Sepp Blatter keen to keep Fifa on even keel
Governing body opens 62nd congress with little sign of change
Sepp Blatter is fond of a nautical metaphor. Here's how it goes: Fifa is a ship, he is its stolid captain and no matter how stormy the waters become, nothing will force him to seek safety below. He will remain on the bridge.
A year ago in Zurich, Blatter was re-elected – from a field of one – to serve a fourth term as president of world football's governing body amid just such a storm, a whirlwind of controversy and corruption. Such was its strength that even Blatter acknowledged things had to change; a new course had to be set to steer his ship away from its "troubled waters".
A year on and the football family – another favourite Blatterism – has gathered for its annual congress. It opens today in the Hungexpo, a conference centre in Budapest.
"I am sure," said Blatter, "you will see at the congress that we are back in the harbour, not heaven yet, but we are taking more people on board and are heading to calm waters."
There was nothing calm at yesterday's Concacaf meeting – the regional bodies' get-together before congress proper begins – as the fallout from Jack Warner's reign gathered pace via startling claims of financial impropriety. They included a $22.5m (£14.3m) centre of excellence being built thanks to Fifa funding and allegedly ending up owned by Warner, once a key Blatter ally.
Jeff Webb, a respected Cayman Islander chosen yesterday as Warner's successor, said: "We have a responsibility to make sure the past will never be repeated. How do we pick up the pieces? How do we dust ourselves off and decide that this does not define us?"
That is the billion-dollar question.
The 61st congress, and the events surrounding it, were extraordinary to witness. Fifa, or more particularly its upper echelon, the executive committee, emerged as an embarrassment to the sport it was supposed to govern. But the man at the very top took no responsibility for what had happened during his time in office, which dates back to 1998. Blatter did at last promise change, even if that at first included a suggestion that Placido Domingo and Henry Kissinger form a new "committee of the solutions".
Instead a "road map" has been drawn up, a route to reform. It is one with some attractive service stations; early summer in Budapest, the "pearl of the Danube" as Fifa's literature puts it. Next year's congress is in Mauritius. En route there are plans for an independently led ethics committee (with the appointment of those independents, Blatter announced on Tuesday, delayed for another two months). The ethics committee, when it is finally up and running, will conduct fit-and-proper person tests on senior Fifa members, although who exactly will be subject to them is not entirely clear. Neither is it clear whether it will be asked, or have powers to, investigate the past.
Much will be discussed in Budapest, and some changes will be voted on – a new code of conduct (that does little more than state obvious levels of good practice, but at least it's there) and nodding through the ethics committee. Others will not be decided until everyone regathers in Mauritius next year. It's not a road that will be travelled in a hurry.
Last year, Fifa appointed an independent governance committee headed by Mark Pieth, a Swiss criminologist, to make recommendations. One that will be discussed, but not voted on, in Budapest is introducing age and term limits for senior figures. Never mind what congress might think, here's what Blatter, aged 76 and in his fourth term, had to say yesterday: "We don't like these age limits."
"Progress has been glacial and superficial," says Damian Collins, the Conservative MP behind Fifa Reform, a collection of MPs and MEPs from across Europe. Collins points out that Blatter has still to follow through on a key promise of last year, to release the ISL papers – Swiss court documents that name senior Fifa officials who accepted bribes. Blatter says he cannot do so because of Swiss court restrictions. Not so, says the Council of Europe – on the advice of a Swiss magistrate. Still the papers remain unreleased.
"The farce over the non-release of the ISL court papers is indicative of the lack of any real appetite for progress," says Collins. "Also, there has to be an opportunity for a full investigation into the previous allegations made against members of the Ex-co. Until this happens no reform process can have any real credibility."
"We steer the Fifa ship," writes Blatter in his foreword to the congress agenda, "towards new horizons."
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