For at least a decade, soccer’s biggest nations have carped about the scandal-tainted leadership of Sepp Blatter as the head of FIFA. But the leadership failure is as much theirs as it was his. Blatter’s resignation on Tuesday comes not because the membership finally rose up—heck, he was re-elected as president last week—it comes because the ongoing investigation by the Justice Department and the indictments of top-ranking FIFA officials made it untenable for FIFA’s sponsors such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s.
They were being poisoned by Seppticemia. “I appreciate and love FIFA more than anything else,” Blatter said in announcing his resignation. “And I only want to do the best for FIFA.”
That is, after he did everything that was best for Sepp Blatter. He resisted reform even after Swiss police, acting on DOJ’s behalf, arrested and hauled off his own officials prior to the presidential election. The man is a blueprint for how an underwhelming intellect can seize and expand power. He isn’t the first, yet does provide some interesting leadership lessons.
1. Dilute the power of the powerful.
The World Cup takes place every four years and is open to all member nations. But in the end, the 32-team tournament is dominated by European powers such as Germany, Italy, Holland, and France, plus the South American giants Argentina and Brazil. Fans aren’t clamoring to see the Togo play, yet under FIFA’s one nation, one vote system, a country like Dominica has as much power as England. And Blatter worked to extend memberships to outfits such as Malta, with each new member owing allegiance to him. As assertions and then evidence—everything from bungling World Cup marketing to out-and out bribes—Blatter marshaled African nations and the many small nations in FIFA’s 209-member community behind him.
2. Spread the wealth, even if it isn’t yours to spread.
Sepp has outmaneuvered the mighty Europeans by running FIFA the way Chicago Mayor Bill Daley used to run Chicago—by having his ward heelers dole out jobs and other patronage in return for votes. Daley may have been great at it, but the art form had been established well before him. Blatter took the billions that FIFA earned from the World Cup—funds largely provided by fans of the big soccer nations like Germany, Argentina, Italy, Brazil, and France—and distributed them across Africa and Asia. If Papua New Guinea wanted a soccer field, Sepp was there to roll one out.
3. Declare victory and move on. Repeat as necessary.
Blatter is the kind of monomaniacal leader who believed he is the game. So any criticism or allegation could be addressed with a combination of imperiousness and incredulity. “Neither FIFA nor its President have anything to hide, nor do they wish to,” he said in a statement, according to the website transparencyinsport.org. That was in 2003.
Blatter had an exasperating ability to ride over the tops of direct questions like they were waves. You’d leave an interview with that guy just shaking your head. It’s instructive that Blatter wasn’t brought down by investigative journalism—and there’s been a ton of it. He was brought down by the FBI and the IRS, and the ability to flip witnesses under threat of long jail terms. We’ve seen this movie before in the rise and ultimate demise of Juan Antonio Samaranch as head of the International Olympic Committee. Samaranch practically skipped his wife’s funeral to show up at the Olympic Games in a desperate attempt to save his job. These guys traveled like heads of states and ruled like dictators in the name of sport.
4. If you have nothing to hide, then hide it in Switzerland.
Transparency is the enemy of hegemony. FIFA’s books have been open to no one, a situation that drove people such as U.S. Soccer Federation head Sunil Gulati to distraction. But under the umbrella of Swiss law, Blatter could not only get away with it, he would lament the fact that he couldn’t share the data with anyone, as much as he would like to. That’s the reason a critical report about FIFA by U.S. investigator Michael Garcia—one FIFA had commissioned—was buried by Blatter. FIFA released a 41-page summary clearing the organization of any wrongdoing. Garcia resigned in protest.
The good news is that the secrecy game is ending. Over the last five years, Switzerland has been forced to rethink and ultimately remake its famous privacy laws. And once again DOJ was the agitator. The arrest of a single Swiss banker in Florida would eventually lead to the discovery that hundreds of thousands of Americans were hiding funds there illegally. Blatter and crew took advantage of the same laws to completely obfuscate FIFA’s finances. The next president won’t.
5. Weak partners are your most powerful friends.
Being a World Cup sponsor is a sales platform that few other events can match. It’s also an excuse for corporate schmoozing at a grand scale. American corporations have long recognized its value, which is why Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Budweiser, and Visa have re-upped. But they probably recognized that if FIFA was forced to apply the same accounting and social responsibility principles as they do, the cops would have been there years ago. Instead, the corporations figured that fans would look past FIFA’s policies and focus on the games themselves. This was largely correct in the pre-social media days. Last week, as parody logos of Coke and McD’s began to appear all over the Web, it became a huge liability.
6. You may be horrible, but your enemies still fear regime change.
Blatter has something in common with everyone from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to any number of the world’s current and past despots. Killing the king is risky, and nobody is eager to volunteer. It’s the reason why bad managers tend to hang around too. The big soccer nations could have ended Blatter’s reign whenever they wanted to, but they lacked the um, balls. Germany, Brazil, Italy, France, England, and Argentina could have said, “Either Sepp goes, or we won’t be showing up at the World Cup.” Instead, there were years of silence that empowered Blatter to be more imperious. Only England verbalized that threat last week, the ironic part being that it is no longer much of a soccer power. Blatter had already marginalized the English.
Instead, the soccer world has suffered from a decade of Seppticemia. Let’s hope there’s a lasting cure.