Sepp Blatter’s decision to end a tumultuous 17-year reign as Fifa president appears a forced acknowledgement that the avalanche of corruption investigations is likely to land on the Swiss strongman’s doorstep. His announcement on Tuesday comes five days after the administrator, elected for a fifth term, had dismissed the US criminal probe, saying “It doesn’t smell good”, suggesting that it was a retaliation to losing the 2022 World Cup bid to Qatar. His predecessor, Brazilian Joao Havelange, too faced many allegations during his 24-year tenure, indicating how deep the rot goes.
Global football administration is in for an upheaval. Blatter steps down after last week’s arrest of seven senior Fifa officials over the US corruption probe involving $150 million. Swiss prosecutors have launched a separate criminal probe into the awarding of the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) World Cups. It only raises worrying questions about dubious institutional practices by influential global sports bodies. The Fifa chief perhaps saw the noose tightening after it came to light that secretary-general Jerome Valcke knew of an alleged $10 million paid by South Africa, the 2010 Cup hosts, to former Fifa vice-president, Jack Warner. Mr Blatter is far from walking away to allow the cleansing to start immediately. He will stay on until a successor is elected, a process expected to be completed only by early next year. Mr Blatter, like Mr Havelange, had thrived on the votes of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The powerful European body, Uefa, is likely to play a major role in any transformation now, but its chief, Michel Platini, a staunch opponent of Mr Blatter, will himself be on the defensive after backing the Qatar bid. Mr Platini and Jordanian prince Ali bin Hussein, who lost to Mr Blatter this time, could be among the candidates to take over.
Any Blatter claims of innocence won’t cut ice until the probe reaches its logical end. How Fifa bounces back from this fatal blow to its credibility will depend on whether it can wriggle free of the commercial, political and institutional pulls and pressures that dictate the working of international sports bodies today. And reform will be even more difficult in a global football landscape heavily tilted in favour of Europe.