 hours ago that British racism lay behind them – he was mistaken.
Blatter misjudged the mood of the room most spectacularly when he told them that he might, after all, seek a presidential re-election next year that would keep him in situ until the age of 83. His traditional pre-World Cup speech received a muted kind of applause, and certainly not the standing ovations which the African federations had delivered him 24 hours earlier. It was at that moment the plain-talking Football Association chairman Grey Dyke raised his hand, stood up and prepared to articulate the anti-Blatter sentiment which has intensified since the Fifa president characterised British investigative journalists as individuals with an agenda, because they alleged backhanders had delivered the 2022 World Cup to Qatar against professional advice.
Blatter was still standing at the lectern when Dyke told him that Fifa had a desperately poor image and that “something must be done” to refresh it. He did not go so far in that conference hall as to urge the 78-year-old to stand down next year and he did not exactly provoke an immediate insurrection in the seats around him. The only other executive member in open revolt was the Dutch FA chief, Michael van Praag, who called on Blatter not to stand for a fifth term in office. The Germans said “that is 100 per cent our position too” but that was only when the president had left the room. “There are a lot people sitting on their hands even now,” said one observer to the events of today.
But the deepening contempt for Blatter was made plain by David Gill, the FA’s vice-chairman, who did not need much persuading to say that it was time for the Swiss to go. The Manchester United non-executive director emerged from the conference room to insist that it was anathema for Blatter to stand for another term. By the time Gill spoke, the European federations were also digesting Van Praag’s own breathtaking words for Blatter. “In the last eight or nine years, Fifa has built an ugly reputation, not only in the press but you only have to look at Twitter,” the Dutchman told him, reciting a number of the hashtags which have entered common currency as Fifa’s reputation has been dragged into the mire; soiled by the sense – as yet unproven – that Qatar has paid out handsomely for the 2022 World Cup. “Hashtag Fifa, hashtag Blatter, hashtag Fifa mafia,” said Van Praag. “There are reasons – bribery, money and corruption are so often linked. Fifa has a bad reputation. Fifa has an executive person and if you like it or not, you have a responsibility.”
Blatter carried on regardless. He initially appeared to misunderstand Van Praag, failing to grasp how the racism claims had riled him. He also blustered on through the usual pre-tournament rituals here, addressing the legendary Fifa Congress which precedes tournaments like this. His congress speech is rarely little more than a diplomatic dance. Blatter tells the world of football how much Fifa has done to help it on its way and the nations of the world – many of whom view the kinds of corruption of which the governing body is accused with far less distaste than the British – bowing before him. The experienced operator Blatter moves effortlessly in these circles. The Europeans can complain all they like – they will not oust Blatter if most of the rest of the football world does not want him vanquished too.
It was mid-afternoon before Dyke headed out to see Blatter work his charm. He knows that the prospects of him going on and on at the helm are real. He heard Blatter say that Uefa’s head of ethics, Michael Garcia, will not publish the conclusions of his report on alleged Qatar bid corruption for another six months – by which time the whole tempest will have calmed.
To the question of whether an executive in the business world would have resigned long before now, if under the kind of scrutiny Blatter has faced, Dyke offered a reminder that he was once chairman of the BBC.
“You can resign for not turning up for work there,” he said. “Yes, I think in these circumstances, where a third of the [executive] have already resigned due to corruption allegations. There were serious allegations [about Qatar] in The Sunday Times. They need to be investigated. I don’t know if they are right or not. But they need to be investigated independently and then someone needs to judge on whether they are valid. If they turn out to be true then it’s difficult for a chief executive to continue in most circumstances.” But he isn’t holding his breath.