GENEVA — Sepp Blatter governed the biggest sport on Earth for nearly two decades, for years untouched personally by allegations of corruption, but never sharing the game’s popularity.
He joked about his “Dr. Evil” image, like a James Bond villain manipulating soccer from his Swiss headquarters and never responding to public outcry.
He surrounded himself with loyal lieutenants, many of whom he raised from obscurity to lead powerful national and regional federations. He put them in control of billions of dollars for TV contracts, endorsements of national teams and where the biggest tournaments were held.
Even over the last few years, as many of those deputies were torched by scandal, he replaced them without making huge changes and took credit for helping clean up the game.
After 17 years in charge and bringing the game’s marquee events to new heights, the pressure became too much. The world’s largest soccer nations were in open rebellion and discussing an alternate tournament to the World Cup. Sponsors from the world’s most-popular soft drink to best-selling video game questioned their ties to FIFA.
At a hastily arranged announcement June 2, Blatter said he plans to resign and admitted he had lost too much support to remain in office.
But even on his way out, he didn’t take responsibility for the problems under his watch. He declared he was now free from constraints and could clean up the game the way he has wanted to, seemingly tone deaf to the idea that that might sound insincere.
As FIFA thrived through allegations of bribery, vote-buying and World Cup ticket scams, the 79-year-old Blatter built a base of support by bolstering the sport in developing countries and brought the first World Cup to Africa.
On May 27, U.S. prosecutors issued indictments against 14 current or former soccer officials — including seven arrested in raids at a luxury Zurich hotel. The Swiss also opened a criminal investigation into the votes awarding the World Cup tournaments to Russia in 2018 and to Qatar in 2022.
Even though he was not implicated in those investigations, Blatter faced calls for his resignation that came from some of his harshest critics in the game as well as from political leaders.
His re-election to a fifth, four-year term May 29 was a reflection of the support he enjoyed by giving each of FIFA’s 209 member federations a basic yearly sum of $250,000, plus bonuses and project funds from World Cup profits.
FIFA’s revenue was about $560 million in 1998 when Blatter took over and $5.7 billion last year, boosted by huge increases in media and marketing rights sales.
FIFA had 137 members in 1970 and 190 when Blatter succeeded Joao Havelange, and 19 have been added — for the most part small nations that lack economic might and soccer pedigree.
Blatter used the revenue to build soccer in underdeveloped parts of the world — and boost support for himself. FIFA’s website says the organization has given nearly $11.9 billion in financial assistance, and has helped fund 698 projects under its Goal Programme and 3,844 technical activities.
Even when scandals tainted FIFA’s prestige and image, most of the officials stuck by Blatter, particularly from small nations in Africa and Asia.
Since 2010, executive committee members Amos Adamu (Nigeria), Chuck Blazer (United States), Vernon Manilal Fernando (Sri Lanka), Mohammed bin Hammam (Qatar), Reynald Temarii (Tahiti) and Jack Warner (Trinidad and Tobago) were suspended. Nicolas Leoz (Paraguay) and Ricardo Teixeira (Brazil) quit following corruption allegations.
Current executive committee member Jeffrey Webb (Cayman Islands) and expiring member Eugenio Figueredo (Uruguay) were suspended last week along with executive committee member-elect Eduardo Li (Costa Rica) after they were indicted in the U.S. on racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering charges along with Warner and Leoz. Blazer pled guilty to 10 counts.
Blatter weathered the turbulence. Shortly before his last re-election in 2011, FIFA was rocked when Hammam, his only challenger, and Warner were suspended because of bribery allegations in what was then described as the organization’s worst scandal in its history.
“Crisis? What is a crisis? Football is not in a crisis,” Blatter said before he won a one-man election that was derided as a coronation.
Blatter devoted more than half his life to working at FIFA, as technical director, chief executive and, since 1998, as president.
He learned a lot from Havelange. The imperious Brazilian presided over FIFA for 24 years — the last 17 with Blatter as chief administrator. During that time, sports marketing became as a booming industry that could be bent to the will of federation leaders.
Blatter defended his reign during a 2013 speech at the Oxford Union in Britain. “Perhaps you think I am a ruthless parasite sucking the lifeblood out of the world and out of football — the godfather of the FIFA gravy train,” he said.
“There are those who will tell you that FIFA is just a conspiracy, a scam, accountable to nobody and too powerful for anyone to resist,” he went on.
“There are those who will tell you of the supposed sordid secrets that lie deep in our Bond villain headquarters in the hills above Zurich … where we apparently plot to exploit the unfortunate and the weak. They would have you believe that I sit in my office with a sinister grin, gently stroking the chin of an expensive, white Persian cat.”
“It is strange how fantasy easily becomes confused with fact,” he said.
Blatter mastered the politics of international soccer and reveled in the media attention. He mixed easily with heads of state lured by the commercial and popular power of the World Cup.
But there also were times that some of Blatter’s remarks made him seem out of touch.
Five years ago, Blatter said gay visitors to the 2022 World Cup should “refrain from any sexual activities” while in Qatar because of the Gulf nation’s strict laws against homosexuality. He later apologized.
In 2004, Blatter said women should consider playing in “tighter shorts” to bring more attention to the game. He told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick: “In volleyball the women also wear other uniforms than the men. Pretty women are playing football today. Excuse me for saying that.”
Blatter, nicknamed Sepp — often used by people named Joseph — was born in Visp and is a 1959 graduate of the University of Lausanne with a degree in business and economics.
He was head of public relations for tourism in the canton of Valais (1959-64), secretary general of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation (1964-66), and worked in several roles for Longines (1968-75) before joining FIFA. He was director of the technical department from 1975-81, then secretary general under Havelange from 1981-98.
As president, he relished telling the story that his birth was two months premature and one of his grandmothers said she thought he would not survive.
“It’s because I am a fighter,” Blatter would add in a typical touch of light self-aggrandizement.
(GRAHAM DUNBAR, AP Sports Writer)