Born into a modest existence near the edge of Italy’s north border, Joseph S. “Sepp” Blatter spent sixty-two years climbing to the top of the sports world. Today, embattled by allegations of corruption, the FIFA president announced plans to resign his post, forecasting an end to his 17-year run at the apex of the world’s most popular sport.
Along the way, during over 40 years in Zurich, Blatter has watched the soccer world change, from years marked by European preeminence to today’s more chaotic, malleable landscape. When a new president is elected at some point in the next year, another power broker will have a chance to mold its future.
Here is the timeline of Sepp Blatter – his rise and fall from international soccer’s throne. See if you can figure out where it all went wrong.
March 10, 1936 – Two months premature, Blatter is born in Visp, Switzerland, a town near the Italian border at the foothills of the Matterhorn. Though reports from the pre-internet era can be scarce, there’s no evidence of any sudden thunder storms or a mass exodus of birds when young Sepp entered our dimension. From what little information we have (much of which is supplied by Blatter himself), it was a relatively mundane birth into a chemical plant worker’s family, one that would go on to have four children. Boring.
1959 – While it’s certainly possible Blatter ran numbers in his village school, the next word we heard of Sepp isn’t even a nefarious one. At 23, having already graduated from colleges in Sion and St. Maurice, Blatter earned a degree in business administration and economics from the University of Lausanne. Whether “business administration and economics” are Swiss euphemisms for racketeering and social leveraging, we can’t say, but at this point, it seems everything was pointed in the right direction.
1964 – Among the many potential turning points in young Sepp’s life, this may have been one of them. Instead of going on to manage a town business or do some economics in the lucrative Swiss-Italian trade routes, Blatter turned to sports administration. At 28, he was appointed the general secretary of the Swiss ice hockey federation, presumably giving him useless experience in a non-corrupt sport.
1970-1975 – Back to soccer. Having played at the amateur levels of Switzerland’s leagues, Blatter became a board member at professional club, Neuchâtel Xamax. The club is named after Max “Xam” Abegglen, a former Swiss national team member who played for Lausanne FC and Grasshopper, scoring 34 goals in 68 appearances for his country. Unfortunately, at 68 years old, Abegglen would pass away the same year Blatter joined the club.
1971 – Blatter is named president of World Society of Friends of Suspenders, which is apparently a real name of a thing in our world. If that sounds rather innocuous, well, ESPNW’s Sarah Spain explains otherwise:
No, he wasn’t advocating for more men to follow the sartorial standard set by Larry King or Mork (of Mork and Mindy fame), rather Blatter was in charge of a group of 120 men from 16 different countries who all agreed that women should not be allowed to replace “suspender belts” with pantyhose. Yes, he was so enamored with garter belts, the likes of which are rarely seen outside an Agent Provocateur store these days, that he actually headed up a committee trying to ban stockings.
That just feels gross.
1972 and 1976 – If there’s a point where Blatter was introduced to the world of graft and paper bag kick backs, this might have been it. As Director of Sports Timing and Public Relations of Longines, a Swiss watchmaker and timing device company, Blatter took part in the organizing of the Summer and Winter Olympics. Don’t worry about re-reading that — it sounded like a weak connection to me, too — because the Mirror has some actual reporting on it:
“It was there, involved in the development of timing facilities for the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games, he made the contacts he needed to propel him to FIFA.”
Do you realize what type of preternatural politician you have to be to work yourself from ice hockey, stockings and time pieces to the most powerful man in world sport? I have to admit, I’d start to admire this guy if the rise didn’t also hint at a rare, almost self-destructive confidence. I wonder what will happen when he gets some real power!
FIFA, the early years
1975 – Just short of his 40th birthday, Blatter made his first connection with FIFA, becoming technical director during the time of Sir Stanley Rous. Rous was the same guy who was fine with giving Africa and Asia only one combined spot at World Cups and was a staunch supporter of apartheid-era South Africa … in case you wonder why the rest of the world might appreciate a man who doesn’t fall in line with England and Europe.
“It was a time when ideas for competition and educational programmes were coming to the fore, and the foundations were being laid for World Cups in the U-20 and U-17 age groups as well as for women’s football and indoor football (futsal), all of which have since become an integral part of FIFA’s global activities.”
It was the age of wisdom! It was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of 8-track, the epoch of pre-MDMA disco …
1981 – Finally, a promotion. After six years in the technical director’s chair, Blatter ascends to FIFA general secretary, where he would work closely with long-time president Joao Havelange, whose efforts to establish a constituency in Africa and Asia would serve as an example to his new number two.
If there was a seed to Blatter’s ultimate power, this might have been it. The FIFA world that Rous left behind was antagonistic towards the Englishman’s parochialism, an insular approach that eventually allowed Havelange to take power. In the Brazilian’s wings, Blatter was able to see this new realpolitik emerge. He was groomed by the structures and corruptions at the nexus of Rous and Havelange.
1990 – Blatter was given the powers of FIFA’s Chief Executive Officer, something that came in handy as FIFA would launch and destroy its own marketing arm over the ensuing decade. But we’ll get to that in a second.
