Sepp Blatter is still king, but FIFA’s political realities will endure after he’s gone

Seconds before FIFA “President for Life” Sepp Blatter approached the stage this afternoon in Zurich, FIFA Director of Communications & Public Affairs Walter de Gregorio made a final remark: “The President will speak in French, so put on your translation.”

Blatter has a habit of deferring to French when he’s speaking from a place of disgust. That he was doing so during today’s abruptly called press conference was our first hint something wild was about to happen.

It was only four days ago that Blatter sat smugly behind another microphone in Zurich, surrounded by props from his FIFA-dom, Blatter-splaining to 209 FIFA federations and the assembled media in the wake of his fifth presidential election:

“It is my congress, I have the right to make the closing remarks. This is a very important congress. You see I am in a good mood. I was a little bit nervous today, but now I am the president of everybody, I am the president of the whole Fifa.”

That’s no longer true.

In a rather extraordinary turn of events, Blatter strolled out in front of a giant blue FIFA-detailed backdrop and dropped one of the all-time great walk-backs. He announced that he will no longer be the “president of everybody” before slouching his way toward a door that looked like the entrance to an alien spaceship, ready to transport him to his new life as president of nobody.

After Blatter exited, Domenico Scala, the Italian independent chairman of FIFA’s Audit & Compliance Committee took the stage. To an audience still dealing with the realization that Blatter’s reign was soon to be over, he addressed the question that immediately popped into most minds: What in the hell happens now?

Scala, like Blatter before him, spoke of fundamental change and restructuring. His speech, like Blatter’s, was a veritable grab bag of catch phrases used by every reform candidate since the world’s first reform movement materialized. Yet while short on details, Scala did lay out some procedural notes that might help frame the battles FIFA will face in the near future.

But before we get there, it’s important to highlight one thing: Sepp Blatter did not resign. This may seem like a semantic point, and to an extent it is. But it’s true. Blatter announced his intention to resign, which is why both Blatter and Scala kept saying the words “extraordinary committee.” It’s why Scala said he was going to “put in place the conditions for the election of a new president.” Because lots of things still need to happen. FIFA, shockingly, is a massive bureaucratic hell hole, and reform doesn’t automatically happen because Blatter gets abducted by aliens.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MAY 30:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter talks to the press during the FIFA Post Congress Week Press Conference at the Home of FIFA on May 30, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Alessandro Della Bella/Getty Images)Getty Images

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MAY 30: FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter talks to the press during the FIFA Post Congress Week Press Conference at the Home of FIFA on May 30, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Alessandro Della Bella/Getty Images)

Under FIFA Statutes, the FIFA Congress (209 members) has to meet and vote to have a presidential election. The next FIFA Congress is on May 13, 2016, in Mexico City. According to both Blatter and Scala, that’s too long to wait, so in order to expedite the process, Blatter announced that he will ask the executive committee to vote on having an extraordinary committee — basically, a special meeting of the Congress, prior to May 2016, where votes can be cast for a new president. Although no specific date was given as to when that executive committee meeting would take place, Scala stated that the new elections could take place some time between December 2015 and March 2016.

But even if the voting logistics get neatly squared away, procedural points won’t address the fundamental balance of power issues that have so irritated Europe, issues that were at the core of Blatter’s strategy to maintain power through a fistful of elections.

As it stands, the FIFA Congress votes on a “one federation, one vote” basis. For some, it’s the perfect democracy; for others, however, that’s a bit too democratic. Ironically, some of those not pleased with the current democracy come from some of the most democratic nations in the world, led by the United States and much of Europe.

Only four days ago, Blatter received 133 out of a possible 209 votes, cementing his fifth term. That block of votes included the vast majority of votes in Africa and Asia. A new presidential election won’t bypass this reality. Much of the developing world will still have to be wooed, wined and dined. Secretly, even though no one wants to admit it, that’s really how democracy works.

FIFA statutes require a four-month window before presidential elections can be held. The reason, according to Scala, is because “FIFA must also consider appropriate time to vet candidates and allow them to present their ideas for the organization that set forth their vision.” So, in effect, the candidates running for Blatter’s throne will have to jump through many of the same land mines and obstacles that Blatter and his previous challengers had to navigate.

For instance, the 54-nation African bloc not only reportedly voted unanimously for Blatter, but regularly, under the leadership of FIFA vice-president and Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou (in office since 1988), blasted European — and particularly English — officials and media for constantly slighting Africa. Candidates will have to wade through that baggage to either win CAF’s votes or break up the bloc. Blatter knew this and did this, even though his methodology may have been questionable. He knew how to play to his audience, to the areas of the world, in Africa and Asia, that had the votes to keep him in power. And so he kept winning. Repeatedly.

The obvious question, then, for the candidates is what they have to offer for federation votes. That calculus doesn’t change just because Blatter plans on stepping down. In fact, given the long window before elections will take place, Blatter still has sufficient time to work on shifting his loyal votes over to another candidate of his choosing. Any other candidate wanting to unlock those relationships probably has to show up with some sort of offering.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 20:  A camera is seen by the FIFA logo outside the FIFA headquarters prior to the FIFA Executive Committee Meeting on October 20, 2011 in Zurich, Switzerland. During their third meeting of the year, held over two days, the FIFA Executive Committee will approve the match schedules for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 and the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil.  (Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)Getty Images

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 20: A camera is seen by the FIFA logo outside the FIFA headquarters prior to the FIFA Executive Committee Meeting on October 20, 2011 in Zurich, Switzerland. During their third meeting of the year, held over two days, the FIFA Executive Committee will approve the match schedules for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 and the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. (Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)

That may come across as a suspicious, especially considering the corruption allegations that currently embroil FIFA, but it’s the same question candidates have to answer in political elections across the globe all the time. Even when money isn’t being slid across the table in brown envelopes, votes cost something. And they often cost something substantial.

So suddenly we’re back to candidates hustling for votes behind closed doors and making promises of love, which ironically is how FIFA got into this mess in the first place. But that was always inevitable, because “Is Sepp Blatter evil and does he have to go?” was never the real question that had to be answered. The real problem is a broader question: How do you meet the needs of 209 separate federations, each with their own unique needs? And, ultimately, how do you reconcile a situation where the consensus of the majority of 209 federations doesn’t align with the wants and needs of the most powerful federations?

These are the real questions FIFA is facing during this new chapter. So now that Blatter has made the first move to step aside, it’s time for the rest of us to move on, too, and start asking questions about new world environments instead of just individuals who corrupt them.

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