1995 – As he confessed to the Daily Mail, 1995 was when Blatter first started developing plans to ascend to FIFA’s presidency, roughly three years before Havelage steps aside. By the time he does, the Brazilian is FIFA’s second-longest serving president, his 23 years trailing only Jules Rimet, whose name adorned the first World Cup trophy.
And then it happened
June 8, 1998 – Blatter wins his first term as president of FIFA, using his anti-Europe constituency to defeat UEFA president Lennart Johansson, 111 to 80. According to some allegations, however, members were bribed to cast their votes for Blatter, with a series of African delegates surprisingly changing their mind amid reports $10,000 was being offered per vote. Later, the Somali federation president claimed he was offered $100,000 for his vote but admitted he was never approached by Blatter directly.
This may have been the key moment of Blatter’s administrative life, and not only because it’s when he reached his goal. Winning the presidential election was a proof of concept; a proof that the model established by Havelange was not dependent on Havelange. In the face of a new European contender, the Africa-Asia-South America contingency held. A Swiss administrator without the backing of his home continent had claimed FIFA’s throne.
Dec. 31, 1998 – Blatter receives the Order of Good Hope honor from South Africa in recognition of the country’s re-admission into international soccer.
According to Wikipedia (so, give or take), 23 different nations have bestowed similar honors on Blatter. He has six honorary degrees from schools in as many different countries, and East Timor made him an honorary citizen in 2011. So if we see a white Bronco leaving FIFA’s compound tomorrow, it’s probably headed for Dili.
1999 – Blatter is appointed to the International Olympic Committee, undoubtedly because of his expertise in administration and the growing reputation of FIFA as an international sports exemplar. Or, maybe the world of rich entitlement can be kind of incestuous.
April 12, 2002 – In the first major alarm bell since his election, Blatter suspends an investigation into FIFA’s internal finances, claiming committee members broke confidentiality agreements. The excuse is generally seen as that, an excuse, but the investigation will prove important. The inquiry was examining the finances of the defunct International Sports and Leisure (ISL), a Swiss sports firm that effectively functioned as a marketing arm of FIFA.
With just over one month before his re-election vote, Blatter was seen as protecting himself against the effect of a potentially damaging finding. It worked. It would be over a decade before the cloud of ISL dissipated over Blatter’s presidency.
May 4, 2002 – Blatter’s number two, FIFA secretary general Michel Zen-Ruffinen, distributes a dossier accusing Blatter of financial mismanagement that cost FIFA up to $100 million in connection with ISL. Surprising to nobody, Blatter claims no wrongdoing and that the losses actually amounted to closer to $30 million.
The 30-page report was eventually given to Swiss authorities, who cleared Blatter. Ten years later, while reexamining the case, a Council of Europe investigation claimed it was “difficult to imagine” Blatter was unaware that the marketing agency had become a de facto clearing house for bribery:
“Mr Blatter was technical director of FIFA from 1975 to 1981, FIFA general secretary from 1981 to 1998 and has been its president ever since. Since FIFA was aware of significant sums paid to certain of its officials, it is difficult to imagine that Mr Blatter would not have known about this.
“That does not mean that he was directly involved in this case of backhanders. But I believe it is extraordinary that he did nothing to make public all the information which FIFA had or has and took no steps, whether internally or via the courts, to enable FIFA to obtain reparation.
That’s from the Council of Europe’s report, though it could just as well be from the Garcia report, last week’s indictment, a whistleblower’s statement or Zen-Ruffinen’s original findings. When it comes to arms’ length corruption, Blatter’s presidency has been disgustingly consistent, right down to recent reports that implicate his No. 2, Jerome Valcke, but not Blatter himself.
May 29, 2002 – Blatter is reelected amid more accusations of corruption, deception, illegal payments and cronyism. If you have to read this again a couple of more times in this post, blame Uncle Sepp, not the messenger.
Jan 15, 2004 – It was around this time that Blatter’s arrogance started to get ridiculous. Still the most famous example: claims women’s soccer would be more popular if players wore skimpier uniforms. He also incorrectly stated the women’s game plays by different rules and with different equipment, though in his defense, hot pants would have constituted different equipment.
“They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”
May 18, 2004 – UPDATE, ridiculous awards watch: Blatter named a Knight of the French Foreign Legion. That doesn’t look so good now, France. Hope you enjoyed that World Cup, though.
Jul 8, 2006 – UPDATE, ridiculous awards watch: Blatter receives Germany’s Grand Cross of the Order of Merit. That doesn’t look so good now, Germany. Hope you enjoyed that World Cup, though.
May 31 2007 – Blatter is re-elected as FIFA president, running unopposed, though he only received nominations from 66 of FIFA’s 207 members. We’ll spare you the part about the deception, illegal payments and cronyism.
Then it got bad
Dec. 2, 2010 – Russia and Qatar are awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively, after a process before which two executive committee members were suspended for attempting to sell their votes. Blatter, who reportedly voted for the United States on the 2022 ballot, later admitted Spain (a 2018 candidate) and Qatar traded “a bundle of votes,” but the collusion “didn’t work.”
Regardless, this is where it all went wrong. Though the DoJ’s recent indictments center around the vote for the 2010 World Cup, the Qatar vote was the true tipping point for Blatter. It made his organizations’ decisions look inexplicable in any terms but corrupt ones. Between the country’s climate, size, soccer relevance, perceived lack of (non-financially driven) political power, complete lack of adequate facilities and human atrocities that had been going on long before the 2010 vote, the selection looked farcical. Never mind that Blatter’s vote was one of 22. Never mind that he reportedly didn’t even vote for Qatar. FIFA did, and FIFA was his fault.
Dec. 8, 2010 — Blatter calls England sore losers after they lose out to Russia as 2018 World Cup host, possibly the most truthful statement he has said during his 17 years in charge. But England, like the rest of the sore losers, ultimately had a point. Lesson, kids: Just because you’re a sore loser doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
Dec. 14, 2010 – Blatter jokes that gay fans should refrain for sexual activity at the 2022 World Cup. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, something, like atrocious working conditions, that didn’t prevent FIFA from awarding the World Cup to the country. Qatar’s sports minister confesses the tournament will have to be “creative” with booze and gay people. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Jun 1, 2011 – Blatter’s again re-elected (this time with 186 votes), again running unopposed. Former candidate Mohamed bin Hammam, who’d withdrawn on May 28, had come under investigation by the FIFA ethics committee in connection with bribery claims. The investigation eventually leads to bin Hammam’s permanent ban and uncovers information that leads to the resignation of CONCACAF president Jack Warner. Blatter claims he will not run for a fifth term.
Nov. 16, 2011 – In response to increased attention to racism in soccer, Blatter calls for players to remember soccer is “just a game” and for victims of racial abuse to “shake hands” with their abusers. Two days later, he apologizes, doing little to change the perception that he’s an arrogant buffoon.
Apr. 20, 2013 – Blatter is cleared of any wrongdoing in connection with ISL, though former president Havelange and former executive committee members Ricardo Teixeira and Nicolas Leoz are found guilty of accepting illegal payments between 1992 and 2000. Havelage is stripped of his honorary FIFA presidency while Leoz retires, claiming health concerns. Blatter touts the report as a step toward transparency while admitting FIFA’s reputation had suffered “untold damage.”
June 9, 2014 – Blatter calls the English media racist after the Sunday Times publishes an exposé detailing the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process, saying the English media wants “to destroy, not the game, but they want to destroy the institution.” Brazil 2014 kicks off three days later.
Sept. 8, 2014 – Much as Michael Corleone could never get out, Blatter concludes he must run for a fifth term as FIFA president. It’s for the good of football, he probably never kidded himself, not that he didn’t try to convince the world of that rationale.
May 27, 2015 – Swiss law enforcement raids a hotel in Zurich ahead of the annual FIFA congress, arresting seven executives connected with a United States Department of Justice indictment for corruption. Blatter insists the presidential election, scheduled to take place two days later, will go on as planned.
May 29, 2015 – Blatter is reelected when Prince Ali bin al-Hussein drops out of the competition after one ballot. The 133 votes Blatter receives after one round of voting is just short of the two-thirds majority to end the election.
June 2, 2015 – After reports allege a $10 million payment from FIFA’s accounts to Jack Warner was made to cover bribes paid during voting for the 2010 World Cup, Blatter abruptly resigns his presidency effective upon the election of his replacement. A special election will be called, giving Blatter between four and 12 more months in office.
Though still not implicated directly in connection the the Department of Justice indictments, Blatter is still being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with Swiss authorities still looking into possible corruption with the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.
Now: Hours after the biggest story of Blatter’s career and his announcement that he’ll resign from office, we’re left with the same picture we’ve been shown for the last four decades, if not longer. Even before Havelange, FIFA has been a ridiculously run organization, only instead of racism and Eurocentricity, today’s governing body runs on cash deals and horse trading. In their own way, both are ridiculous. One just happens to be more immediate than the other.
Until Qatar, however, people were mostly willing to put up with FIFA. The organization’s crimes were victimless and didn’t offset the benefits of World Cups. After the Qatar vote, however, the world had its rallying cry, and although most soccer fans didn’t seem to care about the country’s atrocities before Dec. 2010, there were finally easily recognizable victims. Soccer fans sure care about Qatar now.
Will they continue to care, now that Blatter set to go? If early returns are any indication, it doesn’t appear so, as few are breaking down what Blatter’s resignation means for the suffering of Qatar. Instead, they’re basking in the glory of outfoxing a perceived tyrant, sometimes basking in a near-sighted nationalism while doing so. The U.S., like every other nation, put up with Blatter long after it knew of his problems.
Regardless, once Blatter resigns, his stranglehold will be broken, and fans will have one less qualm about the game they love. But who knows if the next leader will be a Havelange or a Rous. After 54 years of flawed leadership, FIFA might not deserve better, but the game does.